William Dampier – the first and the last

What better way to start a voyage of exploration of ideas and knowledge in Australia than with one of the greatest voyages of discovery of all time.

Dampier was not a trained scientist, he wasn’t even a trained sea-captain, but the notes and observations he made during his unprecedented three circumnavigations of the world, were so scientifically detailed they became the inspiration for voyagers and visionaries, scientists and satirists for centuries.

William Dampier was a buccaneer, who, after a successful career pirating the Spanish Main, the Caribbean and Africa, plundered his way through the East on board a privateer, the Cygnet, finally stumbling on the north coast of Western Australia near a spot generally believed to be near King Sound, in January, 1688. While most of the crew plugged up the holes in the ship, Dampier filled in the time writing notes about his exploits thus far, resulting in his A New Voyage Round the World published in 1697 and Voyages and Descriptions, published in 1699.

No other seafaring journal was to have so profound effect.

Since the 1400s, French, Portugese, Spanish and Dutch sea-farers had been sailing in and out of patches of land in the southern ocean, which gave some grounding to the illusive concept that there was some sort of big land in the south, but in 1699, thanks to Dampier’s journals, the British Admiralty got real about sending someone to find the “Great Southern Continent.”

The Aborigines had known where it was for thousands of years, but like all great treasures they kept it a secret for as long as they could until in 1699, the Admiralty gave William Dampier the Roebuck, a tub about as seaworthy as the Cygnet, and sent him forth on a mission to officially explore the territory of New Holland and assess its suitability for colonisation.

The coastlines of extreme parts of Australia had been sailed by a few Dutch seaman prior to Dampier. Janszoon hit the north coast in 1609, Dirk Hartog made his famous landing at Shark Bay in 1616 and Abel Tasman circumnavigated “Van Dieman’s Land” in 1642. It is very likely that others also sailed these seas, one map by Guillame le Testu looks tantalisingly like the far north coast of Australia, and there is much that has probably not been said, including by those who did not necessarily want their exploits to be made known to the world. Among those was Dampier himself, now identified as probably being the fearsome pirate who captured Spaniard, Alonso Ramirez, in 1687, in whose narrative is to be found some details as to Dampier’s exploits during this time.

However, promoted to captain and given the stamp of respectability by the Admiralty, Dampier put his pirating days behind him, had a moral conversion and turned worthy master of a voyage of exploration. With a motley crew of ex-buccaneers and one trained navy officer on board, Dampier set off on a monumental voyage that was to change the world.

On a cold mid-January morning of 1699, the Roebuck sailed out from Kent on the south coast of Britain, with Captain Dampier, Lt. Fisher, a company of fifty hands and provisions for two years aboard. A few days later, with a slight course correction after the Roebuck nearly ended up near France instead of Plymouth, Dampier and his men sailed out between Cap de la Hague and the rocky shores of Cornwall and set out into the Atlantic. On past Cape Finisterre in Spain, and two weeks after setting out from England, the Roebuck was at Lanzarote in the Canary Islands.

At precisely three thirty on the afternoon of Sunday, the 29th of January, Dampier lay off the island of Tenerife, contemplating a wine stop. Tenerife was famous for its Madeira and the following day, he put in at the gentle port of Santa Cruz. After dining with the Governor and exploring the “pretty” town of Laguna with a local English merchant, Dampier was faced with his first main decision of the voyage. After much consideration, he decided to overlook the highly valued and much traded, sweet, “malmsey” Madeira that was “the best of its kind in the world” and stocked up instead on the “sharper” green Verdona that would keep better in the hot climates he was heading into.

After a brief sojourn in the islands of Cape Verde and Dampier said what he really thought about his fellows from his former life as a pirate –

When I was here before they were said to have had a great many bulls and cows: but the pirates who have since miserably infested all these islands have much lessened the number of those; not having spared the inhabitants themselves: for at my being there this time the governor of Mayo was but newly returned from being a prisoner among them, they having taken him away, and carried him about with them for a year or two.

he then sailed for South America.

Dampier made Bahia de todos los Santos, the “Bay of all the Saints”, on the western tip of South America his base to prepare his run for New Holland. Bahia, or modern day Salvador, was the largest town in Brazil at the time, with two thousand houses, many churches and a harbour that “could receive ships of the greatest burden.” As a trading hub of Africa, Asia and Europe, goods and treasures from everywhere in the known world passed through its markets, shops and street stalls.

