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Cocos Island

Cocos Island is an offshore island of the Republic of Costa Rica, called Isla del Coco in Spanish. It is one of the National Parks of Costa Rica. It is located in the Pacific Ocean, 500 km from the Pacific shore of Costa Rica, at N5°30'34" W37°18'6". Its area is about 24km2, about 8x3 km, more or less in a rectangular shape. Its perimeter is about 21 km. It should not be confused with the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

Discoverers of the island: J. Lines (Diario de Costa Rica, May 12, 1940) cites Fernández de Oviedo who claims that the first discoverer of the island was Johan Cabeças. Other sources claim that Joan Cabezas de Grado was not a Portuguese sailor but an Asturian. D. Lievre, Una isla desierta en el Pacífico; la isla del Coco in Los viajes de Cockburn y Lievre por Costa Rica (1962: 134) tells that the first document with the name "Isle de Coques" is a map painted on pergamen, called that of Enrique II that appeared in 1542 during the reign of Francisco I. The planisphere of Nicolás Desliens (1556, Dieppe) places this Ysle de Coques about one and half degrees north of the Equator. (See also Mario A. Boza and Rolando Mendoza, Los parques nacionales de Costa Rica, Madrid, 1981.) Blaeu's Grand Atlas, originally published in 1662, has a colour world map on the back of its front cover which shows I. de Cocos right on the Equator. Frederik De Witt's Atlas, 1680 shows it similarly. The Hondius Broadside map of 1590 shows I. de Cocos at the latitude of 2 degrees and 30 minutes northern latitude, while in 1596 Theodore de Bry shows the Galapagos Islands near six degrees north of the Equator. E. Bowen, A Complete system of Geography, Volume II (London, 1747: 586) tells that the Galapagos stretch 5 degrees north of the Equator. Robinson Crusoe is not more inaccurate that most of these sources.

Robinson's neighbouring Terra Firma is shown on the colour map of Joannes Janson (Amsterdam) depicting the northeastern corner of South America, entitled Terra Firma et Novum Regnum Granatense et Popayan. It belongs to the early group of plates printed by William Blaeu from 1630 onwards. The properly called Terra Firma was the Isthmus of Darien (Bowen, 1747: 593, and Charles Theodore Middleton, A new and Complete System of Geography, Volume II (London, printed for J. Cooke, 1777-1778, page 448). Crusoe's two references to Mexico are against a South American island as well.

Lionel Wafer and George Vancouver were amongst the best known captains who have visited the island.I.E. Eibesfeld, Las islas Galápagos (1975: 253) gives a summary of its history, mentioning Benito Bonito, a Portuguese pirate. Bonito allegedly buried the Lima treasure on Cocos Island during the war of independence in Peru. They ordered captain James Thompson to deliver the treasure but the crew slayed the guards and hid the treasure on Cocos Island. The secret was transmitted to a friend of Thompson called John Keating. Some believe that Keting has managed to retrieve part of the treasure. Later a descendant of Thompson, John Forbes made five trips to the island, the last one in 1950.

The island became part of Costa Rica in 1832. By the decree No. 54 of the Constitutional Assembly of the free state of Costa Rica, in April 1832, thirteen shipwrecked Chileans of a frigate have been saved from the "Isla de Cocos." Felipe Molina in his book (1851) considers the island as an insular territory of Costa Rica.

The Robinson Crusoe connection theory: According to the autobiography of Robinson Crusoe, published under the title Desert Island (Robinson Crusoe Enterprises, North Vancouver, 1996) an increasing number of scientific proofs exist for the theory that Crusoe's island was the Isla del Coco. The editor of the beautifully illustrated book claims that Crusoe was a territorial colonist who was reluctant to give the exact location of "his island," and allowed the editor Daniel Defoe to place it near the mouth of the river Orinoco.

Having been shipwrecked on the uninhabited island, Robinson Crusoe quickly saved some many useful things including mathematical instruments from the wreck. He must have taken an astronomical observation, the vertical angle of the sun above the horizon, during his first ten days on the island, in order to determine his position. He got 9 degrees and 22 minutes north of the line or equinox (the Equator) for the latter. Yet, he assumed that the sun was in its autumnal equinox during the first days of October. His italicized words suggest that ha was aware of the difference between the Old Style and the New Style (O.S. and N.S.) of the calendar. For example, if he made his observation on the 3rd of October in the Gregorian calendar (N.S.), he knew that it corresponded to the 22nd of September in the Julian calendar (O.S.), for there was a difference of 11 days beteen the two systems. But believing that the English Old Style date fell on the autumnal equinox, he did not apply any correction.

