William Dampier led a life of controversy. He spent many years travelling the world with buccaneering parties, and was involved in looting, violence and general piracy. He published journals recording his travels, mixing tales of pillage and arson with exceptionally detailed accounts of wildlife, geography and navigation. Despite his known piracy when at home he was much in demand by polite English society and he was a popular figure invited to many high brow functions. Although his name struck fear into the Spanish many of his shipmates and associates seem to have had a low opinion of Dampier, and the way in which he managed his expeditions.
Dampier was born the son of a Somerset Farmer in 1652. He went to sea at 17 working as a deck hand on a merchant ship bound for Newfoundland. Having acquired a taste for the nautical life he joined the Royal Navy in 1673. England was then at war with the Dutch and as a seaman on board the Royal Prince he had his first taste of combat in the two battles of the Schooneveld. Illness forced him to leave the navy, and whilst recovering at home he was offered the chance to manage a plantation in Jamaica for a neighbour of the family.
Dampier worked as a seaman to get a passage to Jamaica and left London in 1674. After a year on the plantation he travelled to the Bayia de Campeche in the Gulf of Mexico and worked as a logger for a year. Having soon had enough of this hard work he returned to England and got married. His history in the following years shows him not to have been the most dutiful of husbands!
He was soon travelling again and from 1679-1681 was a member of the crew of the buccaneer Captain Bartholomew Sharp. At this time England was at peace with Spain, this didn’t stop the buccaneers capturing and destroying 25 Spanish ships, and plundering towns along the coast of South America including Portobello. One of the captured ships was the San Pedro taken off the coast of Chile laden with wine, gunpowder and 37,000 pieces of eight, these were distributed amongst the crew at 245 per man. The Spanish were outraged with the conduct of the pirates, and assumed that they would be brought to justice on their return. They were disappointed though, the pirates had managed to loot a book of sea charts and plans of the South Seas, and these were of such strategic importance that when presented to King Charles II they received a free pardon instead!
In 1683 Dampier joined another buccaneering expedition lead by Captain John Cook. They sailed from Virginia to the Guinea Coast of Africa, back to South America around Cape Horn to Chile and then on to the Galapagos Islands. After 2 years he returned to Panama and joined Captain Swan who sailed to the East Indies, among the Philippines explored the coast of China and then Australia where they careened. In his journal of the voyage he records eating many different creatures, and includes a recipe for Flamingo’s tongue, which he considered a great delicacy!
In the early 1700’s Dampier travelled to NW Australia as the commander of HMS Roebuck. Poor relations with his crew marred this trip, as did his abusive and violent treatment of his first lieutenant, finally the ship sprung a leak on the way home and sank. On his return Dampier was court-martialled and declared unfit to command a ship.
Despite these problems his wealth of experience of two circumnavigations made him much in demand as a pilot. He was commissioned to lead an expedition of 2 ships the St George and the Cinque Ports and left England for the South Seas in 1703. From the start he fell foul of the trip’s backers spending considerable time and money refitting in Ireland. Agents alarmed the backers by reporting back that he was spending money in a reckless manner! Before long the crew became disillusioned with the expedition, which they felt lacked clear objectives. Dampier had allowed a number of captured Spanish ships to go free, presumably accepting a ransom himself rather than sharing the loot with the crew. He was also accused of cowardice in an action against a French ship, remaining well out of the way of any fighting, and ordering the ship to clear out when the fight was nearly over! Not long after this the two ships were separated, Dampier continued the voyage on board the St George.
Meanwhile travelling on the Cinque Ports was Alexander Selkirk, he fell out with his captain and was marooned on the deserted Island of Juan Fernandes 350 miles west of the coast of South America. He was alone on the island from 1704 until 1709 with only the wild goats, rats and feral cats for company!
On Dampier’s return the backers of the voyage began to ask many awkward questions about the damage to both ships, and the lack of returns in the form of booty. However he quickly left on a further privateering party lead by Captain Woodes Rogers. On this trip Juan Fernandes was revisited and Selkirk was rescued, his story inspiring Daniel Defoe’s tale “Robinson Crusoe”.
Meanwhile Elizabeth Crosswell the sister of one of the original backers funded an investigation into Dampier’s command of the original voyage. On his return Selkirk gave evidence, as did many of the original crewmembers. The evidence told a tale of mismanagement, incompetence, cowardice and greed (many of the profits finding their way into Dampier’s pockets), furthermore it was alleged that Dampier’s failure to sheath the ships lead to their virtual destruction by the rampant Toredo worm that was very active in warm oceans. The evidence was never presented in court, and Dampier died not long after at 63.
All in all Dampier lead a controversial life. Despite all this his journals remain a wealth of information about the life of buccaneers, and particularly the difficulties of navigation at that time. His 2 published journals include:- “A New Voyage around the World” (1697), and “Voyage to New Holland” (1709).
Sources:Cordingly, David “Life among the Pirates” 1995.
Exquemelin. A.O. “The Buccaneers of America” 1923.
Souhami, Diana. “Selkirk’s Island” 2001. x