By victualling in advance in Bahia, Dampier planned to sail directly to Australia by sailing from the tip of Brazil to the coast of New Holland, without putting in at the Cape of Good Hope in Africa. This would mean crossing the entire Atlantic and Indian Oceans in a single voyage, a concept that would make any sensible mariner balk at any time, and one that made cowards of all the sailors on Dampier’s ship.

Before arriving in Brazil, Dampier had anticipated unease among his men at the prospect of such an unprecedented voyage and he records that there had already been grumblings of desertion or mutiny. For this reason, Dampier said, he had put in at Bahia, where he hoped to enlist the assistance of the local governor should the restlessness break out into an all-out mutiny. Although a Portugese port, Bahia’s governor, Don John de Lancastrio, was sympathetic to the British, even claiming British Lancastrian heritage, and he accommodated Dampier with every courtesy.

Dampier describes how his officers and crew were daunted by the coastal winds, mistaking them for the southerlies which would lengthen their already very long journey from South America to New Holland. Despite their experienced pirate captain’s assurances that these were merely “coasting tradewinds”, sailor’s tales whispered through the streets and tavernas of Bahia like the southerlies themselves, inflamed the fears of his men. This made them remiss in their shipboard duties as they engaged in an unofficial go-slow motion, it seemed to Dampier, in an attempt to delay the voyage until September when the winds would ease. That, and a warning from the Governor that he would probably be stabbed or poisoned by the local clergy, “members of the Inquisition”, Dampier called them, prompted him to order the ship scrubbed, the water casks trimmed and to make sail, leaving the chief would-be mutineer, the naval officer, Fisher, ashore in Bahia.

Fisher for some time had been causing division among the crew which threatened an all-out mutiny, whereupon after the usual punishments for a mutineer, caning and clamping in irons, Dampier left him ashore in Bahia.

With his vast knowledge and experience from his earlier voyages and with his maritime perceptiveness, Dampier set out from the tip of Brazil, sailing past Africa, neither too far north as to be shipwrecked by the treacherous seas off the Cape, nor too far south as to encounter the wild Antarctic weather, and then sailed at not so low a latitude as to miss the westerlies and not too high a latitude as to be blown by them past the coast of Western Australia all the way to Van Diemen’s Land. By avoiding the Cape, Dampier, could make best advantage of the “westerlies” of the southern ocean, the “roaring forties” as we now term them, while avoiding the worst of the seas too close to the coast.

“From my first setting out from England,” Dampier wrote in his journal, “ I did not design to touch at the Cape; and that was one reason why I touched at Brazil, that there I might refresh my men and prepare them for a long run to New Holland.”

However, while he did not put in at the Cape, Dampier “re-fuelled” at sea while passing it, encountering the Antelope, a London ship of the New East India company under the command of Captain Hammond, bearing English settlers for the Bay of Bengal. After dinner aboard the Antelope, and exchanging oatmeal for mutton and vegetables, Dampier and his men, now well-provisioned for their sail, embarked on one of the longest sea-voyages in history. 

With his sail set slightly askew, “2 or 3 points”, from the winds so as to sail slightly into them in such a way that “eases the ship from straining”, Dampier made smooth and fast passage across the Indian Ocean and on 7 August, 1699, he made anchor in New Holland at a spot he named “Shark’s Bay.”

For “about five weeks” and “300 leagues” (about 900 miles), until the 5 September, the Roebuck sailed north along the coast putting in at locations along the Pilbara and Kimberley coasts, recording with invaluable accuracy the flora and fauna, geography and meteorology of the region, before putting in at what is now Roebuck Bay in Broome, his final port of call in Australia, before then turning north for Timor and New Guinea…

…Dampier describes how he collected specimens of flora by drying them, some of which came to be housed in the Oxford Herbarium, which is now their permanent home. Several species of flora recorded by Dampier have been named for him, including acacia, spinifex, wild bush tomato and Sturt’s Desert Pea, named for him as Willdampia formosa. The genus Dampiera was also named for him.