However, an astronomer can tell you that on October 2, 1658 the sun's apparent declination was minus 3 degrees 32 minutes and 49 seconds below the ecliptic, and on October 3 it was minus 3 degrees 56 minutes and 9 seconds, both at 0:00 local time. Therefore at noon on October 2, Robinson Crusoe should have subtracted 3 degrees and 44.5 minutes, in order to get the correct latitude. (Also, his physical observation was out by only four and a half minutes, and he made it before his second voyage to the wreck, on that day.) The exact latitude of his shipwreck on Cocos Island was 5 degrees and 33 minutes. Only a naval expert could verify Robinson's description, whether on October 1, 1658 (New Style) the ebb tide took place "a little after noon" in the Cocos Island.

Descriptions of the island: Sir Edward Belcher established an eastern magnetic declination of 8 degrees 23 minutes and 49 seconds on Cocos Island on April 3, 1836. The magnetic declination was 6 degrees 30 minutes at the end of 1894, according to Reginald McCartney Passmore, Informe sobre la Isla del Coco (1895), in Revista de Costa Rica, Year III, nov. 1921, page 79. He adds that there was some gold ore there, which information reminds us of Robinson's description of gold in a cave. (He had buried an old goat near the entrance of that beautiful grotto.)

Friday had never seen snow in his life, and Robinson had never noticed snow, ice, hail or frost on his island. These would not be present on Cocos Island either. The maximum temperature there was 27.4 degrees Celsius and the minimum 19.5 degrees during a four month period from May to August (La Nación, January 12, 1980). Crusoe said the weather felt hot in December, and the sun stood at the zenith on the 30th of September. All this would disqualify the Juan Fernandez Islands as a candidate. There the winter lasts from June to July, and there can be frost and a little hail, according to Captain Woodes Rogers's account, but the sun never stands at the zenith there.

Not all islands have clay (Secord, 1924: 91), but there is clay on Cocos Island (La Nación, May 1, 1977), which Crusoe used to make vessels. The only thing he could not produce for years was a tobacco pipe of clay. Defoe, on the other hand, had experience working with clay at his business adventure at Tilbury (Secord, 1924: 68). He had baked tobacco pipes in his kilns, tells John R. Moore, Daniel Defoe: Citizen of the Modern World (1970 224). He would have used this knowledge in his own novel, describing his method. He could have also borrowed the idea from Henry Pitman, A Relation of the great sufferings and strange adventures of 1689. Pitman was a contemporary who described how to use a [[crab's claw "for want of pipe." Instead, he has left Crusoe with wis pipe problems without suggesting an ingenious or bragging solution. Crusoe found sandstone on his island, which may correspond to the loose volcanic tuff of Cocos Island.

Robinson's distances and description of the island correspond perfectly with the actual topography of Cocos Island, adds Z.A. Simon, the author of Robinson Crusoe Enterprises (1996: 79). Crusoe often "went out to the West End, and to the South West corner" of the island, in order to look for canoes. His fortress was 3 miles away from the highest lookout hill, Cerro Yglesias; its elevation is reported variously as being between 575 m and 850 m (originally 2788 feet). Another peak is 1580 feet high. Robinson Crusoe's directions and the visibilities between certain points are correct. For example, when an easterly wind drifted the Spanish ship towards the island, Crusoe saw the flash of a gun's fire only once, although he only heard the next ones. First he heard the sound about 30 seconds later, which - using the velocity of the sound - would give a location about ten kilometers away from him. Simon's topographical map (1996: 82) allows a visibility for a ship ten kilometres distant from him in that direction. (His daily lookout point and his home was not near the highest area of the island.)

Our hero has survived a terrible earthquake on the island, thinking that its epicentre was under the ocean. At this event, a huge rock as part of a mountain rolled into the sea. Both Crusoe and modern geologists stated that Cocos Island laid in an active earthquake zone; on the tectonical Cocos Plate. Guido also experiences an earthquake on the island, and suspected that a submarine volcano was nearby. John Davis (1687), navigating on those seas, described a terrible shock. It was so violent that he took it for granted the ship had struck upon a rock, but it was actually an earthquake (Dalrymple, 1771: 122).

