By Manushag N. Powell, Purdue University
In early modern England, the Venn diagram overlap between pirates and circumnavigators was basically a circle. Francis Drake’s anti-Spanish expedition (1577-1580) turned into the second successful circumnavigation. And the first, in which the captain survived the entire voyage. Nearly a century later, William Dampier, a buccaneer among other things, completed three circumnavigations and wrote a bestseller about the first one, A New Voyage Round the World, in 1697.
Circumnavigation: A Popular Topic
William Dampier’s third circumnavigation happened alongside the privateer, and later pirate hunter, Woodes Rogers, who sailed toward the Pacific in 1708 with Dampier as his sailing master.
Notably, not until the 1740s would England have a circumnavigator from the Royal Navy side of the law. George Anson’s circumnavigation compared to Francis Drake’s, by the popular media at home, also resulted in a best-selling account, A Voyage Round the World, in 1748. English people, as a group, really enjoyed reading about circumnavigations.
Dampier’s Keen Interest in Nature
Dampier’s account, like that of William Hughes, an amateur naturalist, is rich with fascinating natural and botanical details. He was a dedicated journalist, a talented navigator, and a man with a great deal of curiosity. A New Voyage Round the World contains the first instance in printed English of the word avocado, as well as early detailed descriptions of the banana, breadfruit, and iguana, not to mention the machete knife and the Miskito Indians.
He wrote, ‘Always bear arms amongst the privateers, and are much valued by them for striking fish and turtle or tortoise.’
A Love for Plantain
Dampier particularly loved the plantain. He wrote this about the plantain, ‘I take to be the king of all fruit, not except the cocoa itself.’ He detailed extensively how different indigenous populations grew, used, and consumed the plantain and banana.
Dampier wrote, ‘The Darien Indians preserve them a long time by drying them gently over the fire, mashing them first, and molding them into lumps. The Miskito Indians will take a ripe plantain and roast it, then take a pint and a half of water in a calabash and squeeze the plantain in pieces with their hands. Mixing it with the water, then they drink it all off together. This they call Mishlaw, and it’s pleasant and sweet, and nourishing. Somewhat like lamb’s-wool, as it is called made with apples and ale.’
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Real History of Pirates. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
In general, Dampier’s account shows a strong dependence upon, and sometimes exploitation of, the indigenous peoples and their irreplaceable knowledge of the local landscape shores and how to use their environments to find food.
He also describes his travels through the South Pacific. What he’s able to witness of Chinese customs, and of the people living in Australia.
Notably, given the common prejudices of his day, he categorically denies encountering cannibals anywhere in the world.
Although Walter Raleigh had insisted that cannibals were real. On the contrary, argued Dampier, ‘All nations or families in the world have some sort of food to live on. What scarce kill a man purposely to eat him?’
Dampier Met Other Circumnavigators
As the connection between Dampier and Rogers suggests, even among pirate circumnavigators, it was a small world. Dampier’s somewhat checkered career intersected with that of many of the famous names of his time. He spent time with the log wood cutters of Mexico, and then among the raiding buccaneers.
He followed Bartholomew Sharp and his allies when they attacked Portobelo. Then in 1686, he followed Captain Swan of the Cygnet on a raiding voyage that would allow him to see so far into the Pacific that it became the first English ship to land on Australia.
He brought home to display in England, Prince Jeoly, a captive from Miangas, in what is now Indonesia. Dampier lost his source of income after he died. His career then intersected with Henry Every’s, the most famous of the Red Sea men.
Dampier was the second mate of one of the privateering ships that ended up trapped in Coruña, when Every mutinied and launched his own career. Dampier did not sail with Every, but was accused of having aided the mutineers.
The appearance of his new book, The New Voyage, the fruit of his years of careful journals, seems to have saved his reputation, actually making him a minor celebrity.
William Dampier: A Talented Gentleman?
Dampier was given the command of a new circumnavigating project. This one, a novelty among such British voyages, intended overtly for exploration and investigation, but not attacking the Spanish people.
Dampier, though, would prove to have talents that lay in many directions other than command. He was court-martialled for severely beating his lieutenant. But since, he did not quite murder the man, he returned to privateering.
There was a concerted attempt in the 19th and early 20th centuries to remake Dampier into a scientific gentleman. Dampier was, make no mistake, a rough and tumble buccaneer in his younger days, and in some of his older days as well.
To capitalize on his piratical appeal, Dover Maritime has taken it upon themselves to re-title his travel work, Memoirs of a Buccaneer.
Profoundly Influential Work
It was evident that Dampier clearly had real abilities beyond looting. The New Voyage was a profoundly influential work, not for accounts of piracy, but of travel. Jonathan Swift’s Captain Gulliver claimed to be a cousin of Dampier. Daniel Defoe borrowed from The New Voyage extensively, and William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge used it as well.
Coleridge called him “a rough sailor, but a man of exquisite mind”. Dampier’s work was also read by sailors for his navigational acuity, and handy references regarding what was safe to eat.
Common Questions about William Dampier
William Dampier completed three circumnavigations and wrote a bestseller about the first one, A New Voyage Round the World, in 1697.
William Dampier’s account shows a strong dependence upon, and sometimes exploitation of, the indigenous peoples and their irreplaceable knowledge of the local landscape shores and how to use their environments to find food.
Given the common prejudices of his day, William Dampier categorically denied encountering cannibals anywhere in the world.