Dampier’s notes also record the first and friendly contact between Britain and the local residents and the first successful defence of Australia from an invasion by a foreign power, when after a brief sojourn ashore, Dampier and a few of his crew were seen off by a small party of locals who expressed their disapproval in the usual manner of show of spears.

After the skirmish, although armed and able to overcome the local residents with ease, Dampier instead willingly retreated and ordered his men back to the ship, “immensely sorry” for damage he had already inflicted and not wanting to cause any further. He had wanted to find out from the locals where they got their water, but now unable to do this, he and his men dug for it. They had no luck finding anything but brackish water to a depth of ten feet and so while Dampier describes the “beauty” of the many birds, fish, turtles, dugongs, sharks, snakes, shellfish, lizards, land mammals, dolphins, “seas stocked with the largest whales that [he] ever saw”, spinifex and many previously unknown species of plants, he also records the coast as being too barren for habitation.

The oranges they had plentifully stocked up on in Bahia had assumedly prevented the company from contracting scurvy in their very long sail across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, but Dampier noted that the first signs of the disease were beginning to break out amongst his men.

With no fresh water, no food and the cyclone season bearing down upon them, Dampier made the decision to leave the northwest coast for Timor, instead of continuing with his exploration of the continent as planned, in the interests of the welfare of his men…

…A week’s sail after leaving St Helena, Dampier put in at Ascension, an uninhabited island which lay precisely half-way between Africa and South America in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

There, on the 22 April, the Roebuck sprung a leak and after frantic battling through the night, the wood so rotted it was impossible to stop the deluge, Dampier opted to “save the men and lose the ship”. He ordered all men ashore and like the Cygnet, the Roebuck also went down taking much of his notes and collection with it.

With water from a freshwater spring, and an abundance of turtles, goats, crabs and birds to live on, Dampier and his men lived in natural rock caves and tents made from the ship’s sails, “shipwrecked” on Ascension, until on the third of April, after flotillas of ships had passed them by, a set of “four sail” put in at the bay. The Anglesey, the Hastings and the Lizard were ships of His Majesty and sailing under their protection was the Canterbury of the East India Line.

Five days later, with the men distributed among the ships, the fleet sailed out of Ascension and a month into the voyage when the men o’ war opted for Barbados, Dampier transferred from the Anglesey to the Canterbury to hasten to England. 

Dampier had now circumnavigated the globe three times, the first man in history ever to do so, and along with his previous feats, he had made one of the longest single voyages in history in his leg from Brazil to Australia, crossing “two oceans” in a single run. Dampier’s intimate knowledge of the winds, currents and seas and his navigational genius had allowed him to cross “118 degrees” as he states, one third of the globe, under sail in only four months, in a run direct from port to destination, in a single voyage. Despite the unknowns involved in making journey along much previously uncharted and very difficult country, Dampier returned his men, mostly healthy and mostly alive, to Britain. This also was unprecedented and remained an unmatched feat for centuries.   

When Dampier arrived back in England in August, however, it was not to a welcome fit for a great explorer, but to a court-martial.

Having arrived back in England well ahead of Dampier, Lieutenant George Fisher, the naval officer Dampier had put ashore in Brazil, had already relayed his treatment to the Admiralty, and on his return to Britain, Dampier was court-martialled and stamped as “not a fit person to be employed as commander of any of His Majesty’s ships.”

Her Majesty however, was of a different mind, and with the backing of the establishment, if not the Admiralty, it was not long before Dampier was again fitted out as a privateer to assist in Britain’s wars against the Spanish and in commercial competition with the Dutch. In 1702, King William III had died and Queen Anne had ascended the throne and with this came the War of the Spanish Succession. Due to his earlier exploits Dampier’s reputation in the south seas was fearsome among the Spanish and barely ten months after his court-martial he was fitted out with Her Majesty’s ship, the St George, and once again sent forth in the service of the Crown.   

In the meantime, Dampier had assembled what was left of his notes into a publishable account of his discoveries and despite the Admiralty’s dim view of his captainship, in 1702, A Voyage to New Holland and in 1709, A Continuation of a Voyage to New Holland, sparked a new fascination and immediately became the record of discovery that re-affirmed Dampier’s place at the forefront of consultation by the leading scientists and explorers of the time and at the dining tables of many a writer, philosopher and lover of tales in Britain. 

