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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, January 30th, 2005


A Pirate of Exquisite Mind: Explorer, Naturalist, and Buccaneer: The Life of William Dampier

by Diana Preston

Take me to your treasure

A review by Richard Shelton

William Dampier was a Somerset man, born in the village of East Coker in the middle of the seventeenth century. His memorial brass, in the medieval parish church of St Michael, speaks of a life driven by a profound curiosity about the natural world. Unstated, but implicit in the brief list of his remarkable achievements, is the sustained courage essential for any exploration of the ocean at a time when wind was the only power, when the determination of longitude was problematic and many coastal seas were uncharted:

TO THE MEMORY OF WILLIAM DAMPIER BUCCANEER EXPLORER HYDROGRAPHER and sometime Captain of the Ship Roebuck in the Royal Navy of King William the Third. Thrice he circumnavigated the Globe and first of all Englishmen explored and described the coast of Australia. An exact observer of all things in Earth, Sea and Air he recorded the knowledge won by years of danger and hardship in Books of Voyages and a Discourse of Winds, Tides and Currents which Nelson bade his midshipmen to study and Humboldt praised for Scientific worth.

Surely here was a man of whom the people of East Coker could be justly proud, a heroic figure to add lustre and interest to an otherwise obscure corner of England? Strangely though, Dampier's memorial was not erected until 1907, and even then, its appearance in the ancient church was not welcomed by all of the worshippers. One was even moved to dismiss the great explorer and hydrographer as "a pirate ruffian that ought to have been hung". The basis for his objection is given away in the otherwise laudatory words of the memorial which describe Dampier as first and foremost a "buccaneer". The word itself, the Prestons tell us, is derived from the French boucan, the frame of green sticks on which "boucaniers" smoked or cured strips of meat from the feral pigs and cattle once common on Caribbean islands like Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and Tortuga. Indentured servants who had broken their contracts with their (usually French) employers together with a leavening of runaway slaves and other poor souls living outside the law were the original boucaniers. It was not long before some of this desperate company extended their predatory activities to the sea, where poorly defended Spanish trading vessels offered rich pickings to determined men with nothing to lose. By the time Dampier began his seafaring career, the term "buccaneer" had become so broadened as to embrace all categories of pirate preying on Spanish possessions and their merchant ships.

Some of the worst buccaneers of the seventeenth century had started their depredations in the semi-respectable category of "privateers", mariners sanctioned by "letters of marque" issued by the British and other governments seeking to weaken enemies by attacking their trade routes. At a time when governments took a far smaller proportion of gross national product than they do today, privateering was a much cheaper way of exerting sea power as an instrument of economic attrition than the commissioning of warships, with their high first cost and large crews. If the primary objective of the parent government was to extend its foreign policy by violent means, that of the privateer himself was the acquisition of wealth rather than the defence of his country. When a privateer placed himself and his ship's company in harm's way, it was usually because he believed the potential personal gains justified the risks rather than in response to the kind of Nelsonic patriotism that strengthened the resolve of the best King's Officers.

Great fortunes could be made by privateers and their backers, so the temptation to continue seizing ships and their cargoes after peace had returned and the letters of marque had lapsed was difficult to resist. The worst of such reprobates included the ruthless Welshman Henry Morgan, who would suspend Spaniards by their testicles to make them reveal their treasure, or the equally unpleasant Edward Teach ("Black Beard"), who swaggered through his life of maritime robbery and extortion with three brace of pistols in his belt until his head was struck from his shoulders by the cutlass of a Scots sailor serving aboard HMS Jane. Small wonder then that the good people of East Coker were hesitant about commemorating a buccaneer in their Parish Church.

