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
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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