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Mary Kuper artwork - Diana Preston on William Dampier, Slightly Foxd Issue 18

A Pirate of Exquisite Mind

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We found William Dampier by chance. He was a small footnote in a book about buccaneers – those ‘original pirates of the Caribbean’ – which mentioned that there was a painting of him in the National Portrait Gallery. This seemed a strange outcome for a man who had pursued such a violent career and my husband and I went to see the picture. Entitled William Dampier – Pirate and Hydrographer, it shows a lean, strong-featured man with brown, shoulder-length hair and a watchful expression. There are no earrings, cutlasses or other Jack Sparrow-type flourishes. Instead, Dampier is wearing a plain coat with a white neck-cloth and holding a book, gold-tooled spine out, towards the onlooker.

Intrigued by the portrait’s ambiguous title and by the volume so purposefully presented, we tracked Dampier’s book down in the British Library. It was published in 1697, about a year before the portrait was painted, under the title A New Voyage Round the World, and it vividly recounts the twelve-year circumnavigation that took Dampier to the shores of western Australia. Written with a naturalist’s passion for detail and a navigator’s eye for the patterns of waves and winds, it is also a rollicking account of life as a seventeenthcentury
buccaneer.

Searching deeper we found that A New Voyage was one of the most influential books of the seventeenth century, arousing an enthusiasm for travel writing that made it the most popular form of literature for the next quarter century and beyond. Dampier’s simple English and homely similes connected his readers to a new and broader world where a humming bird was ‘a pretty little feathered creature, no bigger than a great, over-grown wasp’ and a poison blow-dart was ‘like a knitting needle’. It astonished us to discover that Dampier has over 1,000 entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. Taking just the first three letters of the alphabet, he gave us such words as ‘avocad

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We found William Dampier by chance. He was a small footnote in a book about buccaneers – those ‘original pirates of the Caribbean’ – which mentioned that there was a painting of him in the National Portrait Gallery. This seemed a strange outcome for a man who had pursued such a violent career and my husband and I went to see the picture. Entitled William Dampier – Pirate and Hydrographer, it shows a lean, strong-featured man with brown, shoulder-length hair and a watchful expression. There are no earrings, cutlasses or other Jack Sparrow-type flourishes. Instead, Dampier is wearing a plain coat with a white neck-cloth and holding a book, gold-tooled spine out, towards the onlooker.