Cruse made detailed descriptions about the complicated ocean currents arond his island. Our modern reconstruction of his almost fatal voyage with his boat places his critical starting point at Lionel head. He reported a strong current there that was similar to the sluice of a mill. It is intriguing that modern maps call this promontory "Punta Peligro" in Spanish, which means "Cape Danger." Well, Robinson was in a serious danger at this point, and he may have passed his knowledge to his Spaniard friends, thus for posterity. Costa Rican periodicals similarly reported that there were strong and tricky ocean currents around the island. Furthermore, the magazines describe an anchoring possibility in Wafer Bay, at high tide, by the channel of a little river (Rio Genio). Robinson reported the landing of his raft at the same place and in the same manner. He mentioned the hidden rocks off the south end of the island, particularly dangerous at high tide and in the night. These rock are reported by modern navigators and nautical charts, by the same words.

Robinson's dimensions expressed in miles are very good, but his "leagues" are somewhat mysterious and incorrect. He may simply have interpreted a league as a mile measured on the sea. However, similar mistakes can be found in the travel reports of more famous authors: Ides, the envoy of a Tsar, wrote that Lake Baikal was only six German Miles broad, and 40 long. (See E.Y. Ides, (A Description of the) Three Years Land-travels of his Excellency Evert Ysbrand [Ysbrants] Ides, Ambassador from the Czars of Muscovy, to the Emperor of China (1706), with the account of Dionysius Kao: A Short Description of the vast empire of China. Captain Vancouver stated that Cocos Island was four miles long. However, Captain James Colnett (1798: 74) noted its breadth as 4 miles, and its length as 12 miles, but he has shown on his map as 15 miles! Dampier estimeted that the island was 7 or 8 Leagues round (36 km); L.J. Chubb, Geology of Galapagos, Cocos and Easter Island (Honolulu: Bulletin of the Bernice P. Bishop Museum, 1933) tells that it was about 4 miles in diameter, which would make it 32 km in circumference. A modern illustrated treasure-hunter book shows that Cocos Island is about 6 nautical miles long and a little less in width, and has no snakes.

Robinson's original map or sketch can be seen in Everyman's Encyclopaedia, Volume IV, under "Defoe." It shows a rectangular island, which resembles the true shape of Cocos Island. Later several captains drew maps of Cocos Island: some of them depicted it with a circular outline, others as a square shape, or extremely thin and elongated. A little lake or pond was reported by some explorers but that has not been found in the last century. Robinson's map shows that small pond as well, to the northwest of his bower with Poll crying "Poor Ribin Cruso." The style, quality, and accuracy of the map drawn by Robinson "Cruso" is comparable with the map of Mactan Island, where Magellan met his end. (See Zvi Dor-Ner, Columbus and the Age of Discovery, New York: William Morrow and Co., 1991, page 313.)

It is quite easy to find the location of Robinson Crusoe's fortress on a modern map of Cocos Island. According to him, "This plain was not above an hundred yards broad, and twice as long, and lay like a Green before my door," and the front of the hill "towards this little plain, was steep as a house-side." He had to prop his ladder twice in order to climb this vertical wall. Today, there is a high and dominating promontory over its Chatham Bay, with its steep sides and artificially levelled crest all covered by an extremely dense grass taller than a man. (Perhaps this was Crusoe's field of wild barley?) This vegetation is in marked contrast to the surrounding jungle, and provides evidence of former human activity at this point. Several small terraces formed by a cut and fill were encountered by the Norwegian archaeological expedition, perhaps to support small dwellings. (Crusoe's map shows five or more little houses between his "fortress" and Chatham Bay, verifying Thor Heyerdahl's theory. It is very interesting that a French Expedition of Robert Vergnes and Jacques Dumas has found the remnant of those cottages with some iron tools, exactly where Robinson placed them. See a complete article with beautiful colour photographs in Italian about this "Treasure hunt on Cocos Island" in the November 1975 issue ot the Atlante magazine, published in Milano by the "Istituto Geografico De Agostini - Novara." The levelled and equally overgrown summit plateau, which measured about 60 m in width and about twice as much in length, could not have been formed without a considerable amount of labour. A vertical cut about 4 m high through the rock and soil on the inland side formed the western limit of the (artificially) levelled are, adds Heyerdahl, almost repeating Crusoe's words. See Notes on the Pre-European Coconut Groves on Cocos and Easter Island in (Reports of the) Norwegian Archaeological Expedition to Easter Island and the East Pacific, Volume 2 (London, 1966, page 465). The groves of coconut trees may have been maintained in good shape till the last visits of the Caribs on the island.