Since Marco Polo had travelled to the East, no single individual was to inspire so much in so many and so much that was so important in a very significant few.

Recognised for their novel, objective and intensive detail, Dampier’s by now four volumes captured the imagination of an eighteenth century audience excited by tales of new worlds beyond Land’s End and they became the essential reference for all explorers of the seas.

His detractors invoked his piratical background, alluded to a supposed lack of leadership skills and dismissed his unprecedented voyages as “failures”, a fate assumedly guaranteed by his non-Admiralty trained maritime heritage.

Others however, thought it a miracle of seamanship that Dampier got as far as he did in the already wreck of a ship that was the Roebuck, manned by a very under-trained and mutinous crew, and they immediately grasped the navigational genius in Dampier’s “knowledge of the winds.”

Dampier had sailed some of the longest and most influential journeys in seafaring history, and the records of his voyages provided accurate, detailed and invaluable descriptions of hydrography, meteorology, geography and wildlife previously unrecorded. 

An insatiably curious public could read of dugongs and chopsticks, barbecues, tortillas and cashew nuts. Well-educated scholars could read of new species of plant and animal life around the world and Navy-trained seamen could read of the winds and currents on the seas around the globe in more detail than they had ever been recorded before.

Therefore, while officially Dampier’s reputation as a captain was scuttled by the Admiralty and almost anyone Dampier had disagreements with, unofficially he became one of the most influential seamen, explorers and importantly, scientists, of all time.

At the time of Sir Isaac Newton, barely fifty years since the death of Galileo, only a few years after in the invention of the microscope, the observation of cells by Leeuwenhouk, the publication of Hooke’s Micrographia and a hundred and fifty years before Darwin was to publish On the Origin of Species, Dampier had circumnavigated the globe three times and written the most detailed, accurate and comprehensive records of physical geography, zoology, botany and anthropology that the world had ever known.

Dampier’s notes and diagrams detailing the many species of animals and plants he encountered remain an invaluable record of the wildlife of the time and provided descriptions of much that was “new” for scientists to puzzle over. 

Having become the first to circumnavigate the world three times and in so doing to embrace all the continents, Dampier gained one of the first genuinely global insights into the planet. This was to be pivotal in the thinking of those he influenced. Just as the physical boundaries themselves were reformed, Dampier’s new and global view of the new libraries of knowledge he amassed led to a complete re-working of the perceptions and paradigms that had previously been defined by the former knowledge of the time.

Dampier’s visit to the Galapagos Islands a hundred and fifty years before Darwin’s own voyage in the Beagle, was invaluable to Darwin who considered Dampier’s notes “a goldmine of information”. The accounts by “old Dampier”, as Charles Darwin referred to him, that provided a global perspective of natural history throughout the world, helped Darwin along in developing his theories of natural selection and evolution.  It was partly through Dampier’s notes that Darwin recognised the significance of the independent existence of biologically similar features in species that were geographically separated and therefore reproductively disassociated, the only basis of commonality being their environments. This was pivotal to the eventual development of the theory of evolution and while Dampier’s notes were not the only reason that Darwin or anyone else developed this recognition, they played a large part in contributing to it.

Uniquely also, Dampier’s Voyages and Descriptions contained a discourse of winds, storms, seasons, tides, and currents in the Torrid Zone around the world, a masterpiece of ocean navigation and meteorological science that was to become the unsurpassed authority on winds and ocean currents for two centuries.

Dampier’s textbook of over one hundred pages of detailed observations, consisted not only of his own observations, but within it he collated original contributions by several mariners and observers who had traveled throughout the world in the form of letters and treatises forwarded to Dampier for his use.   

Considered to be of value still today, it was essential reading at the Naval Academy and Admiral Lord Nelson depended on it in his battles against Napoleon. The description of ocean currents and meteorology influenced Alexander von Humboldt and Benjamin Franklin…

…Dampier’s scientific contribution lay not only in his detailed records of his observations. His records, while invaluable in providing the facts, transcended the whats, whens and wheres, and contained original and provocative thoughts as to the whys.

His plotting of the winds and currents across all the seas and oceans of the globe allowed him to observe connections between them and prompted him to consider the significance of these connections. For example, Dampier was one of the first to postulate that mainland Australia was an island.

