William Dampier: Pirate, Explorer and Naturalist

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Although William Dampier is often quoted as being a bold or brutal pirate, that is only half the story. Dampier was actually a naturalist who travelled the seas, he was first man to circumnavigate the world twice (going on to do it a third time). He is also credited with being the first westerner to land on Australia1. It seems he was equally as willing to sail as a king's officer or as a privateer. Instead of yearning for gold or loot, as most pirates were, Dampier was simply curious about the world he lived in, he wanted to see new places, animals and plants.

Wherever he went, Dampier wrote notes about everything he observed, they took the form of part journal, part naturalistic observations2. He wrote about plants, animals, geographical features, nautical measurements and the indigenous peoples he met. He also collected many plant specimens, some of which are still around today. It was partly due to Dampier's accounts and specimens of breadfruit that led to William Bligh's ill-fated voyage on HMS Bounty in 1787.

Early Life

Dampier was born in East Coker; Somerset, in 16523. By the time he was sixteen both his parents had died4, he was sent to school where he learned reading and writing. Then was then apprenticed with a shopkeeper; but he soon ran away and joined a merchant ship in Weymouth that was bound for Newfoundland (as a deckhand). After his first voyage it seems that Dampier found he liked the sea, because he next went on a longer trip to Bantam Bay in the East Indies.

In 1673 Dampier joined the Royal Navy as a seaman on HMS Royal Prince. At this time Britain was at war with the Dutch5 and the Royal Prince was involved in the conflict. But Dampier became ill and had to be put ashore soon after his first experience of war.

Not long afterwards, Dampier was offered a job on a sugar plantation in Jamaica, which he took, but soon gave it up and became engaged with the coastal trade there. He also did some logwood cutting6 in Honduras. It was about this time that Dampier started to keep his journal, and also started buccaneering.

Pirating on the Spanish Main

In 1678 Dampier visited England and married a woman called Judith. Little is actually known about her (the only information coming from Dampier's Journals); it is pretty certain however, that they had no children. Dampier did not stay long in England, soon after the wedding he travelled back to Jamaica and joined a group of pirates led by Captain Bartholomew Sharp (about twelve ships in all). Although England was now at peace with Spain, it did not stop the pirates from raiding over 25 Spanish ships and even the town of Porto Bello in Panama.

Naturally the Spanish were not happy with this and tried to apprehend the 350 or so pirates; this proved hard as they had decided to split up. The Spanish decided that as soon as the pirates went back to England they would dealt with by the English. In this the Spanish were disappointed; after an overland journey Sharp and a few pirates (including Dampier) arrived at the Pacific side of Mexico. One of the ships they looted was the San Rosario, which (as well as carrying large quantities of wine, gunpowder and gold) carried a book of detailed sea charts and maps of the South Seas7. These were of such strategic importance that when the pirates returned to England they presented them to Charles II and were granted a full pardon.

During the next year Dampier met a Captain John Cook (not to be confused with the 18th century explorer, Captain James Cook) in Virginia, with whom he went on an expedition to the South Seas in Cook’s ship, the Revenge. They worked their way down the east side of the Americas to the Falklands (stopping off to capture a Spanish ship, transferring to it and re-naming it the Bachelor’s Delight), they then steered around Cape Horn to the Juan Fernandez Islands. Here they met another English pirate vessel called the Nicholas with which they sailed up the coasts of Chile and Peru to the Galapagos Islands and then Mexico. It was in Mexico that Cook died, the man who took his place was called Edward Davis.

The pirates met Captain Charles Swan on the Cygnet, they joined forces and for the next year (1685) the three pirate ships attacked Spanish ships off the coast of Panama and Mexico. Dampier left the Bachelors Delight and joined the Cygnet that went on a trip further up the Mexican coast and to Southern California. This trip met with little success so Swan proposed they went across the pacific and returned via the East Indies. So in March 1836 they left the coast of Mexico and proceeded across the Pacific.

Travels to Australia

The Cygnet sailed to Mindanao, but when Swan refused to leave by January 1687, the crew mutinied. They left him and about 35 others there and cruised around Manila, Pulo Condore, China and the Spice Islands (Indonesia).

In January 1688 the Cygnet anchored off New Holland at what is now known as Dampier’s Landing. However, they did not stay long because they needed water and provisions so they sailed up to the Nicobar Islands. Here Dampier and seven others were marooned (apparently willingly). After a while they decided to try and canoe to Sumatra; despite travelling through a hurricane, and losing a few members of the party (Dampier himself nearly died), they did mangage to reach it. Dampier then acted as a gunner at the English Fort of Benkulen, and presently hitched a lift on a vessel that was headed for England. He arrived back in 1691.

