The Court Martial

Though exonerated for the loss of his ship, Dampier was roundly criticised for ‘beating’ Fisher, for ‘confining him in irons’ and afterwards ‘imprisoning him on shore in a strange country’. Dampier was fined all the pay accrued from the voyage and it was concluded that:

‘Captain Dampier is not a fitt person to be employ’d as Commdr. Of any of Her Majesty’s ships’

(Court Martial, Quoted in Wilkinson, 1929:186).

This is not the place to provide details or to proceed further than in providing this précis or to detail the subsequent voyages undertaken by Dampier, rather it is pertinent to advise that Wilkinson notes that ‘The verdict did Dampier no harm’ for just ten months later the London Gazette contained a note that read:

Captain William Dampier, being prepared to depart on another voyage to the West Indies, had the honour to kiss her Majesty’s hand, being introduced by His Royal Highness, the Lord High Admiral

(London Gazette, No 3906, quoted in Wilkinson, 1929:187).

The St George, the Cinque Ports and Alexander Selkirk

Apparently the War of Spanish Succession had just broken out and with English privateers being readied for the fray against French and Spanish interests, Dampier was appointed with official approval to the 26-gun privateer St George, with a crew of 120 men. Dampier does not appear to have kept an account of this voyage designed to seize a number of Spanish galleons. They sailed on 30th April 1703 and were joined by the 16-gun galley Cinque Ports. En route, he again had problems with his 2 I.C. who was put off the ship and they also unsuccessfully engaged a French ship and captured three small Spaniards and one vessel of 550 tons. At Tobago, the two ships parted and captain of the Cinque Ports, Thomas Stradling subsequently fell out with his mate Alexander Selkirk, who insisted on remaining ashore at Juan Fernandez Island, becoming the recognised ‘original’ of Robinson Crusoe.

Drawing of Alexander Selkirk

Alexander Selkirk, from the Beken Edition.
Image copyright WA Museum

It needs be remembered, however, that in 1684 Dampier records that his fellow privateers/pirates landed on Juan Fernandez Island in order to search for a Moskito Indian accidently left behind three years earlier. Clennell Wilkinson, one of Dampier’s biographers, claims that he has almost as good a claim as Selkirk to be the ‘original’ of Robinson Crusoe, and noted that the first man ashore was his compatriot who was in fact named Robin!

Drawing of a meeting between an indigenous person and a European

Robin, a Moskito Indian meets his marooned compatriot, from the Beken Edition.
Image copyright WA Museum

Meanwhile Dampier continued on in what is described as an unhappy voyage in which the discipline steadily deteriorated. They then engaged in a powerful Spanish warship, and in repairing their vessel found that, like the Roebuck, its hull was rotten. Many deserted him soon after. Later they captured a small Spanish barque and then found and unsuccessfully attacked a well-armed Manila Galleon. Dampier was blamed for not pressing an advantage he had earlier obtained and the vessel escaped. (Wilkinson, 1929:186-200).

Further dissension and desertions ensued. Dampier successfully sacked a town on the coast of South America and then captured a Spanish ship to which they transferred to leave the St George adrift and sinking.

The Roebuck in full sail

The Roebuck
Image copyright WA Museum

They sailed to the East Indies where they were arrested because Dampier’s commission had expired, and after an eventual release they made their way home. Dampier was again penniless, though royalties from his works would still have been forthcoming. According to Wilkinson, his friends rallied around him and Dampier was presented to the Queen to provide an account of his adventures. He then wrote a Vindication of his voyage to New Holland in response to a personal attack by the steward on board the St George, William Funnell, one of Dampier’s detractors, to whom we owe much of the credit for the account of this particular voyage (Funnell, 1707).

Though it was not successful in the eyes of the merchants who backed the voyage, Dampier continued to maintain his scientific patronage, partly due to the success of his Discourse on Winds &c. Further his reputation amongst the beleagured Spanish in the West Indies remained such that he ‘his name had become a terror in those waters’ (Wilkinson, 1929:204).

Woodcut drawing of pirates attacking a Spanish ship

English privateers attacking a Spanish ship.
Image copyright WA Museum

Dampier with Woodes Rogers

As a result of this and his reputation as a navigator, Dampier was offered the post of pilot in a voyage by two Bristol-based privateers the Duke and the Duchess commanded by Captain Woodes Rogers. Thsi was Dampier's last voyage of circumnavigation and he was 56 years of age. He is recorded in Woodes Rogers’ list of officers on the Duke as;

William Dampier, Pilot for the South Seas, who had already been three times there and twice around the world’

(Wilkinson, 1929: 207).

They sailed from Bristol on 2 August 1708 on a voyage notable for Woodes Rogers’ democratic management, the capture of a Manila Galleon, and the repatriation of Alexander Selkirk from Juan Fernandez Island early the next year. In a somewhat tantalising note, Wilkinson records that Captain Cooke, one of the second officers who also chronicled the voyage, stated that when invited return with them, Selkirk

'…first enquired whether a certain officer that he knew was aboard,' and hearing that he was would rather have chosen to remain in his solitude than come away with him, till informed that he was not in command’ (Wilkinson, 1929:218)

While Dampier was apparently on friendly terms with Selkirk, it is possible that the officer referred to is Dampier, and though to the objective eye it certainly appears so, Wilkinson has offered the opinion that, ‘in fact, we are left guessing’ (Wilkinson, 1929:218). Dampier again fails to provide an account of this incident and of any voyage after the Roebuck adventures, but both Cooke and Woodes Rogers detail Selkirk’s life in their subsequent accounts, with Woodes Rogers’ work entitled Cruising Voyage round the World appearing to great acclaim a short time after they returned home.

Woodcut of pirates from this period of time

Pirate - Privateers
Image copyright WA Museum

Later they stormed a Spanish town and also captured one Manila Galleon but were badly mauled by another far larger. They then proceeded home with their prize arriving after further adventures in October 1711. The three-year voyage proved lucrative for all involved, including Dampier (Wilkinson, 1929: Chapter XII). In November, 1714, at 63 years of age, his health destroyed after 42 years at sea, and still wrangling after receiving over £1350 for the voyage (Wilkinson, 1929:237-238) Dampier made out his will and died in the following March. Apart from the wreck, the relics, the writings and the portrait, Dampier left another legacy, his plant specimens. Twenty four well-pressed species from his Australian plant collection eventually found their way to the Fielding-Druce Herbarium at Oxford University, where they appear beautifully preserved and were viewed by the Museum’s team en route to Ascension Island. The whereabouts of the grave of William Dampier is still unknown.

Drawing of William Dampier

Postage stamp depicting William Dampier
Image copyright WA Museum