242. How Many

Today Jay was feeling bad and cried a lot, and we were both tired and didn’t get much done aside from necessities. Still, I can’t help thinking how privileged we are compared to Alex Selkirk and other people of the early 18th century – even if such a thought reeks of cliche.

But think about, too, will you? (And this is another attempt at reining in my own motivation for doing this particular historical live-talk, yes.)

Just … think.

Alex Selkirk was tired of being a nobody in Largo. He was an unruly kid. He went to sea. It sounds like some spoiled kid, who might as well just have stayed at home.

But I’ve been to Scotland and seen some of the recreated cottages of the 18th century and earlier. You lived up there, you had very little. Like the Bolivian highlands of today, which I do know.

You probably died before 40 and with no money to show for it, just a lousy parcel of land or a little shop in the village that barely made you scrape by.

So the question isn’t so much why a man like Alex Selkirk would risk tropical fevers, capture (by the enemy Spanish), being killed in sea-battle, drowning in a storm, scurvy or just falling down from a mast – in order to make a fortune of privateering.

The question is more – why didn’t more people take that risk?

The 18th century was not a nice place and a sea-village in Scotland was close to the end of the world, not much there, except early death.

So if those were the odds, anyway, it may not have seemed like an awful big deal to risk the above stuff and then – maybe – get home with the rich stuff.

You could probably tell yourself all sorts of things, too, if you were a lonely, wild kid up there, dreaming of adventure and (above that) riches.

You could tell yourself that you would make it, of all who tried. That you would get lucky. You could downplay the dangers.

Maybe you barely knew about them, because who would have told you – except tales of mermaids and giant squids taking down entire ships, and you were too wise to believe in either of those, right?

So I think Alex Selkirk made perfectly sensible choice to go to sea, as a young man, even if – in hindsight – it did cost him his life. (Not on that island that made him famous, though, but later – near the West African coast, sailing a patrol for the Royal Navy.)

There’s a lot less reason in today’s world to take risks, at least in the so called ‘developed world’. Many people do take risks, of course, but not with their lives – not in the same way.

But the point I should keep in my mind, and which I should try to convey to the audience is simply this:

Our instinctive ‘why-the-hell-did-they-do-it?’ when we hear about those sailors going to sea and risking the craziest things … that’s a product of a safe environment. A nurturing environment. A welfare state for some, even if we agree about all its problems, too.

Alex Selkirk knew nothing of that. He just knew that if he wanted to be someone and to make it in this world he had to risk the sea.

Much like another person in my talks, Christopher Columbus. But whereas Columbus had an overall vision to wrap his desire for position and money in – making it seem extraordinary to some – Alex Selkirk just had the base, I believe:

He wanted badly to get away and he wanted to get rich. He didn’t want to die for nothing. Or at least die risking to achieve what he felt was his highest dream.

Not as gift-wrapped as Columbus’ dream, I might reiterate, but nevertheless the most precious dream he had. That man of 200 years past.

But how many like him are still here today.

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