Pirate, privateer, naval officer, explorer, naturalist, and (most importantly) author
William Dampier (1651-1715) was many things during his nearly 64 years. Born to a tenant farmer family in Somerset, England, he went to sea at an early age and joined the Royal Navy in 1673, a service cut short by illness. After several years of minimal success as a merchant in Jamaica, he joined a pirate ship that engaged in attacks along the Spanish Main and the coast of Peru. In 1683, he joined the privateer John Cooke on a voyage (actually a series of voyages) that took him to the Pacific, China, New Holland (Australia), India, and eventually back to England, arriving in 1691. During his two months on the northwest coast of New Holland, he took copious notes on the indigenous peoples, as well as the animals and plants. Even though he returned penniless, he had retained his notebooks, which he published in 1697 as “A New Voyage Round the World”. The book was an immediate success and received acclaim from the Royal Society, but downplayed his role in plundering vessels. Suitably impressed, the Admiralty offered him command of an expedition to New Holland (also referred to as Terra Australis). He expected a flotilla of warships, but what he got was the aged fifth-rate warship Roebuck and a crew of 50. It was the Admiralty’s first expedition devoted solely to science and exploration. The expedition, which departed in 1699, conducted a thorough examination of the west coast of Australia from north of present-day Perth to what is now called the Dampier Peninsula. From there, he sailed to Timor and around New Guinea, discovering (from the European perspective) and claiming New Britain. The poor condition of Roebuck prevented examination of the east coast of Australia and the expedition was forced to sail back toward England. The worn-eaten hull could take no more and the ship was intentionally grounded and abandoned on Ascension Island. The crew, along with Dampier’s notes and charts, were rescued by a passing East Indiaman and Dampier arrived back in London in 1701. His account of the voyage, published as “A Voyage to New Holland” was another critical and commercial success and it included his detailed records of winds and currents, which continued to be of value into the twentieth century. The Admiralty was less impressed, though, with his management of the Roebuck and its crew. Dampier was court-martialed and found guilty of cruelty against the ship’s lieutenant. He was sentenced to forfeit his pay for the entire voyage and deemed unfit to command any of His Majesty’s ships. By that time, the War of the Spanish Succession (known in North America as Queen Anne’s War) had commenced. Dampier was selected to command the 26-gun privateer St. George, with a crew of 120. He captured a number of small Spanish ships off Peru and attempted to raid the Panamanian town of Santa Maria, but was driven off. He was also unsuccessful in attacking the Manila galleon. With the worm-eaten St. George about to sink, he and the remaining crew transferred to a captured Spanish prize and eventually arrived in Dutch-controlled Batavia where he was temporarily imprisoned for piracy. Dampier arrived back in England in 1707, completing his second circumnavigation. In 1708, he signed on as sailing master of the privateer Duke, under the command of Woodes Rogers. This voyage succeeded in capturing the Manila galleon Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación y Desengaño off the west coast of Mexico in 1709, a prize worth over £140,000 (about $30 million today). From there, Duke sailed across the Pacific, around the Cape of Good Hope, and arrived in London in 1711, completing Dampier’s third circumnavigation. William Dampier died in London in 1715, never receiving his share of the bounty. His legacy of scientific expeditions and popular travel writings endures.