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The Restless Life of William Dampier – Buccaneer, Explorer, Naturalist and Author



William Dampier was born near Yeovil in Somerset in 1651. Orphaned as a boy, he was apprenticed to a ship’s captain at 18 and sailed with him to the Newfoundland fisheries. This was Dampier’s first taste of the sea that would dominate the rest of his life. On his return, he joined the crew of an East Indiaman as a sailor, and voyaged to Java in the East Indies. In the tropics he was amazed by the sheer variety of wildlife, awakening another of the ruling passions of his life. When he returned home, he found that England was at war with the Dutch. He immediately joined the Royal Navy and served on board the Royal Prince in several battles until the war ended in 1674. Still only twenty-three, the young William Dampier had now been exposed to all the elements that would rule the rest of his life – exploring the sea, love of nature and the violence of war. He would go on to become the first person to circumnavigate the world three times in his restless pursuit of them.

 

It was his love for the tropics that took him to the Caribbean next, where he briefly worked on a sugar plantation in Jamaica, before becoming a logwood cutter in the Bay of Campeche in Mexico. It was probably the teeming wildlife in the forests that drew him to the area, but Campeche was also something of a nursery for English buccaneers at the time. As an experienced sailor with military experience, Dampier was soon drawn into this violent world which would dominate the next two decades of his life. Moving from one ship to another, he fought and pillaged his way around the world in a series of astonishing adventures. He attacked the city of Panama; used a captured Spanish warship to ravage the coast of Peru; sailed to China, Vietnam and briefly visited Western Australia; joined up with a band of Malay pirates; was marooned on an island in the Indian Ocean; traded opium in Sumatra; briefly served as a gunner in a fort in India, and eventually worked his passage back to England in a returning East Indiaman, thus completing his first circumnavigation at the age of forty.

 

Throughout all his adventures, Dampier had kept a meticulous journal of all he had seen and done, and he set about turning it into a book. Published in 1697, A New Voyage Around the World caused a sensation. Despite all the piratical violence and debauchery, it is a book of great charm. Disarmingly honest, it also records the plants and wildlife Dampier studied; the winds and tides he encountered; and the people whose lives he shared. His readers were introduced to a wider world that was almost beyond their imagination. For example, Dampier was the first person to record in English that the Chinese eat with chopsticks, or that a delicious fruit called an avocado grows in Mexico. His book would go on to inspire many others, including Jonathan Swift to write Gulliver's Travels.

 

The huge success of A New Voyage Around the World brought Dampier to the attention of the Admiralty. In 1697 he was appointed as Captain of the Roebuck, a 26-gun warship, and was sent on a voyage of discovery to New Holland – the name for the portion of Australia that had then been discovered. Although Dampier successfully completed the scientific aspects of the expedition, making a careful survey of much of Australia’s west coast and recording plenty of the flora and fauna he encountered, the decision to appoint a hard drinking, former buccaneer to command a Royal Navy ship proved unfortunate. Having fallen out with most of his officers, his crew mutinied against his attempts to use piratical levels of discipline on them. The mutiny was suppressed, and the Roebuck headed for home. She foundered off Ascension Island in the Atlantic, marooning Dampier with his crew for 5 weeks. They eventually managed to attract the attention of a passing East Indiaman which picked them up and took them back to England. This voyage ended with Dampier facing a court martial for his tyrannical behaviour on board the Roebuck. He was found guilty, fined his entire wages for the voyage, and banned from ever commanding another Royal Navy ship. On the plus side, he returned with enough material for another best-selling book, A Voyage to New Holland.

 

In 1703, following the outbreak of the war of Spanish Succession, Dampier heard of a privateering expedition being put together to attack Spanish possessions in the Pacific. The squadron consisted of the 26-gun St George and the 16-gun Cinque Ports. Despite his well-established failings as a commander; his knowledge of both privateering and the Pacific was sufficient to persuade the expedition’s funders to make him captain of the St George and put him in charge of the whole expedition. It was an unfortunate decision.

 

Dampier’s autocratic ways, and his bouts of drunkenness and brutality, quickly alienated his officers and crew. His behaviour might have been tolerated if Dampier had been a better privateer captain, but he constantly displayed indecision during the mostly unsuccessful attacks made on enemy ships. As a result, he was abandoned by the Cinque Ports, whose captain decided his ship would be more successful hunting alone. Then the crew of the St. George mutinied against him, the majority abandoning him for a Spanish ship they had recently captured. Dampier was left with only twenty-seven loyal men, which was too few to sail the St George.  He abandoning his command for a smaller captured Spanish ship and brought them home via the East Indies and Cape of Good Hope, arriving in England in 1707. This completed his second circumnavigation.

 

After a year, the restless Dampier was ready for another voyage. Given the history, there was no question of employing him in command; but he was probably the world’s most well-travelled sailor at the time, with an enviable track record as an explorer. It was in this capacity that he found employment as navigator to Captain Woodes Rogers expedition to the Pacific. This privateering voyage was an unqualified success, returning after three years with £148K (about £25 million today) in plundered goods, much of it from the capture of a Spanish galleon in 1709. But it is best remembered for rescuing the Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk who had been abandoned alone on Juan Fernandez Island by the Cinque Ports four years earlier when he fell out with her captain. Selkirk’s adventures were the inspiration behind Daniel Defoe's fictional character Robinson Crusoe.

 

On his navigator’s advice, Rogers returned home via the Cape of Good Hope. So it was that Dampier, now in his early 60s, became the first man in history to circumnavigate the world three times. But this would be his last voyage. Worn down by all his adventures, he died shortly afterwards. He must have married at some stage in his busy life, since he left his estate to a spouse, Judith Dampier, but little is known about her, or if they had any children.




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Captain Alexander Clay and the crew of the Griffin return from India after almost two years away, impatient to see loved ones at home, but fate has other ideas. In the middle of the Atlantic they cross paths with a huge Franco-Spanish fleet on its way to the Caribbean, and find themselves drawn into one of the greatest naval campaigns in history.


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