William Dampier's father was a tenant farmer, and as a boy, William had taken a close interest in the progress of crops in their neighbourhood: the first signs of his delight in detailed observation. The squire, Colonel William Helyar, was impressed, and several years later, when Dampier was already an experienced sailor, he offered him employment on his sugar plantation at Bybrook in Jamaica. Tensions between the squire and his protege meant that the job soon came to an end. Coming ashore at One-Bush-Key in the Gulf of Mexico, Dampier threw in his lot with a large and disreputable company of buccaneers whose principal prey was the rich but beleaguered remnant of Spain's colonial empire.
Like his freebooting companions, Dampier was driven by the desire to accumulate wealth, especially in the form of gold bullion. For this, he was prepared to risk his life in attacks on ships and settlements and to endure both the violence of hurricanes and the prolonged and debilitating agonies of tropical disease. If this was Dampier's bargain with the Devil, his bargain with the elected captains of the various pirate bands he joined was to exchange their leadership and practical experience as fighting men with his exceptional flair for navigation. It was a skill for which he was to become greatly respected and as much in demand as that other sine qua non of sustained maritime operations, a competent ship's surgeon.

Had a good eye for the main chance and a gift for position-fixing been William Dampier's only distinguishing attributes, his name today is unlikely to have been remembered. What set him apart was his wider interest in his surroundings. Unprepared to rely on contemporary explanations for natural phenomena, his was one of a small group of critical minds in a century which was to see both an upsurge in the burning of witches and the foundation of the Royal Society of London. Fortunately for the development of the natural sciences, Dampier was not content merely to observe. He kept meticulous records, both of what he had seen and of the conclusions to which his observations led him. Compiling such records with the often primitive writing materials available in the field must have been difficult enough. That he was able to keep his notes dry through tropical downpours and shipwreck, and bring them safely home to form the basis of his books, is remarkable. It is tempting to believe that, for Dampier, the pursuit of knowledge was as important as the pursuit of treasure. Perhaps it was, though his willingness to complete his seafaring career with privateering expeditions, privately financed by wealthy grandees but using the resources of the Royal Navy, suggests otherwise. Commissioned as a Post Captain RN, for the first time in his life he held full responsibility for the safety of his ship and the welfare of his ship's company. The smooth running of his first command, the fifth-rate HMS Roebuck, was undermined from the start by the disloyal attitude of George Fisher, the First Lieutenant wished upon him by the Admiralty. A career naval officer, Fisher despised Dampier on the basis that "Once a buccaneer always a buccaneer" and that, "He did not understand the affairs of the Navy". Legitimate concerns or not, they did not excuse Fisher's openly insolent behaviour on deck for which Dampier was obliged to put him in irons and thence ashore in Brazil.

Dampier was to complete his circumnavigation but had to leave the sunken Roebuck at Ascension Island, having fought a gallant battle to save the rotten-hulled vessel. He lost much in books, papers and specimens but, as always, preserved his precious journals. Just as the beginning of the voyage was spoiled by Fisher, so was its aftermath. Fisher was not without "interest" among the Lords of the Admiralty, and Dampier was shortly facing a court martial whose damning conclusion was that his usage of Fisher was "very hard and cruel" and that he was "not a fit person" to command one of His Majesty's ships. It was not to stop him going back to sea within the year, privateering in the national interest as part of England's involvement in the War of the Spanish Succession. Once again, Dampier's reputation as a sea officer suffered during an expedition which is notable nowadays only for the marooning of Alexander Selkirk (Daniel Defoe's model for Robinson Crusoe) on the island of Juan Fernandez.

Dampier's final expedition, and his third circumnavigation of the world, was also dogged by interpersonal tensions, storms, and a period when crewmen were reduced to trading rats for sixpence each (they would have been the marginally less repellent black or ship rat, Rattus rattus, rather than the odiferous brown rat, Rattus norvegicus more common today) and eating them, "very savourly". Despite all these troubles, Dampier's little squadron returned enriched by the spoils of a captured Spanish treasure ship. He was to die at sixty-three, leaving a legacy of first-hand knowledge of natural history and hydrography that endured long enough to earn the respect of Charles Darwin, Alexander von Humboldt and Horatio Nelson. As to his literary talent, the liveliness of the travel writing in which he embedded his biological and physical insights was perhaps the greatest of his gifts to future generations. Diana and Michael Preston, with their painstaking scrutiny of original sources (including Dampier's unpublished drafts) have at least been able to give East Coker's Pirate of Exquisite Mind the biographical monument he deserves.

Richard Shelton is a fishery scientist on the honorary staff of the University of St.Andrews. His memoir, The Longshoreman: A life at the water's edge, was published last year.

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