The Roebuck

Voyage to New Holland

Too late to take his preferred route via Cape Horn, Dampier departed England on January 14th 1699 for the Cape of Good Hope. Trouble had surfaced even before they left at Deptford, however, centring on acrimony between Dampier and his first Lieutenant George Fisher RN. One of his biographers Clennell Wilkinson indicates that from the moment of departure they were apparently;

‘behaving equally as boors without a spark of dignity or self-respect… alternately drinking together, backbiting one another to their confidants, and breaking into personal abuse and even fisticuffs in presence of the crew’

An inevitable state of indiscipline ensued, and en route Fisher was caned by Dampier, clapped in irons and confined to his quarters. The crew were divided on the matter and, concerned at the possibility of mutiny, Dampier had Fisher sent ashore and imprisoned at Bahia in Brazil.

Having regained control of the ship, Dampier then rounded the Cape of Good Hope, first making his landfall on the Australian continent at the place he subsequently named Sharks Bay on the mid-west coast.

Dampier, Australia's First Natural Historian

There he collected many plants, shells and other specimens, and in full and detailed descriptions of the plant and animal life encountered, he was the first Englishman to do so. In also describing the landscape and soils and in describing the land and marine animals, some in scientific terms that are still in use today, Dampier deservedly earned himself the title Alex George has afforded him—‘Australian’s first natural historian.' Dampier is not known to have been an artist, however, and the charming drawings in his A Voyage to New Holland are attributed to an unknown member of his crew, a man Dampier himself describes in the preface to his work as a ‘Person skill’d in Drawing’.

Hand illustrations of botany

Image copyright WA Museum
Hand drawn of an unknown bird

Image copyright WA Museum

Of some importance to this narrative is Dampier’s comment that at;

‘Sharks Bay’ [now Shark Bay], the shore ‘was lined thick with many sorts of very strange and beautiful Shells…I brought away a great many of them…’. He also comments that further north, in what is now known as the Dampier Archipelago, ‘… I gather’d a few strange Shells, chiefly a sort not large, and thick-set all about with Rays or Spikes growing in Rows’.

Hand drawn map of coastal features of New Holland
Coastal features of New Holland
Image copyright WA Museum

After calling in to Timor, Dampier sailed around the northern part of New Guinea, naming it Nova Britannia (New Britain). Dampier Strait was subsequently named after him. Concerned at the state of his ship, at the end of March 1700, Dampier abandoned his plan to sail south to explore the eastern Australian coast, leaving these explorations to Lt James Cook RN well over half a century later. His reasons for doing so are evident in the following quote and here also appears the seed of his coming misfortune;

'In the Afternoon I sent my Boat ashore to the Island, to see what convenience there was to haul our Vessel ashore in order to be mended…but we could not land. .I design’d to have stay’d among these Islands till I had got my pinnace refitted; but having no more than one Man who had skill to work upon her, I saw she would be a long Time in repairing; (which was one great Reason why I could not prosecute my discoveries further:)…'

Intending to touch again at New Holland (the west coast) in 20° latitude, he found himself too far west and then headed off in search of the elusive ‘Tryal Rocks’ scene of the loss of the English East India Company ship Tryal in 1622, the first known European ship lost on the Australian coast. Being sick and unable to continue, Dampier then elected to head for the nearest port Batavia, on west Java.


This vibrant entrepot was the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the centre of a vast trading network with links to China, Japan, India and Europe generally. A vast array of goods, including ceramics passed through this centre. Again this is of particular significance to this narrative.

Arriving at the end of June, Dampier then set about the repair of his vessel and again the cause of his change of plans and the reasons for the imminent demise of his ailing vessel at the hands of what appears to be an inept ship’s carpenter emerge.

'… I supplied the Carpenter with such Stores as were necessary for refitting the Ship; which prov’d more leaky after he had caulk’d Her then she was before: So that I was obliged to carreen her, for which purpose I hired Vessels to take our guns, Ballast, Provision and Stores.'

