Maritime great who sank without trace

November 17, 1995

Anton Gill sketches the life of William Dampier, an explorer to rank with Raleigh and Drake but also a privateer and pirate who died in obscurity.

William Dampier figures in a footnote of a book about James Cook. He also stars in two biographies which are incomplete and not especially interpretative. But this great British maritime explorer, who came midway between Raleigh and Cook, deserves better treatment.

He was the first explorer to do his work in a spirit of systematic enquiry. Largely self-taught, he was an accomplished navigator, hydrographer and naturalist. He travelled at a time when charts had not been standardised, when they were often tens of degrees out, and he corrected them as best he could without the aid of the yet-to-be-invented chronometer. His Discourse of Winds formed the basis of annual Admiralty navigational bulletins until the early part of this century. His Voyages, best-sellers when they appeared at the end of the 17th, and well into the 18th, century, inspired Swift and Defoe. In his own lifetime he was feted as a writer and traveller - a friend not only of Sir Hans Sloane, diarists Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, and architect Sir Christopher Wren, but also of European royalty: Queen Anne, William and Mary, and Prince George of Denmark.

What can be the cause of this neglect? Is it that he was also a pirate, an entrepreneur, a drunkard, and a bad leader of men? Although he found friends among the ruling elite, he was never an accepted member of the establishment, and what success he had was accidental, a by-product of his obsession with travel and observation.

Dampier was born in obscure East Coker, Somerset in 1651. His parents were tenant farmers, but they died when he was young, and the local squire took over his education. He learned basic classics and mathematics but from an early age he was drawn to the sea as a means of seeing the world. His first excursions were local, though one trip to Newfoundland cured him of wanting to sail in cold waters ever again - a disinclination which later cost him the greatest discovery of his life. He fought under Admiral Prince Rupert in the Dutch Wars, and we next hear of him in 1674, when he left England for Jamaica to work on his squire's sugar plantation. The situation did not suit him, and he left for the Bay of Campeche in Mexico, where he set up as a lumberjack: back then, logging hardwood was a lucrative trade for those who were not afraid of hard work, hard drinking, and appalling conditions.

He prospered until a hurricane blasted the coast in June 1676, when he returned to England, bought some land in Dorset, and married a girl called Judith. But six months later he had sailed again for Jamaica. He scarcely mentions Judith in all his work, and while it is almost certain that she lived a long life - though predeceasing her husband - it is equally likely that he never saw her again. His plan was to set up in trade, but he and his crew fell in with a fleet of six privateers. At that time, the relatively honourable profession of privateering (only attacking the ships of unfriendly nations) was becoming akin to buccaneering (attacking foreign ships at any time). Within a few years, and while Dampier was still sailing "on the account", as it was called, privateering would become indistinguishable from piracy (attacking any ships at all).

The expedition he first joined spent several months in the Caribbean before crossing the isthmus of Panama, taking the small town of Santa Maria, and seizing Spanish ships, which, once re-christened with English names, were used for privateering along the west coast of South America. There had been no English presence there since the days of Thomas Cavendish a century before. Spanish coastal defences were weak, and the pickings rich. Of the brutality and pillage, not a clue can be gleaned from Dampier's own work - only the journals kept by his fellow adventurers tell the tale. During this voyage, when crossing and later recrossing the meandering Rio Chucunaque, Dampier protected his own journal from the torrential rain by rolling it into a length of hollowed bamboo which he stoppered with wax.

Having made a fortune from this expedition, he retired to Virginia for nine months, "lodging with a gentlewoman" as he coyly tells us, before joining another venture to Africa. He dabbled in the slave trade, later sailing west again, rounding Cape Horn and then switching ships to cross the Pacific westwards, taking in Easter Island before any other European and reaching the Philippines. From there he continued round the world, having one adventure after another - he was down to his last two dollars in Vietnam and engaged in a spot of opium smuggling in Malacca - touching the north coast of Australia (the first Englishman to do so), seeing Aborigines and later giving a description which inspired Swift's Yahoos, and finally returning to England in 1691. He had been away for more than 12 years, and all he had to show in capital was a half-share in a tattooed Malay princeling called Joely, from whom he hoped to reap a fortune by exhibiting him in England. But Joely died of smallpox in Oxford after only a few months.

Dampier disappears from view for five years, but in 1697 he re-emerges with the publication of his epic New Voyage Round The World. He became the toast of London, and the book ran into four editions within months. Within the year, he had been officially engaged as a captain in the Royal Navy - then still in an embryonic state, despite the efforts of Drake and Raleigh, and yet to feel the effects of Pepys' reorganisation. An expedition to discover New Holland was hastily got together, and the government, chary of too adventurous an investment in it, gave Dampier a ten-year-old fifth-rater, the Roebuck, to make it in. He set sail after long delays in January 1699 and the voyage was a disaster. With a rotten ship, a mutinous first officer and a sullen crew, he nevertheless reached the west coast of Australia, but, needing fresh water and fearing the colder southern latitudes, turned north. He had been within 100 miles of the fertile plain where Perth now stands, and the discovery of the continent was within his grasp.

On his return to England in 1702 he was court-martialled, stripped of his rank and denied his pay. Luckily, he still had friends in high places and within ten months gained the command of a new privateering venture to South America. He sailed immediately, before his new book, The Voyage To New Holland, was even published. But he was a changed man. He no longer kept a journal of any kind and his command seems to have been lax, inconsistent and cowardly as he operated in his old stamping grounds off the coast of Peru. A book and a pamphlet published by two of his crewmen suggest that he was all these things and more. Dampier immediately replied with a smouldering eight-page Vindication, but the expedition was another failure, and on his return to London in 1707, Dampier was once again, at 56, on his uppers.

He still had his friends, and a new consortium of businessmen, funding a new privateering venture, employed him again, though no longer as leader. Under the command of Woodes Rogers, a young professional sailor, Dampier became a "Pilot for the South Seas". He still kept no journal, but there are hints in Rogers' account that he was happier without the responsibility of command. This expedition, which met with good results - they took Pounds 200,000 from Spanish shipping - was Dampier's last. They returned in 1711. His share of the booty was 1 per cent - not bad at all. He took lodgings in the City of London near Old Jewry with a young cousin called Grace Mercer, who received most of his estate. He died there in 1715. No one knows where he is buried.

These are the bare bones of his life. The full body is enormously fascinating, and it is fortunate there is a huge treasure of material collected by Sir Hans Sloane when he was medical officer to the governor in Jamaica. It remains a mystery, not to say a pity, that so few people know about Dampier. There can be little doubt that, if his story had received the attention it so clearly merits, he would stand shoulder to shoulder with Drake, Raleigh and Cook.

Anton Gill is writing William Dampier's biography to coincide with the tricentennial of A New Voyage Round The World in 1997.

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