In 1697 Dampier published his first book; 'A New Voyage Around The World'. After reading this the British Admiralty became interested in the idea of the new continent, and commissioned Dampier to command a ship, HMS Roebuck, which would sail to New Holland and do a more detailed survey of the area.

On January 14, 1699 the Roebuck left from the Downs with a crew of 50, and headed for New Holland. The original plan was to go via Cape Horn and approach New Holland from the same direction as Dampier had before, but delays in the departure forced him to navigate round the Cape of Good Hope instead.

Delays weren’t the only problem Dampier had to deal with, the Roebuck was almost un-seaworthy (it leaked and it had structural damage) and the crew were not happy with having a captain that had previously been a pirate. They were also lacking in experience.

However, after about six months, the Roebuck landed at Dirk Hartog Island, off the west coast of Australia. Dampier named the bay behind the island Shark Bay because of the large numbers of sharks he saw swimming there. Finding no water on Hartog Island, they sailed northwards to the Dampier Archipelago then to Roebuck bay8 where Dampier finally decided to sail away from the coast because the ship was low on water, the crew were developing scurvy and the ship’s condition was worsening.

Dampier steered to Timor, then across the top of New Guinea where he discovered two islands (which he named New Britain and New Ireland). After this the Roebuck travelled to Batavia (now Djakarta) where the crew rested and necessary repairs were made, in readiness for the voyage home.

By February 1701 the Roebuck had managed to travel to the Ascension Islands, but it was here that it finally sank (unfortunately along with many of Dampier’s papers). All the crew managed to get ashore but they had to wait until April to get a lift back to England.

Although the expedition had been sort of successful, Dampier received none of the money. On the journey out Dampier had removed First Lieutenant Fisher from the ship, and put him in a Brazilian jail, because of his behaviour towards him9. When Fisher was released he reported to the British Admiralty about what happened, this evidence (and the loss of the Roebuck) led to Dampier being court-marshalled. The outcome of this was that he was fined of all the pay he should have received and barred from commanding any Admiralty ships in the future.

In 1703 Dampier published his account of the Roebuck expedition; 'A Voyage To New Holland', and in 1709 he published the second part ('A Continuation of a Voyage to New Holland').

Later Life

Despite being effectively dismissed from the Navy, Dampier was still in great demand as a captain because of his knowledge of the seas. In 1703 he was commissioned to lead a private expedition of two ships, the St. George and the Cinque Ports, which was headed for the South Seas.

The expedition did not go well, Dampier was reported to be spending the money that was intended for the expedition on himself. He was also accused of cowardice in a battle with a French ship and of receiving a ransom from two Spanish ships for himself, instead of sharing it with the crew.

Soon the two ships separated with Dampier aboard the St. George. On board the Cinque Ports was a Scot called Alexander Selkirk who was sailing master10. He had misgivings about the seaworthiness of the ship and opted to stay on the Juan Fernandez Islands (the Cinque Ports later sank).

When the St. George arrived back in England the financiers began to investigate what had gone wrong with the expedition. They found it had been rife with bad management, greed and corruption; most of the profits going to straight into Dampier’s pocket.

Soon afterwards he left on another expedition that rescued Alexander Selkirk from the Juan Fernandez Islands where he had been living for five years. Although Selkirk’s experience inspired Daniel Defoe to write ‘Robinson Crusoe’ ten years later, there was no Man Friday and he had lived on his own the whole time.

This voyage became Dampier’s third circumnavigation and was very profitable, amassing £200,000. Dampier died in 1715, at the age of 63 not having received his share of this fortune.

Further Reading

A New Voyage Around The World - William Dampier (1697)

A Voyage to New Holland - William Dampier (1703)

A Continuation of a Voyage to New Holland - William Dampier (1709)

The Buccaneer Explorer: William Dampier's Voyages - Edited By Gerald Norris

A Pirate of Exquisite Mind: The Life of William Dampier - Diana and Michael Preston (2005)

1Then known as 'New Holland'.2By keeping these notes in a tube of bamboo and plugging the ends with wax he managed to prevent them from rotting on his expeditions.3Thought to have been born in May.4His father, a farmer, had died when he was ten.5The Third Anglo Dutch War, 1672-1674.6Logwood is a tree that is used as a red dye.7Now sometimes called the Hack Atlas, after William Hack, the man who translated them.8About 600 miles from where the Cygnet had anchored in 1688.9Although it was actually more Dampier who was abusive, and even violent, towards Fisher.10The ship's officer in charge of navigation.

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