Famous cartographer and buccaneerby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
William Dampier led a somewhat controversial life. He actively pursued looting, stealing and violence as he openly practiced piracy. Dampier circumnavigated the world a total of three times, collecting much valuable scientific and topographical data. While on his journeys Dampier was able to record much of what he witnessed and managed to compile his observations into a number of books. He was much loved by the societal elite in England, much feared by the Spaniards, and much envied and even looked down on by his peers. Such an interesting subject is well worth noting.
William Dampier was born on September 5, 1652 (possibly May, possibly 1651), the son of a tenant farmer in East Coker, Somerset. Not much is known of his early childhood. We do know he was orphaned at a young age and made a voyage to Newfoundland as the captain’s “adopted” son when he was around 16 or 17 years old. In 1673, at the age of 21, William joined the British Navy. It was at this time that the British were in the Dutch War, so Dampier participated in that. He participated in two battles, one on May 28 and the other on June 4, 1673. William was subsequently dismissed from the Navy due to sickness.
That same year, Dampier jumped at a friend’s offer for him to manage a plantation in Jamaica. He proceeded to travel to Jamaica in 1674. After a year of this, he grew discontent and involved himself in coastal trading. After making two voyages to the Bay of Campeachy in 1675 and 1676, Dampier determined to stay there for a while and become a logger. He coupled logging with amateur pirating to sustain himself. Dampier returned briefly to England in 1679 and then made his way back to Jamaica. He then proceeded to cross the Isthmus of Darien, a.k.a. Panama, with a group of pirates. He spent the next year with these men, pirating the coast of Peru, mainly to harass the Spaniards. Although Spain and England were not at war during this time, the pirates Dampier was sailing with took about 25 Spanish ships.
After harassing the Spaniards on the Spanish Main from 1679-1683, Dampier proceeded to travel to Virginia. There he joined up with a certain Captain John Cook. He sailed with Cook and his crew in August 1683. After stopping at the Guinea Coast (East Coast) of Africa, they went back across the Atlantic, around Cape Horn, and proceeded into the Pacific. Scourging the coast of Chile and Peru, Dampier and those he sailed with then went to the Galapagos Islands. After two years, in which Captain Cook died and a Captain Davis replaced him, Dampier left his present buccaneering companions and went under the command of a Captain Swan. Since he did not meet with much success during 1683-1686 while exploring northern Mexico all the way up to southern California, Swan decided to cross the Pacific and come back to England, after making a run through the East Indies.
The expedition that would lead to Dampier’s first circumnavigation began on March 31, 1686. The crew encountered great difficulties, including a want of food. Six months were spent in the Philippines, concluding when Dampier and most of crew left Captain Swan and over thirty other crewmembers and sailed from Manila to Pulo Condore. From there, Dampier and the remaining members of the crew went to China, then onward to the Spice Islands. They then proceeded to land in New Holland (present day Australia). By March 1688 the men were near Sumatra. By May they were near Nicobars, where Dampier was marooned, supposedly at his own request, with the mission of establishing a trading outpost in the area. After many adventures Dampier was able to get back to England in 1691.
During his many voyages, Dampier had kept a remarkably careful and detailed journal of all that occurred around him. In 1697 Dampier published his journals of his voyages in a memoir titled A New Voyage Round the World. This book was received with much praise from many people in Great Britain, despite the fact that Dampier was a practicing pirate. His detailed observations of indigenous people and nature enabled his book to be dedicated to the President of the Royal Society of London. His nine-week stay on the coast of Australia is thought to be the first time any Englishman had set foot on that continent. Because of this Dampier was regarded as the supreme authority in England in regard to anything about the South Seas. The Royal Navy of Britain promptly offered Dampier a command in an expedition. The main purpose of this expedition was to explore the waters of the South Seas. With the rank of captain in the Royal Navy being given to him, Dampier accepted the offer and set sail in January of 1699 in the H.M.S. Roebuck.
Dampier sailed for two years, the discovery of New Britain being the only thing of importance discovered on this voyage. Although he could write maps and describe people very well, Dampier was a poor captain. He was often not sober and did not look after his men, causing discontentment to grow with his crew. In February 1701, the Roebuck sunk. Dampier and his crew made it back to England, but Dampier was then court-martialled and deemed unfit to command a ship in the Royal Navy.
By now Dampier had sailed around the world twice, making him a very sought after navigator despite his leadership failings. He was hired as a pilot for Captain Woodes Rogers, and together they undertook Dampier’s circumnavigation of the world. It was during this voyage that a sailor by the name of Alexander Selkirk requested to be marooned. After Dampier recorded Selkirk’s experience in his journal, Daniel Defoe was inspired to write Robinson Crusoe. Although no significant discoveries were made during this voyage that lasted from 1708 to 1711, Dampier solidified the notion that he was a bad leader of men. He often took large bribes from captured Spanish ships and then let the ships go, keeping all the money for himself.
In 1715 William Dampier died. He had circumnavigated the world three times and had been the first Englishman to set foot on Australia. His published journals inspired many people and provided great insight that would be used to accomplish a great deal later on in history. For example, Dampier’s observations of how the Miskito Indians crossed Panama in just two days enabled the builders of the Panama Canal to easily determine which route the canal should take. His detailed observations of nature later caused a certain scientist by the name of Charles Darwin to wonder about the origin of species. Dampier’s careful observations of the coastline published in all of his many books enabled others to finally put the South Seas on the map the way they should have been.
William Dampier was a buccaneer through and through. He left his wife, drank, neglected his men, and engaged in general looting, stealing and burning of others’ property often. This cannot be overlooked. Yet he penned some interesting words in the preface of his book "A Voyage to New Holland". Dampier stated:
"But this satisfaction I am sure of having, that the things themselves in the discovery of which I have been employed, are most worthy of our diligentest search and inquiry; being the various and wonderful works of God in different parts of the world. And however unfit a person I may be in other respects to have undertaken this task, yet at least I have given a faithful account, and have found some things undiscovered by any before, and which may at least be some assistance and direction to better qualified persons who shall come after me. I returned to England in the Canterbury East-India ship, for which wonderful deliverance from so many and great dangers I think myself bound to return continual thanks to Almighty God; whose divine providence if it shall please to bring me safe again to my native country from my present intended voyage."
Pirate though he may have been, Dampier seemed to have at least some respect for God and felt called to do His bidding; that is, discover the wonderful works of his Creator. The irony of this is that Dampier’s discovery actually helped lead Darwin to the conclusion that God didn’t create anything. If Dampier was writing the truth when he penned the preface of A Voyage to New Holland, we can conclude that God used a normal, sinful man to discover many of His wonderful works in the world. This man realized his shortcomings yet continued to the work of the One who sent him. William Dampier may have been a buccaneer, but he seems to have at least repented somewhat before he went to meet his Maker.
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