“William Dampier,” A New Voyage Round World, 1900, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, G420.D16.1698.C. rare.

William Dampier

William Dampier was born in the little farming village of East Coker, England, sometime around 1652. His father was a poor farmer who died when young William was ten years old; his mother died a few years later. Young and penniless, Dampier found employment on the docks and shipped out with a fishing vessel headed for the cold, cod-filled waters of Newfoundland. The climate and fishy atmosphere did little to endear Dampier to the life of a fisherman, and upon returning to England, he signed on with an East Indiaman headed for the Orient.

In 1672, he joined the Royal Navy as an able seaman and was put aboard the HMS Royal Prince, flagship of Sir Edward Spragge in his campaign against the Dutch. After several battles against the Dutch fleet (England and Holland were at war at the time), Dampier gave up the life of a man-o-war man and headed for the sunny climate of Jamaica, where he found work as a clerical assistant on a plantation owned by his late father's old landlord. He was not made for land-based employment, it would seem, so Dampier struck out on his own and joined a lumber company in Mexico, illegally cutting timber and shipping it back to English colonies. This job gave him even more sea-faring experience, and he picked up on the science of hydrography (mapping bodies of water), a skill that would serve him well later on.

He returned to England in 1678, where he married a girl (he recorded only her name, Judith, and nothing else about her is known) and tried to get into the very lucrative logwood trade. He left for the West Indies in 1679 to look after some business, but since most loggers in that region also dabbled in piracy, it didn't take long for him to fall in with his old buddies from his days as a lumberjack and join a pirate (or buccaneer) expedition against Spanish colonies and shipping. Dampier and his comrades, led by a couple of pirates named Sawkins, Coxon and Sharp started by sacking the Spanish settlement of Santa Marta in Panama and finally ending in July of 1682 when Dampier and some of his mates decided to hide out in Virginia for a year or so. All the while, Dampier had been recording his experiences in a journal; a rare thing among pirates.

In 1686, Dampier set sail again, this time with pirate captain Charles Swan and his ship the Cygnet (a fitting choice for a ship name; a cygnet is a young swan). The crew was mutinous and barbarous (according to Dampier, they planned to murder and eat the ship's officers!) and Swan was not the most skillful captain to ever sail, but in spite of it all, Dampier managed to guide the Swan all the way from Mexico to Guam in 51 days; a very fast sailing. The crew did mutiny, Swan was abandoned in the Philippines and Dampier decided to leave the expedition before the crew turned on him, too. So for several years, he bummed around the East Indies, learning about the tides and currents, and carefully observing the plant and animal life of the region. After enduring many hardships in the South Seas, Dampier decided to give up the dangerous, dissolute lifestyle of a professional buccaneer and got a job on an East Indiaman headed back to England.

William Dampier’s Naturalist Drawings, A Collection of Voyages: In Four Volumes,1729, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, G420.D2.D36.1729 rare.

Dampier disappears from the records until 1697, when he burst back onto the scene with the publication of A New Voyage Round the World, an account of his life at sea and his piecemeal circumnavigation of the globe (done over the course of several expeditions). The book, written in a very approachable, narrative style was an immediate success and caused a sensation throughout England and the rest of Europe. Dampier was unapologetic about his previous career as a pirate (such adventure tales no doubt thrilled his audience), but the real draw to A New Voyage Round the World was Dampier's observations on scientific and ethnographic topics. He introduced Europeans to exotic animals and exotic customs (he even briefly toured England with Giolo, a Filipino islander covered in tattoos) that were standard in the East Indies.

The Admiralty, the stern, faceless committee that oversaw the running of England's Royal Navy, saw some good in William Dampier and appointed him, on the strength of his scientific observations and obvious knowledge of navigation, the command of the HMS Roebuck, to lead an expedition to explore the New Holland (as Australia was largely called at the time). In early 1699, he and his crew set sail in the 26-gun warship, headed for the Australia. They explored New Guinea and Australia for several months, although a combination of things led to Dampier's court-martial when he returned to England late in 1700. His crew were an ill-tempered lot, who did not relish taking orders from a travel writer/pirate. Dampier, while a veteran of the gundeck of the Royal Navy in his youth, was not adept at giving orders and ensuring they were being carried out. Add to that the fact that HMS Roebuck was barely seaworthy even in calm seas, and it is a wonder any of the expedition made it home again. Dampier relates that he slept with a loaded pistol by his side, such was his fear of the near-mutinous crew.

In 1703, Dampier published an account of the expedition called A Voyage to New Holland, which was also well received. But busy Dampier had no time to bask in his fame as a great travel writer (or, one wonders, to visit his long suffering wife Judith), as the sea lured him back quickly. That same year, he was granted a letter of marque (a government-issued license to attack the shipping of enemy nations) and so set sail as a privateer. The crew of the St. George (Dampier's ship) and the Cinque Ports (his partner in the privateering enterprise) were a rough lot; Dampier and his lieutenants often fought.

Dampier chose not to fight some vessels that were more powerful than his, and apparently also refused to engage in battles when the odds were too obviously in his opponent's favor. This led to a reputation for cowardice among his men. The crew of the Cinque Ports, after abandoning Dampier and the St. George, even marooned their captain Alexander Selkirk on the deserted island of Juan Fernandez. Eventually, some St. George crewmen deserted the expedition in the Pacific and took the letter of marque with him. With no proof that he was a legally authorized warship, Dutch authorities arrested Dampier on charges of piracy.

The whole affair was finally cleared up, and Dampier returned to England in 1707, his reputation almost completely tarnished. During his unintended stay in the Dutch East Indies, a man named William Funnell (he had been one of the deserters from the St. George) published an account of the privateering voyage and accused Dampier of incompetence and being a coward. Dampier published an answer to Funnell's accusations, but it did little to reverse the image of Dampier as a bungler.

In 1708, Dampier was hired to be the pilot for a privateering expedition by Woodes Rogers. The voyage lasted some three years, in which Rogers' crew ranged all over the coasts of South America and the Pacific, looting Spanish and French prizes (England was fighting the War of Spanish Succession at the time). Oddly enough, in 1709, Rogers' two ships, the Duke and the Duchess, landed at lonely Juan Fernandez island, where they picked up an amazed Alexander Selkirk. Selkirk's life on the island formed the basis for Daniel Defoe's The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719. Anyhow, Rogers' expedition was very successful, and much loot was captured.

Returning to England in 1711, the riches of the Woodes Rogers expedition did not get paid out to the privateer crews until 1719. Sadly, Dampier's health started failing and he died in 1715. But the name William Dampier lives on; his book A New Voyage Round the World remains a popular source for information on the world as it existed in the late 17th century, filled with wit and all manner of folk wisdom. Dampier's writing style keeps the book fresh and quite readable even some three hundred years later.