Chronicler, pirate, scientific observer

William Dampier was an English buccaneer, sea captain, chronicler (he kept a detailed journal of his travels), and scientific observer in the 17th century. Considered by his contemporaries to be an erudite sea tactician and well-read writer — a Renaissance man of the high seas — Dampier’s early career, however, involved piracy; the 28-year-old was a product of nationalist sentiment. England had defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, but Spain was left relatively untouched in her Pacific colonies to exploit the resources that continued to fuel the Spanish Crown.

That would soon change. Along with the infamous buccaneers — known as the Brethren of the Coast, as they called themselves — Dampier wreaked havoc among the Spanish when he first crossed the Isthmus of Panama in 1680, raiding their settlements along the West Coast of South America. After these initial New World successes, Dampier would continually haunt the Spanish until the early 18th century with intermittent attacks upon the lucrative Carrera de Acapulco between New Spain (Mexico) and the Philippines. Aside from piracy, history recalls Dampier as establishing precedent: He was the first European to explore and map parts of New Holland (Australia) and New Guinea; and, he was the first person to circumnavigate the world three times. His first round-the-world voyage took 10 years, beginning in 1681.

While traveling across the Pacific from the New World — some 7,323 miles — Dampier’s skill as a navigator aboard the British Cygnet, captained by Charles Swan, brought the ship and the crew to Guam after a swift 51-day run; food rations were low and the crew allegedly was ready to consume the officers. This was the first of two trips to Guam, at the time a Spanish-occupied seaport where on both occasions they were surprisingly well received, probably because the governor of the island wanted them off the island before the next Manila Galleon was ready to anchor and offload supplies.

A Spanish priest made the mistake of boarding the ship when he heard Spanish being spoken and was seized but kindly kept on the ship for the duration of the Cygnet‘s stay. Governor Joseph de Quiroga had no other option but to accommodate Swan’s desire for supplies despite the scant resources on Guam at the time. The governor did, however, send out a boat to intercept a Spanish galleon arriving at Guam to inform them about the presence of the buccaneers. The galleon hastily sailed out to sea where it stayed following three days of struggling to free itself from a shoal. Dampier was particularly fascinated with breadfruit and with the swift proas of the CHamorus.

Dampier wrote:

The Natives are very ingenious beyond any People, in making Boats, or Proes, as they are called. . . I do believe, they sail the best of any Boats in the World.

Swan became aware of the hidden galleon just before his departure for Manila but against the urgings of his crew and to the great relief of Governor Quiroga, Swan decided not to go after and plunder the galleon. Before he was released, the captive priest was given an astrolabe (an instrument of this era, used to make astronomical measurements, typically of the altitudes of celestial bodies, and in navigation for calculating latitude, before the development of the sextant) and a large telescope as gifts.

On one of his most notable voyages, Dampier documented his adventures in A New Voyage Around the World. Published in 1697, its content is best described by its subtitle: Describing the World, Describing particularly, the Isthmus of America, Several Coasts and Islands in the West Indies. . .The South Sea Coasts of Chili, Peru, and Mexico.

In 1699, shortly after the first volume of his voyages received critical acclaim, he was sent on a voyage of discovery to New Holland in command of the HMS Roebuck with a commission as captain in the British Royal Navy. This led to the printing of Voyage to New Holland in the Year 1699, which was added as a supplement to or, in most cases, bound with A New Voyage Around the World. He once again returned to Australia with another expedition exploring the South Coast of New Guinea and discovered New Britain and Dampier Strait before completing the second circumnavigation of the globe in 1701.

In 1708-1711, Dampier sailed with Woodes Rogers (a British privateer) as navigator on circumnavigation and privateer missions. On 11 March 1710, (some accounts state March 1), their four ships made their way to Guam after a 6,000-mile transpacific voyage. Anchored at Humåtak, Rogers’ force of four ships included 200 battle-hardened crewmen and numerous guns that outnumbered the Spanish garrison and overwhelmed its governor, Juan Antonio Pimentel. Rogers was too ill to go ashore, but his officers were able to obtain 60 pigs, 99 fowl, 24 baskets of maize (corn), 44 yams, 14 bags of rice, and 800 coconuts before leaving 10 days later.

Dampier was an astute navigator and an able pirate, but it was his seven published works that influenced countless generations of people more famous than himself. His observations and analysis of natural history helped Charles Darwin and Alexander von Humboldt develop their theories. He made innovations in navigational technology that were studied by captains James Cook and Horatio Nelson. His reports on breadfruit led to William Bligh’s collection of Tahitian breadfruit, as well as his ill-fated voyage aboard the HMS Bounty.

Dampier’s crew member, Alexander Selkirk, inspired author Daniel Defoe who wrote Robinson Crusoe, 1719, which was based on the real-life accounts of Selkirk who abandoned Dampier’s ship on the uninhabited archipelago of Juan Fernández 400 miles from the coast of Chile.

By Bruce L. Campbell, MA and Nicholas J. Goetzfridt, PhD

For further reading

Bonner, Willard Hallam. Captain William Dampier: Buccaneer-Author. Redwood City: Stanford University Press, 1934.

Funnell, William. A Voyage Round the World Containing an Account of Captain Dampier’s Expedition into the South-Seas in the Ship St. George, in the Years 1703 and 1704. London: W. Botham, 1707.

Gill, Anton. The Devil’s Mariner: A Life William Dampier, Pirate and Explorer, 1651-1715. London: Michael Joseph, 1997.

Lloyd, Christopher. William Dampier. Hamden: Archon Books, 1966.

Norris, Gerald, ed. William Dampier: Buccaneer Explorer. London: The Folio Society, 1994.

Russell, William Clark. William Dampier. London: MacMillan & Company, 1889.

Wilkinson, Clennell. Dampier: Explorer and Buccaneer. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1929.