Hand drawn map depicting Dampier's exploration of the Indian Ocean
A French view of New Holland c.1750. Note 'Dampier Passage', showing how close Dampier got to his goal: the exploration of the east coast.
Image copyright WA Museum

The Loss of the Roebuck

On 17th October 1700, they left Batavia, arriving back at the Cape of Good Hope (another VOC centre) at the end of December, and departed thence on 11th January. On 2nd February, they anchored at St Helena till the 13th and then proceeded to Ascension Island, which they sighted on 21st February 1701.

Hand drawn map of Ascension Island
Ascension Island Map
Image copyright WA Museum

Dampier’s account of the ensuing events reads thus:

An account of the loss of His Majesty’s Ship Roebuck February 21st 1700/1.

At three aclock in the afternoon being in Sight of the Island Ascension, and not having Light enough to carry us into the Bay where design’d to anchor, …we stood to the Eastward, At half an hour after 8 in the night we sprung a Leake on the larboard bow about four Strakes from the Keele, which oblig’d us to keep our Chain pump constantly going, at twelve at night having a moderate gale, we bore away for the Island and be daylight were close in with it, at nine aclock in the morning anchored in the N.W. bay in ten fathom and half water, sandy ground about half a mile from the shoare, the S. point of the bay bore S.S.W. dist. one mile and a half and the northernmost point, N.E.1/2 N.dist. two mile……

Hand drawn illustration of large sailing ship
John Alcott's impression of HM Ship Roebuck at Shark Bay
Image copyright WA Museum

Being come to anchor I ordered the Gunner to clear his Powder roome, that we might there search for the Leake, and endeavour to stop it within board if possible, for we could not heele the Ship so low, neither was there any convenient place to haul her ashoare….

I ordered the Carpenter’s Mate…with the Boatswain and some others to goe downe and search for the Leake, the Carpenter’s Mate and the Boatswain told me that they could not come at it unless they cut the Ceiling, which I bid them doe, which done they found the Leake against one of the foothook timbers, it was very large, and the water gushed in with great violence… after the cutt the timber… the leake so increased…

I ordered a bulkhead to be cutt open to give passage to the water, and withall ordered to cleare away abaft the bulkhead, that we might beale…But about 11 aclock at night the Boatswain came to me, told me… that the Plank was quite rotten, and that it was now impossible to save the Ship…I therefore hoysted out the boate, and next morning, being the 23rd, we weigh’d anchor and warped in nearer the shoare, but to little purpose till in the afternoon we had a Sea breeze by which we gott in within a Cable’s length of the Shoare, then made a Raft to carry men’s chests and bedding ashoare., and before Eight at night most of them were gott ashoare, She struck not before nine aclock at night, and so continued, I ordered some sailes to be cut from the yards to make us some tents, etc, and the next morning being the 24th myself and Officers went ashoare…

(Additional information and details of events significant to the loss of the ship appeared in Dampier’s published account entitled A Voyage to New Holland that appeared a few years later, in 1703:)

…In the Afternoon, with the help of a Sea-breeze, I ran into 7 Fathom, and anchored; Then carried a small Anchor ashore, and warp’d in till I came into 3 Fathom and a half. Where having fastnd her, I made a Raft….

On the 26th following, we, to our great Comfort, found a Spring of fresh water, about 8 Miles from our Tents, beyond a very high Mountain, which we must pass over: So that now we were, by God’s Providence, in a Condition of subsisting some Time; having Plenty of very good Turtle by our Tents….The next Day I went up to see the Watering-place…where we found a very fine Spring on the South-East-side of the high mountain, about half a Mile from its top:…About 2 Mile South-East from the Spring, we found 3 or 4 shrubby Trees, upon which was cut an Anchor and Cable, and the year 1642….

[on 3 April] …appear’d 4 Sail, which came to anchor in this Bay. They were his Majesty’s Ships, the Anglesey, Hastings and Lizard; and the Cantebury East-India Ship. I went on board the Anglesey with about 35 of my Men; and the rest were dispos’d of into the other Men of War.

We sail’d from Ascension, the 8th…

From: William Dampier’s unpublished account of the loss of the “Roebuck.” (Public Record Office, Admiralty 1/5262) Dated 29 September, 1701.