Crusoe's raft harbour "was upon a low moorish ground near the sea." Which is true, since "at the head (of Wafer Bay) a swampy deltaic plain extends some half-mile inland," reported Chubb (1933: 27). Chubb added that there were no coral reefs but Eduardo J. Van Den Bossche found many spots rich in corals, describing them in his book entitled Wir kommen aus dem Meer. This author studied the underwater life in Chatham Bay, and found two old shipwrecks there. We believe that one of them may have belonged to a Chilean Englishman named Thomas Stevenson, and the other to Robinson Crusoe.

It is interesting to note that when four Americans sailed to the legendary island in 1969, aboard Captain Christian Knohr's fishing boat, they found and recovered from the sea six corroded cannons, full of barnacles and rust, with the date 1594 engraved on their side (Weston, 1992: 180 and the San José newspaper La República, February 2, 1970). Robinson's ship also had six guns, which was not typical at the time. And as 64 years is a reasonable age for a used gun of a small trading mission, it is probable that the recovered cannons belonged to Crusoe. Weston refers to the letter of Jim Worrel, which says that these six cannons have been sold to a private museum in Miami for $10,000 each. The divers took some photographs during the recovering action, about half a mile from the shore of Cocos Island, a distance that fits the location of Crusoe's wreck.

The Spaniards wrote of Cocos Island that "Allí se hallaron ciertos ídolos labrados de piedra." (Gonzalo F. de Oviedo, Historia General y Natural delas Indias, Volume V, Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Españoles, 1959: 97 and Lines (1940), observes Z.A. Simon (1996: 86). That is, certain idols have been found on Cocos island, made of stone. This indicates proofs of the visits of some native tribes before the colonial era. The Galapagos Islands, at about the same distance from the mainland, had similar visits from South American Indians, as Heyerdahl has proved.

The cannibal name is a corruption of caribal, the Spanish word for Carib. Others (Samuel Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus, Volume XIV, 1905: 451) claim that "Cannibal" meant "valiant man" in the language of the Caribs. Some other tribes left the Venezuela region around A.D. 1400, and migrated northwards. Some of thw words of the Térraba nation, one of the Carib (Caribe or Caraibe) language family, were recorded centuries ago. See Victor Manuel Arroyo, Lenguas Indígenas Costarricenses (Editorail Costa Rica, 1966: 3). Simon observes that Friday must have belonged to this Térraba tribe that had lived in Costa Rica, because they use the words ova-kkegué or ova-kigí for old men in their language. Crusoe has recorded that Friday had called them Oowokakee, meaning the same thing: gente viejo in Spanish, which is old people in English, as Simon (1996: 86) cites Arroyo (1966, pages 118 and 78). The agreement of two words and the same historical background, and even the similarly stressed last syllable cannot be all coincidence. A modern young linguist told us that these cannot prove anything about the historicity of Crusoe and Friday, since Defoe may have borrowed these Carib words from someone in England. Well, even if he is right, then there is a good possibility that Defoe heard these two Térraba words from Friday himself. These two words cannot be found in all Carib languages. There were no Carib dictionaries in England before 1719, particularly not a Térraba-English dictionary. Let alone that a mentally sane captain could not have imported a chronic cannibal, who may have eaten up his own family and neighbours. Térraba cannibal tourists did not have guided tours in London, and Defoe has never left England during his life. So the theory of imported Térraba words have a chance like perhaps one to a million. Also, the birth of any dictionary cannot take place without at least one bilingual person, or, without the convivence of two persons who do not kill each other but teach each other to their language. It is possible that these circumstances were present at Cocos Island for the first time in history, when Englishmen, Spaniards and Térraba cannibals (Caribs) have spent years together in a small area of contact. Robinson apparently misunderstood Friday's comment about the well-known cruelties of the Spaniards in America. Those did not take place a great way beyond the moon as if referring to a direction, but many months ago. Otherwise, this was expressed more clearly in The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe. Indeed, the words moon and month correspond to a single word in the Térraba language, according to Arroyo.

