One of the most important explorers of the 17th century, a swashbuckling naturalist whose influence on navigation, science and literature was incredibly far reaching and profound.
Born in East Coker, Somerset, he travelled to London, became unsettled, and left in 1674 to work on a Jamaican plantation, for a life little better than slavery. He ran away to become a log wooder (felling precious timber that produced a red dye) alongside some of Morgan’s former pirates and buccaneers. Here he became a buccaneer himself.
Buccaneers originated in the Caribbean, firstly on Hispaniola and then Tortuga. The term buccaneer derives from the French “boucanier” meaning people who smoked or cured strips of meat on a frame of green stick called “boucan,” over a slow fire fed by animal bones and strips of hide. These were sold in bundles of 100 strips for 6 pieces of eight. They were ideal for long voyages, keeping for weeks, softened in salt water to make them edible.
By 1678 he was back in England, where he married, but within a few months he told his wife he was off on a short trading trip to Jamaica. It turned into an epic 12 year journey around the world that made him famous. Instead of rejoining the log wooders he sold his goods, bought a small estate in Dorset ,sent the deeds home to his wife and then set sail from Port Royal to trade with the Moskito Indians. It was on this trip that Dampier joined a buccaneer fleet under two more ex-Morgan men (Bartholomew Sharp and John Coxon) and attacked Spanish held Portobello, Dampier receiving 100 pieces of eight for his part.
After many escapades, including raiding Panama and crossing the Isthmus twice, he tried to settle in Virginia before going on a piratical voyage with Captain John Cook. They crossed to the coast of West Africa and captured a Danish slaving vessel “lovely ship, very fit for a long voyage”, she was also carrying 60 female African slaves and was renamed “The Bachelors Delight”.
Against Dampier’s wishes they rounded Cape Horn to enter the South Seas. Dampier visited Juan Fernandez island for the second time and they rescued a Moskito castaway who had been there for three years. They resumed their quest for plunder up and down the Pacific coast with hardly any success and, in frustration, Dampier took a berth on the “Cygnet” belonging to Captain Swan. In order to escape the Spanish, Swan took his ship across the perilous Pacific to try and find safety and other prizes.
In the Philippines, Swan and 40 of his crew mates were abandoned after a quarrel and the Cygnet sailed on trying to trade or plunder. They ended up discovering new lands, eg Australia, and struggled to make ends meet. Dampier managed to escape and after many more adventures finally got home with his slave, Jeoly – the Painted Prince – a man tattooed all over except for his face and hands.
He landed in London in 1691, had an awkward reunion with his wife and lost the services of Jeoly to some “rooks”. Jeoly’s new masters exhibited him in freak shows until his death in Oxford a year later of smallpox. Dampier had promised him his freedom.
In 1697 after many fruitless endeavours, Dampier finally managed to get the manuscript he had worked on for so long published, and “A New Voyage Round the World” shot him from obscurity to celebrity in an instant.
All sorts of people were now interested in Dampier, not least the fledgling Royal Society who had among their leading lights such people as Robert Hooke, Hans Sloane and Edmund Halley. This led to an invitation for Dampier to address the Society, where he shared his knowledge of winds, seas, tides and currents to great acclaim.
Official recognition of his contributions came in 1699 when he was given the command of a Royal Navy ship, the Roebuck, to explore Australia and the East Indies. Dampier was a poor leader of men, however, and the transition from buccaneer to naval captain led to his court martial in 1702 on the charge of brutality.
Successfully navigating the Roebuck all the way to Shark Bay in Australia, Dampier was within an ace of finding the elusive eastern seaboard. However, his ship was in terrible condition, and on his homeward voyage, rotten and worm eaten, it finally sank off Ascension Island in February 1701 – Dampier and his crew were rescued by the Canterbury, and he was home by August.
During the court martial, Dampier thought he was going to end up like Captain Kidd, whose tarred body was still hanging from a gibbet nearby in Execution Dock. He was finally fined three years wages and declared “not a fit person” to command a naval vessel, although this didn’t stop him publishing a new book “A Voyage to New Holland “(Australia) in early 1703. Within a few months Dampier’s powerful friends had enabled him to get another possibly lucrative privateering command against the Spanish, backed by a consortium led by Bristol merchant, Thomas Estcourt. The mission was to seize the Spanish Atlantic Treasure Fleet and, if that failed, to round the Horn into the Pacific and attack the Manila Galleon.
Dampier commanded the St George and Charles Pickering the Cinque Ports galley and they set sail in autumn 1703. After a quarrelsome start several crew deserted at the Cape Verde islands, Pickering died and his young first lieutenant, Thomas Straddling, took command with a cantankerous seaman from Fife, Alexander Selkirk, appointed quartermaster. Seeming to forget about the Atlantic Fleet, they headed for the Pacific and rendezvoused on Juan Fernandez Island in February 1704.
The ensuing “harassment of the enemy” turned into farce. Whilst attacking a French ship Dampier hid behind a mattress and later, when they captured a Spanish prize, let her go away without a thorough search. Both crews were unhappy and, against owners orders, split up some of their spoils and went their separate ways.
The leaking Cinque Ports went back to Juan Fernandez and Straddling fell out with Selkirk, this time leaving him behind. Selkirk’s fears about the ship’s safety were proved accurate, though, as she sank soon afterwards leaving only eight survivors (including Stradling).
After more mutinous and desperate encounters, Dampier and his remaining crew, just 27 by the end, left the worm-eaten ship St George and transferred to a captured Spanish brigantine. He once again crossed the Pacific and limped home after being away 3 years.
Apart from his navigational skills, his reputation was in tatters but, despite this, he then managed to persuade several prominent Bristol merchants (who were also members of Bristol Corporation) to back another attempt on a Treasure Ship. This time under the command of Captain Woodes Rogers, they set sail from Bristol on 15th June 1708, in two Bristol built ships the Duke and the Dutchess.
Even though the voyage was immensely successful, on Dampier’s return in 1712 he was embroiled in litigation for his failures on the previous voyage. Diseased and weak in body, he died owing £2,000 in 1715, the most influential buccaneer ever.