Dampier the Writer/Privateer

Oil on canvas portrait of Captain William Dampier
Captain William Dampier: Pirate and Hydrographer, Thomas Murray (1698)
Image copyright WA Museum

William Dampier published a book entitled A New Voyage Round The World in 1697. It was an account of his extensive travels with privateers and pirates between 1679 and 1691.

In 1699, he also published a supplement to the work, that was part-titled A Discourse of Trade-winds, Breezes, Storms Seasons of the Year, Tides and Currents of the Torrid Zone throughout the World detailing oceanographic and other phenomena. This proved of long lasting benefit to mariners.

Hand drawn map illustrating Dampier's voyage through the Indian Ocean
Map of William Dampier's first voyage
Image copyright WA Museum

New Voyage proved such a literary and maritime sensation, that it was translated into French and Dutch in 1698 and into German in 1702. By 1703, it had gone through five editions in English and has been in print ever since as one of the great English classics. Even today, it appears an astounding and gripping narrative. Throughout the work, Dampier emerges as a complex and gifted man, well worthy of consideration as one of England’s ‘greats', despite his joining with privateers and pirates in the pursuit of the knowledge and experience he craved.

His role on the voyage and his position on board is certainly difficult to define as he appeared to rove across the accepted barriers between poop and forecastle, having the ear of the crew, yet often appearing to have been in the confidence of the commanders. As an acute shortage of provisions appeared imminent, for example, he learnt of a plot to kill and eat both he and his Captain. With only three days supplies left before they were to be despatched for the dinner table, the situation was relieved by their fortuitous landing and obtaining of food. Here Dampier recorded event in a manner that provide insights into both his position on board, his objectivity and of his literary flair.

‘This made Capt. Swan say to me, after our arrival at Guam, Ah! Dampier, you would have made but a poor Meal. For I was as lean as the Captain was lusty and fleshy’ (Beken Edition: 134)

Swan was marooned soon after and command passed to John Read, resulting in an even less palatable situation for Dampier and even more insights into his complex character.

In one violent storm near the Philippines and when presented with plans to travel even further into danger with a crew, of which he was becoming increasingly weary, Dampier presented the reader with a clear statement of his intent and of his apparent willingness to gamble all, including his own life, in the pursuit of knowledge and experience.

‘I was well enough satisified, knowing that the farther we went, the more Knowledge and Experience I should get, which was the main thing that I regarded.'

Dampier in New Holland

In respect of the Australian connection that was the root of the Western Australian Maritime Museum’s interests, these were best enunciated for Western Australians in recent years in Alex George’s William Dampier in New Holland: Australia’s first natural historian that was published in 1999 and in Leslie Marchant’s tome entitled An Island unto Itself: William Dampier and New Holland. Published in 1988, this work traces Dampier’s path along this coast and it also serves to place him into a European social and literary context.

Elsewhere, mainly in Britain, there have been numerous commentaries on the man and his travels over the ages, each from a perspective reminiscent of the individual author’s interests and times. These attest to his influence, to the fact that his works were carried on virtually all subsequent voyages by explorers of many nations and to the influence his accounts and voyages had on the literature of the time, including Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe.

In this particular instance, while extensively utilising George and Marchant, recourse has also been made to Clennell Wilkinson's 1929 edition of Dampier's work J.A. Williamson’s Learned Introduction in his 1939 edition of Dampier’s Voyage to New Holland and to copies of original documents in the archives, including the court martial. These were sourced for the team by professional British researcher Hannah Cuncliffe of Wiltshire.

In essence, Dampier documents a landing on the north west coast in January 1688 in the privateer Cygnet. Under the command of John Read, they stayed for two months, camping ashore, obtaining water and careening the ship. Dampier provides quite detailed accounts of his stay, as did the Dutch East India Company explorers who preceded him on the north and west coast of New Holland after 1606. His disparaging comments on the peoples encountered and the quality of the land visited were to remain the commonly-held view of New Holland and its Indigenous peoples. These persisted until the advent of the post-revolutionary visits of the French under Baudin. For a variety of reasons, none of the explorers appreciated the age-old traditions, the complexity and richness of the Aboriginal culture.

It was a failing based on their use of the ‘yardstick’ of material wealth, riches and edifices, that has been shared by the vast majority of Australians right up until the 1970s and the advent of multiculturalism.

Dampier Jumps Ship

Dampier took many risks in the pursuit of the knowledge and experience he craved, and while at New Holland in 1688 he tried to foment rebellion and was threatened with being marooned there as a result. This hardened Dampier’s resolve and though he sailed with them into even more adventures he eventually escaped from what he describes as the ‘mad, fickle crew’ of the Cygnet.