There is no detailed data about the Térraba before the year 1697. They numbered between 500 and 2000 then. Their men were described as being naked, and distinct from other Costa Rican tribes by their fame as diligent workers. The governor don Diego de la Haya wrote in 1719 that they were also the most belligerent tribe in all America. (This is exactly what Friday had claimed.) Their mortal enemies were the Changuenes, who were mentioned by Spanish documents at least from 1680, as living on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. In 1708/9 the Térrabas also lived on the coast of Diquís, later called Grande de Térraba. They became very faithful Christians, tells Carlos Meléndez, (Costa Rica:) Tierra y poblamiento de la colonia (Editorial Costa Rica, 1978: 132-135). Robinson, Friday, and his father may have played a role in this development.

Robinson described how the Caribs took their poor victims, and hit them with a mace. Paul Serre del Sagués, who was almost his contemporary, recorded the same of the Caribs of Costa Rica, but was more detailed: The victim was sacrificed by a blow to the back of their heads. Then the saman opened the chest by an obsidian knife, took the heart, and tasted it. Meanwhile his assistants cut up the body to eat it, and distributed grains of maize painted with blood as fetishes. (See Entierros Indígenas en Costa Rica en Revista de Costa Rica, Year III (San José, 1921: 71). The cannibalism was quite widespread in that region in those days.

The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe tells that, on his second visit to his island, after landing at Newfoundland, on March 19, 1694 they were at the northern latitude of 27 degrees and 5 minutes on the Atlantic Ocean, then they landed in Brazil. They got to his old habitation, the desert island, on the 10th of April, 1695. There is a year gap here which allowed them to reach that uninhabited island so it can be located in the Pacific Ocean. Robinson Crusoe was a territorial British colonist: he considered as his own island, and he seems reluctant to confess its exact location to anyone, not even to Defoe. Or, they may have had an agreement to place the island near the mouth of the River Orinoco.

Almost nine years have passed since he had left the island previously, in December 1686. He had left five Englishmen there, three rude villains and two good fellows. The Spaniards numbered about seventeen, coming from the mainland with the father of Friday. The two poor Englishmen had pitched their tents on the north shore of the island, but they had continuously been harassed by the villains who once threw a firebrand at their huts. The two honest Englishmen trod the fire out with their feet. They had firearms with them, and boldly ordered the rogues to lay down their arms. The three rogues left furiously, but they stayed up till midnight, in order to take the poor men when they are asleep. The other two men had also a design upon them, and gone abroad.

However, the three villains were weary, so they fell asleep at Cruso'e bower. When they came to the huts of the two honest Englishmen, Will Atkins called out to his comrade, Ha, Jack, here's the nest, but damn them, the birds are flown. At this point of the book, one must mention that this volume later informs us that Crusoe had received information between 1695 and 1719 about the death of Atkins. The bilingual book of J. Christopher Weston Knight, La Isla del Coco - Cocos Island (1992) contains a black and white photograph showing an old iscription found on Cocos Island. The texts is carved in a piece of wood cut out of a palm tree. It goes, "THE Bird Is Gone." The famous saying of Atkins, "The birds are gone" may have been carved by his English colleagues on the day of his burial, but this time referring only to himself, in singular, not without some irony. The inscription now is in the National Museum in San José, Costa Rica. There is no need to add that no other islands have any English text in connection with the history of Robinson Crusoe, only Cocos Island. A radiocarbon test would give us an approximate date for the age of the wood that may have belonged to the grave of Will Atkins.

The Further Adventures gives an account of the activities of the small population, and the regular visits of the cannibals. These may have been historically true. Finally the savages invaded the island with a fleet of 28 canoes, Crusoe was told. They landed on the easternmost side of the island, two leagues from Crusoe's first cave, and a war broke out.

Crusoe does not tell when he left the island for the second time. After he let his old bird Poll be free in the forest, Crusoe set sail to the mainland. A strong current carried him to the east-northeast, and they got into a bay on the third day. Here an army of about thousand canoes came towards them from the east by paddling. He ordered Friday to call out in his language. The poor fellow obeyed him, and was killed by three arrows at that moment. It must have been the army of the cannibal Changuenes, enemies of Friday's Térraba tribe.

The above mentioned article of the Atlante, a beautiful bilingual book written by J. Christopher Weston, La Isla del Coco - Cocos Island, (San José: Trejos, 1992) and Boza-Mendoza's Los parques nacionales de Costa Rica are the most useful sources that contain illustrations for the flora, the fauna, the landscape and the history of Cocos Island. For further botanical and zoological data, partly as proofs for the correctness of Crusoe's observations, refer to Wikipedia's Plants and animals of Cocos Island.