Intrigued by the portrait’s ambiguous title and by the volume so purposefully presented, we tracked Dampier’s book down in the British Library. It was published in 1697, about a year before the portrait was painted, under the title A New Voyage Round the World, and it vividly recounts the twelve-year circumnavigation that took Dampier to the shores of western Australia. Written with a naturalist’s passion for detail and a navigator’s eye for the patterns of waves and winds, it is also a rollicking account of life as a seventeenthcentury buccaneer. Searching deeper we found that A New Voyage was one of the most influential books of the seventeenth century, arousing an enthusiasm for travel writing that made it the most popular form of literature for the next quarter century and beyond. Dampier’s simple English and homely similes connected his readers to a new and broader world where a humming bird was ‘a pretty little feathered creature, no bigger than a great, over-grown wasp’ and a poison blow-dart was ‘like a knitting needle’. It astonished us to discover that Dampier has over 1,000 entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. Taking just the first three letters of the alphabet, he gave us such words as ‘avocado’, ‘barbecue’, ‘breadfruit’, ‘cashew’ and ‘chopsticks’ (that all relate to food probably says something about a seventeenth-century mariner’s preoccupations). Having found Dampier we couldn’t let him go and spent two years of our lives trying to unravel his story. We began with one of the few surviving examples of Dampier’s own hand – his amendments to a manuscript of A New Voyage prepared by a copyist for publication. The manuscript is among journals collected by Sir Hans Sloane, who probably commissioned Dampier’s portrait and who had a deep interest in the paradoxical world of buccaneers and pirates. It is not easy to decipher Dampier’s spiky writing, but his detailed notations reveal a man eager to distance himself from the pirates with whom he had sailed. He presents himself as an observer – at times a reluctant one – of men he derides as a ‘mad crew’. Yet as our research began to reveal, Dampier had once been very much at home in the company of buccaneers. Born in 1651 in the village of East Coker near Yeovil, the son of tenant farmers, he was orphaned young. After fighting as a sailor in the Anglo-Dutch wars, he accepted a job on a Jamaican sugar plantation owned by the squire of East Coker. However, letters in the Somerset Record Office show that Dampier did not last long, punching the plantation manager who wrote angrily to the squire of this ‘self-conceited young man given to rambling’. In A New Voyage Dampier relates how his ‘rambling’ truly began when, in 1680 in the Caribbean, he joined a group of buccaneers planning to cross the Darien isthmus to raid the Spanish in Panama City. His account beautifully evokes the dense forests of Darien with their ‘monstrous adders’ and velvety tarantulas, and relates how the buccaneers were helped by the Kuna Indians. But it also reveals the intellectual journey on which Dampier was soon embarking. Though as eager as the rest for Spanish loot and ever ready to wave a cutlass, he began recording with passion, even obsession, the world around him, scratching his observations on parchments which he stored in hollow tubes of bamboo stoppered with wax and hung around his neck while fording Darien’s swift-flowing rivers. So compelling are Dampier’s descriptions that we followed him to Darien to walk across the isthmus as he had. We kidded ourselves that our time there was not unlike his. We had to avoid areas where Colombian guerrillas were making incursions, just as Dampier had dodged Spanish patrols. We too encountered poisonous snakes and relied on Kuna Indians to guide us through the rainforest, watching them make poultices from the leaves to treat cuts, just as they had done for Dampier. We learned first-hand the difficulties of protecting our notes. Our damp notebooks were soon torn and spattered with mud, blood and mosquito repellent. Sometimes we felt too tired to write anything. We were impressed that in far more taxing circumstances Dampier had found time and energy to mix ink, trim his quill pen to write entries in his journal and painstakingly preserve his papers in their bamboo casing. A New Voyage catalogues the misadventures which in 1688 finally brought Dampier and some fellow buccaneers to western Australia, making them the first Britons to reach the mainland of New Holland, as it was then known. We followed him there too, meeting members of aboriginal communities whose folklore includes shadowy tales of the appearance long ago among the treacherous tidal races of a small ship. Dampier finally returned from his voyage around the world in late 1691. We wondered about his reunion with the wife he had married during a brief visit to England before joining the buccaneers in 1680 and whom he had not seen since. Whatever her feelings, they were reunited. We found documents showing that they moved into a house in London’s newly developed Soho. Here Dampier turned his notes into the book that would bring him from obscurity to fame and that he would proudly grasp in his hand in his portrait. His success clearly puzzled contemporaries. John Evelyn, invited to dine with Dampier by Samuel Pepys, expressed surprise that ‘Dampier’s Voyage takes so wonderfully’, adding that ‘this famous buccaneer’ was ‘a more modest man than one would imagine by the relation of the crew he had consorted with’. Yet succeed he did. He was even invited to address the Royal Society. Dampier’s account of Australia impressed the Admiralty who made him a naval captain and sent him back to take another look. But his piratical past made his subordinate officers both suspect and despise him. In scenes reminiscent of his fight with the plantation manager, Dampier assaulted one officer and sent him home in chains – an act for which he was court-martialled when he finally returned. Blotting sand still drops from the pages detailing the court martial – a prim, clerkly hand records Dampier’s fight with his officer and how he told him to ‘kiss my arse’. It also records that Dampier was found guilty of mistreating the officer. However, Dampier was not punished for losing his ship off Ascension Island on the homeward run when he managed to rescue all his men as well as his precious journals. Those notes became his second book, A Voyage to New Holland, which, with its delicate copper engravings of the first known portrayals of Australian fauna and flora, was again a best-seller. Further voyages and adventures awaited Dampier. He finally succeeded in capturing a Spanish treasure galleon and by the end of his life in 1715 he had been three times around the world. But there were no more books. Perhaps Dampier felt he had no more to say. A man of no false modesty, he would have been pleased to know that well into the Victorian period he was remembered as a pioneering navigator, naturalist, travel-writer and explorer. We found admiring references to him everywhere. James Cook and Horatio Nelson used his maps. Samuel Taylor Coleridge praised his ‘exquisite mind’. His work as a naturalist – Dampier was the first to introduce ‘sub-species’ as a word and as a concept – gave Charles Darwin his evolutionary building bricks. In his famous red notebook Darwin refers affectionately to ‘old Dampier’. He also had a profound literary influence. Without Dampier there might have been no Yahoos, no Robinson Crusoe, no Man Friday. Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift studied Dampier’s accounts of shipwrecks and maroonings on lonely islands. In the opening passages of Gulliver’s Travels, published eleven years after Dampier’s death, Lemuel Gulliver mentions ‘my cousin Dampier’. We puzzled over why Dampier is so unknown today. Perhaps it is because he was a polymath and his successors in so many fields eclipsed him – Cook is remembered for getting to Australia, not Dampier. But that is not the whole story. Correspondence in the Somerset Record Office also provides a clue. When, in 1907, the villagers of East Coker wished to erect a monument to Dampier, a local bigwig objected on the grounds that he was ‘a pirate ruffian that ought to have been hung’. The taint that had irritated Dampier in life pursued him after death. But visiting the village church, we were pleased to find that the people of East Coker had paid no attention. A handsome brass plate celebrates this rover of exquisite mind.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 18 © Diana Preston 2008


About the contributor

Diana and Michael Preston’s biography of William Dampier, A Pirate of Exquisite Mind, was published in 2005. Having been transported back into the seventeenth century by Dampier they stayed there. Their latest book, A Teardrop on the Cheek of Time: The Story of the Taj Mahal, was published last year.

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