Saving only his journal and some draughts (maps), Dampier obtained a small vessel which he describes as being not much larger than a Thames Wherry and named the Nicobar Canoe. This episode was a real test of Dampier’s courage for in navigating off Sumatra, they were struck by a violent storm. Expecting to meet his end, the reader was presented with Dampier’s mea culpa for all that had transpired to that time when in his own words ‘our business was to pillage’.

'I had a lingering view of approaching Death, and little or no hopes of escaping it. And I must confess that my Courage, which I had hitherto kept up failed me here, and I made very sad Reflections on my former life, looking back with horror and Detestation on Actions which before I disliked, but now trembled at the remembrance of. I had long before this repented of that roving course of Life, but never with such Concern as now.’

(Beken Edition, 237 18 May 1688)

It needs be noted, however, that after surviving, returning home and conducting the voyage that is the chief subject of this work, that Dampier returned to his roving ways. This is dealt with in numerous other accounts, the most recent being Alex George’s work.

Interest in the East Coast of Australia

In respect of his interest in the Australian continent, Dampier records that, after sailing 500 leagues east from the coast of Chile, a fellow privateer, Captain Davis, had seen a sandy island with high land behind it. Thinking it ‘might probably be the coast of Terra Australis’, Dampier reflected on the failure of better known explorer’s to utilise this approach to the Great South Land.

As he does on many other occasions in the narrative, Dampier drops his guard and openly states ‘… to speak my Thoughts freely, I believe it is owing to the neglect of this easy way that all the tract of Terra Australis which bounds the South Sea is yet undiscovered’ (Beken edition, 163).

In a statement reflecting the state of contemporary knowledge, he said of the eastern part of the continent:

‘New Holland is a very large Tract of Land. It is not yet determined whether it is an island or a main continent, but I am certain that it joins neither  to Asia, Africa nor America’. Dampier, Beken Edition, 1998: 217

Dampier’s reputation after the publication of his sensational account was such as to be able to influence the Admiralty to support his leading a voyage that was designed to remedy this situation and to approach the uncharted eastern coast of Australia from the Pacific Ocean and Cape Horn. The intention was to survey it and the eastern coast of New Guinea after making landfall around 35-40° S (about mid-way between Sydney and Melbourne). He also intended to examine the partly known islands between New Holland and the Dutch Indies’ on the way home via the Cape of Good Hope

(Williamson, 1939, xxviii).

Dampier Given the Roebuck

After finding the first vessel assigned to him totally unsuited, Dampier was provided with HM Ship Roebuck an armed three-masted vessel, 96 feet long, with a beam of 25 feet and a crew of 50 men, including a RN officer. Dampier’s appointment as a civilian and former privateer to command a naval vessel, no matter how humble, was remarkable, but his fame and influence amongst royalty and powerful men was enough to transcend such a hurdle, as the following quote from the diarist John Evelyn attests.

I dined with Mr Pepys, where was Captain Dampier, who had been a famous buccaneer, had brought hither the painted prince Job [Jeoly], and printed a relation of his very strange adventure…He was now going abroad again by the King’s encouragement, who furnished a ship of 290 tons. He seemed a more modest man than one would imagine by relation of the crew he had associated with’

(From George, 1999, pp 135-6).

Dampier was, on paper, a reasonable choice as leader in the long awaited explorations of the eastern coast of Australia. To some learned commentators, his deficiencies as a Captain were apparently as marked as his strengths as an explorer and writer, however. With the benefit of hindsight, Williamson was led to remark thus, for example:

Dampier’s qualification to lead a difficult expedition lay solely in the literary talent which had enabled him to describe the distant parts of the earth in a book that has become a classic. He had no record of command, or even of service as an officer. He had occupied twelve years in drifting round the world, for the most part in ruffianly company, and always in subordinate positions in which he had displayed no promise of leadership. Other drifters had done the like, and there were doubtless many scallywags who had seen as much as he had. But his book set him in a class of his own. It proved him to be a man of intellect, if not of character. The Admiralty took the character for granted, and sent the poor man out in command of a cheap expedition, with a rotten ship and an inferior crew, and without a single officer of any moral quality to supply his captain’s deficiencies. The result was another classic and a quantity of dirty linen for public laundering.

(Williamson, 1939, xxxi)

Hand drawn illustration of a large sail ship
An impression of HM Ship Roebuck by J. Allcott.
Image copyright WA Museum