JUAN Fernández Island, west of present-day Chile, went largely ignored until Alexander Selkirk was marooned on it shores. The story of his surviving on goat meat, crayfish and turnips was, as Andrew Lambert explains, quickly “encrusted with myth” and his temporary home in the southern seas began to assert an astonishingly powerful hold on the British psyche. This “shimmering rocky speck, wrapped in lush vegetation” became a conduit for fantasy and aspiration, a lodestone for the British sense of their position in the world. The fact that the British never owned the place (it was held by Spain and, later Chile) mattered not a jot. They possessed it in their imaginations.

Daniel Defoe led the way. Simplistic links between Robinson Crusoe and Selkirk’s misadventures are best avoided: for one thing, Defoe set his novel on an island off the other coast of the Americas. Still, the conflation of Crusoe and Selkirk was irresistible, and Defoe’s themes readily attached themselves to Juan Fernández (officially known today, for better or worse, as Robinson Crusoe Island). Defoe wanted his hero to encapsulate a string of virtues: courage in adversity, self-improvement, and (popular at the time) a willingness to “rescue benighted savages from the darkness of cannibalism.” Defoe was also keen to instruct George I in morality and the fundaments of governance, which is why the Scottish Selkirk became the “half-German hybrid” Crusoe. Above all, the book was designed to expand and refine Britain’s outlook in a world increasingly defined by truly global trade and cultural encounter.

Lambert’s goal is to use the history of the island to “unravel the complex DNA of a unique world view.” He is helped by the fact that, over the course of the next two centuries, all manner of people travelled to the Juan Fernández archipelago: from privateers in search of profit and naval commanders who recognised the island’s strategic importance, to scientists who explored the landscape. Poets like William Cowper had to be satisfied with making the trip in their minds’ eyes. The island’s lustre did begin to fade, but in 1849 Frederick Walpole could still rhapsodise about how “our noble ship in the bay spoke highly for the ingenuity of man, but the eye turned with delight to the freshness and beauty of nature”. Tourism inevitably followed and locals were “happy to tell inquisitive, credulous visitors whatever they wanted to hear in exchange for cash, supplies or booze”.

Lambert, a highly respected naval historian, describes the many expeditions, as well as their military and economic contexts, with characteristic aplomb. He also offers wise words on the environmental impact of all these centuries’ worth of intruders. Something rather bizarre happens towards the end of the book, however. This is, at heart, a study of how cultural identities are created and, abandoning the cardinal rule of scholarly detachment, Lambert decides to enter the fray. We are offered quite the jeremiad. A sense of oceanic belonging has apparently been replaced by the “stultifying mendacity of the new order, where Europe is the present and the future”. Lambert accepts the flaws of empire and how it all went wrong through bragging and over-reaching, but he still admires the attitudes of the eighteenth century summed up by Defoe and Crusoe, “tolerant, progressive and enlightened” and wishes that this history were better remembered. Instead, people are “systematically fed a very different identity, one of Continental origin.” Worse yet, his “Australian relatives face significant barriers to entry into the United Kingdom, while vast populations with whom I share nothing in blood, language, history or culture are free to enter at will”. At least, though, we had the Falklands conflict, which suggested that the British may not be “ready to give up on the ocean, or the tiny specks of land that punctuate it.”

Forgive me, but I struggle to see what place any of this has in a history book and it distracts from the many virtues of Lambert’s account. Much wiser, then, to focus on the tales of fleets clashing during World War I so that Chilean nitrates could make it through to Britain, or to wish you’d been around in 1912 and able to stop off at Juan Fernández as part of the enticingly named “Round the World Scientific and Sporting Cruise.” Until the rants begin, this is a very entertaining volume.