Captain marvel

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 42, Spring 2015

Page 28

Captain marvel

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 42, Spring 2015

Page 28

Diana Preston charts the life of William Dampier, a notable navigator, a naturalist – and a pirate

When William Dampier died in his bed in London in early 1715, it was a peaceful end for a daring and celebrated explorer. Dampier was the first man to circumnavigate the world three times, an inspired naturalist, hydrographer and bestselling author. He was also a pirate.

Born in Somerset in 1651, Dampier so impressed the local squire, Colonel William Helyar, that he was offered a job on Helyar's Jamaican plantation. He arrived in 1674 bursting with enthusiasm, but quickly fell out with the manager, William Whaley, who called Dampier "a self-conceited young man." Their quarrels ended in a fight and Whaley dismissed Dampier, who wrote defiantly to Squire Helyar that he would not "live in thralldom". The letter about this squabble is to be auctioned in Knightsbridge's Fine Book Sale in March.

This letter marks a turning point for Dampier as it was then that he began the travels that would take him from obscurity to celebrity. It would also alter the intellectual landscape forever. At first, the young adventurer tried but failed to make his fortune hewing wood. By 1680 he was marching with a small army of buccaneers through the dense snake-infested jungles of Panama to raid the Spanish in Panama City.

The attack failed, as did attempts to seize Spanish treasure galleons. But Dampier soon began to hunger for more than gold and "to see the vast number of objects that present themselves in the world". Hearing that a buccaneer planned to attack Spanish possessions in the East Indies, Dampier joined the crew, and his skilled navigation brought the ship safely across the Pacific. In 1688, it had reached the western shores of New Holland – Australia as we now call it – and the crew became the first Britons to set foot on the continent. Dampier made careful notes of this new land and its people during their eight-week stay.

Soon after leaving Australia, Dampier broke from the buccaneers and continued his travels alone. His book, A New Voyage, based on the notes he made, became an immediate bestseller, catching the attention of the Royal Society and the literary world. "I dined with Mr. Pepys," wrote the celebrated diarist John Evelyn, "where was Captain Dampier, who had been a famous buccaneer ..."

Dampier's account of New Holland so impressed the Admiralty that it gave the former pirate command of HMS Roebuck so he could make further observations. The Roebuck's crew, however, resented serving under a former pirate and tensions between Dampier and his first lieutenant exploded into a quarterdeck fist-fight. When they reached Brazil, Dampier bundled the lieutenant ashore in chains.

Forced to abandon his plan of rounding Cape Horn and approaching New Holland from the east, Dampier instead sailed via the Cape of Good Hope and made again for Australia's western shores. Shark's Bay – named after the abundance of predators – was his landing point.

There he gathered the first botanical samples ever brought from Australia to Europe, and his pressed flowers, preserved in a collection at Oxford University, remain almost as vivid today as when he plucked them. They were nearly lost, however, when the leaking Roebuck foundered off Ascension Island on its way home. Dampier managed to save his men and most of his specimens, but on reaching England he faced two court martials – one for losing the Roebuck, of which he was acquitted, the other for assaulting his lieutenant, of which he was convicted, forfeiting all his pay. His reward came when his new book, A Voyage to New Holland, quickly sold out.

Dampier's naval career was over, but he still sailed on privateer vessels authorized by the Crown to attack its enemies in return for a share of the profits. On his third and last circumnavigation, Dampier finally fulfilled his youthful ambition of capturing Spanish treasure. He and his companions besieged the town of Guayaquil in what is now Ecuador. When the governor refused to pay a ransom of 50,000 pieces of eight, they attacked. Within half an hour they overcame all resistance, with Dampier turning Guayaquil's own guns on the fleeing defenders. So great was the booty, from gold to liquor, that some crew collapsed under its weight as they carried it. A few months later, after lying in wait off California, they intercepted a Spanish treasure ship. A brief but fierce fight was rewarded with a hold stuffed with silver, jewels, musk, cinnamon, cloves, silks and Chinese porcelain.

Never a modest man, Dampier would have been gratified by his influence in so many fields. As a naturalist, he pioneered detailed recording of the world's living things, later developed by Cook's naturalist Joseph Banks. Dampier's account of differences within species caught the attention of Charles Darwin. So, particularly, did his description of types of "long-legg'd fowls" in Brazil which were as "near a-kin to each other, as so many sub-species of the same kind" – the first recorded use of the term 'sub-species'. Darwin took Dampier's books aboard HMS Beagle and quoted from "old Dampier" in his theories of natural selection.

His contribution to maritime knowledge was immense. He was the first to deduce that winds cause surface currents and to produce integrated wind maps of the world – both James Cook and Horatio Nelson used his maps and charts. But one of Dampier's greatest gifts was to describe the world beyond his compatriots' shores. His homely similes connected his readers with unimaginably exotic places – a poison dart was like "a big knitting needle", a humming bird "no bigger than a great, over-grown wasp". He introduced many new words such as avocado, barbecue and chopsticks into the English language and primed the imaginations of writers such as Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who praised his "exquisite mind". William Whaley patronizingly observed that, had he knuckled down, the young Dampier "might have been a good boiler" of sugar. But what a waste that would have been.

Diana Preston is the co-author of William Dampier, A Pirate of Exquisite Mind.

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