 “New Holland is a very large tract of land,” Dampier wrote, “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”…

…As W. Clarke Russell stated in 1894, it was not until Cook, sailing a hundred years later, that Dampier’s “guesses” were confirmed. 

…Although Dampier’s account of the physical appearance and feeding habits of the “guinea-hens” of Cape Verde was detailed enough, he opened his description of them by relating their physical features to their flying abilities and to principles of bird flight in general.

They are bigger than our hens, have long legs, and will run apace. They can fly too but not far, having large heavy bodies and but short wings and short tails: as I have generally observed that birds have seldom long tails unless such as fly much; in which their tails are usually serviceable to their turning about as a rudder to a ship or boat. These birds have thick and strong yet sharp bills, pretty long claws, and short tails. They feed on the ground, either on worms, which they find by tearing open the earth; or on grasshoppers, which are plentiful here. The feathers of these birds are speckled with dark and light grey; the spots so regular and uniform that they look more beautiful than many birds that are decked with gayer feathers. Their necks are small and long; their heads also but little. The cocks have a small rising on their crowns, like a sort of a comb. It is of the colour of a dry walnut shell, and very hard. They have a small red gill on each side of their heads, like ears, strutting out downwards; but the hens have none.

His observation of the egg-laying habits of turtles reflected general application to some reptiles.

I have already said that the months of May, June, July and August (that is, the wet season) are the time when the green-turtle come hither and go ashore to lay their eggs. I look upon it as a thing worth taking notice of that the turtle should always, both in north and south latitude, lay their eggs in the wet months. It might be thought, considering what great rains there are then in some places where these creatures lay, that their eggs should be spoiled by them. But the rain, though violent, is soon soaked up by the sand wherein the eggs are buried; and perhaps sinks not so deep into it as the eggs are laid: and keeping down the heat may make the sand hotter below than it was before, like a hot-bed. Whatever the reason may be why Providence determines these creatures to this season of laying their eggs, rather than the dry, in fact it is so, as I have constantly observed; and that not only with the sea-turtle but with all other sorts of amphibious animals that lay eggs; as crocodiles, alligators, iguanas etc.

…Like all great works that found their time Dampier’s work inspired not only explorers and scientists.

Jonathon Swift revered Dampier and based his great satire, Gulliver’s Travels on it, likening Gulliver himself to Dampier, and it was partly through his reverence that Dampier’s brilliance and achievements could be appreciated. Daniel Defoe based Robinson Crusoe on one of Dampier’s shipmates in a later voyage, Alexander Selkirk, who Dampier rescued four years after Selkirk had been willingly marooned on an island off the coast of South America. However, Defoe may have drawn on Dampier’s own experiences in his invocation of Crusoe. During his Voyage Round the New World, Dampier himself had been marooned on the islands of Nicobar and had taken a native, Joely, back to England with him. Dampier’s aim had been to restore the “painted prince” back to the islands from which he had been abducted and sold into slavery before he rescued him, but Joely died in Oxford in 1702.

Coleridge owed some to Dampier in his Ryme of the Ancient Mariner and in 1698 the writer and diarist John Evelyn could note that he had dined with Captain Dampier at the table of fellow diarist, Samuel Pepys.

“I dined with Mr. Pepys, where was Captain Dampier, who had been a famous buccaneer, had brought hither the painted prince Job, and printed a relation of his very strange adventure, and his observations. 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 assorted with. He brought a map of his observations of the course of the winds in the South Seas, and assured us that the maps hitherto extant were all false as to the Pacific Sea, which he makes on the south of the line, that on the north end running by the coast of Peru being extremely tempestuous.”

…At the time anyone who could put a bathtub and a couple of oars together and make it past the heads of the local brook was writing a journal of their ‘adventures on the high seas’, but Dampier’s unique interest was in the science, to which he devoted himself with unaffected purity.

Dampier often refers to the commercial and military value of his discoveries and accounts, but he unashamedly declared that the true value of his observations lay in his science and in the most essential quality of all scientific endeavours – accuracy.

It has been objected against me by some that my accounts and descriptions of things are dry and jejune, not filled with variety of pleasant matter to divert and gratify the curious reader. How far this is true I must leave to the world to judge. But if I have been exactly and strictly careful to give only true relations and descriptions of things (as I am sure I have) and if my descriptions be such as may be of use not only to myself (which I have already in good measure experienced) but also to others in future voyages; and likewise to such readers at home as are more desirous of a plain and just account of the true nature and state of the things described than of a polite and rhetorical narrative: I hope all the defects in my style will meet with an easy and ready pardon.

…The last in the eyes of the Admiralty, Dampier was the first in the eyes of almost everyone else. From the Crown to foremost scientists, explorers, mariners and Admirals, writers, philosophers and anyone who merely wanted to learn of lands beyond the familiar pastures of home, his achievements were recognised, and if he himself was not awarded and celebrated as he should, his work helped carry the living thread of advancement in ideas and achievements and led ultimately to his greatest achievement, his contribution to the founding of Australia.

While Dampier might not have been the last word on the ideas and events he was to inspire, it was many of his first words that led to ideas that were to become the last word in their field. 

It was Dampier himself who defined his position. While apologising for his lack of formal scientific education and rank in scientific society, he was not shy in recognising the significance of introducing to more learned men that which may be new “even” to them, considering it his duty to provide the short and humble shoulders upon which giants could stand by which to look further. 

It has almost always been the fate of those who have made new discoveries to be disesteemed and slightly spoken of by such as either have had no true relish and value for the things themselves that are discovered, or have had some prejudice against the persons by whom the discoveries were made. It would be vain therefore and unreasonable in me to expect to escape the censure of all, or to hope for better treatment than far worthier persons have met with before me. But this satisfaction I am sure of having, that the things themselves in the discovery of which I have been employed are most worthy of our diligentest search and inquiry; being the various and wonderful works of God in different parts of the world: and however unfit a person I may be in other respects to have undertaken this task, yet at least I have given a faithful account, and have found some things undiscovered by any before, and which may at least be some assistance and direction to better qualified persons who shall come after me.

To his detractors Dampier had mainly to say that they were “good talkers” and to certain critics he responded 

I know there are some who are apt to slight my accounts and descriptions of things as if it was an easy matter and of little or no difficulty to do all that I have done, to visit little more than the coasts of unknown countries, and make short and imperfect observations of things only near the shore. But whoever is experienced in these matters, or considers things impartially, will be of a very different opinion. And anyone who is sensible how backward and refractory the seamen are apt to be in long voyages when they know not whither they are going, how ignorant they are of the nature of the winds and the shifting seasons of the monsoons, and how little even the officers themselves generally are skilled in the variation of the needle and the use of the azimuth compass; besides the hazard of all outward accidents in strange and unknown seas: anyone, I say, who is sensible of these difficulties will be much more pleased at the discoveries and observations I have been able to make than displeased with me that I did not make more.

…And so it was that with only a grammar school education, Dampier introduced no less than a thousand words into the English language, inspired the literature and philosophy of the time and sparked the pivotal ideas that drove scientific exploration into the next century. The man who did not fit into any recognised category of position or easily described social paradigm, inspired commentary on civilisation itself, his voyages themselves becoming the vessel through which the philosophies and conventions of the age could be explored, satirised, dissected and rethought. But perhaps the best testament to Dampier’s achievements is that the explorations of discovery by the half-hearted pirate turned scientific adventurer were to become the mainstay of all sea-going exploration for the next two hundred years. It was following Dampier’s original publication in 1697, that nearly all sea-faring journals then included, to varying levels of detail, scientific observations, including on geography and biology. As a true scientist, Dampier grasped the desiderata of science – accuracy, communication and co-operation. Dampier recognised the need to share his scientific observations with the world and on occasions when he was “forced to swim” as he described it, he preserved his notes in a bamboo rod which he waterproofed by stoppering the ends with wax. Modestly, having no talent for drawing, he enlisted the skills of an artist and to ensure a truly comprehensive assay of the knowledge of the time, he included in his discourse on the winds all the reliable observations of his few fellow explorers he could get hold of.

With his intimate knowledge of the seas, Dampier charted the voyages to come and his accounts persuaded the Royal Society to send another great explorer of the south seas, James Cook, who wasn’t a pirate, to take up where Dampier left off and make further scientific expeditions to the south seas, with Cook finally making landfall on the east coast of Australia in 1770…