Captain Willian Dampier, A Strange Pirate



William Dampier led a life of controversy. He spent many yearstravelling the world with buccaneering parties, and was involved inlooting, violence and general piracy. He published journals recordinghis travels, mixing tales of pillage and arson with exceptionallydetailed accounts of wildlife, geography and navigation. Despite hisknown piracy when at home he was much in demand by polite Englishsociety and he was a popular figure invited to many high browfunctions. Although his name struck fear into the Spanish many of hisshipmates and associates seem to have had a low opinion of Dampier, andthe way in which he managed his expeditions.
Dampier was bornthe son of a Somerset Farmer in 1652. He went to sea at 17 working as adeck hand on a merchant ship bound for Newfoundland. Having acquired ataste for the nautical life he joined the Royal Navy in 1673. Englandwas then at war with the Dutch and as a seaman on board the RoyalPrince he had his first taste of combat in the two battles of theSchooneveld. Illness forced him to leave the navy, and whilstrecovering at home he was offered the chance to manage a plantation inJamaica for a neighbour of the family.
Dampier worked as aseaman to get a passage to Jamaica and left London in 1674. After ayear on the plantation he travelled to the Bayia de Campeche in theGulf of Mexico and worked as a logger for a year. Having soon hadenough of this hard work he returned to England and got married. Hishistory in the following years shows him not to have been the mostdutiful of husbands!
He was soon travelling again and from1679-1681 was a member of the crew of the buccaneer Captain BartholomewSharp. At this time England was at peace with Spain, this didn’t stopthe buccaneers capturing and destroying 25 Spanish ships, andplundering towns along the coast of South America including Portobello.One of the captured ships was the San Pedro taken off the coast ofChile laden with wine, gunpowder and 37,000 pieces of eight, these weredistributed amongst the crew at 245 per man. The Spanish were outragedwith the conduct of the pirates, and assumed that they would be broughtto justice on their return. They were disappointed though, the pirateshad 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 KingCharles II they received a free pardon instead!
In 1683 Dampierjoined another buccaneering expedition lead by Captain John Cook. Theysailed from Virginia to the Guinea Coast of Africa, back to SouthAmerica around Cape Horn to Chile and then on to the Galapagos Islands.After 2 years he returned to Panama and joined Captain Swan who sailedto the East Indies, among the Philippines explored the coast of Chinaand then Australia where they careened. In his journal of the voyage herecords eating many different creatures, and includes a recipe forFlamingo’s tongue, which he considered a great delicacy!
In theearly 1700’s Dampier travelled to NW Australia as the commander of HMSRoebuck. Poor relations with his crew marred this trip, as did hisabusive and violent treatment of his first lieutenant, finally the shipsprung a leak on the way home and sank. On his return Dampier wascourt-martialled and declared unfit to command a ship.
Despitethese problems his wealth of experience of two circumnavigations madehim much in demand as a pilot. He was commissioned to lead anexpedition of 2 ships the St George and the Cinque Ports and leftEngland for the South Seas in 1703. From the start he fell foul of thetrip’s backers spending considerable time and money refitting inIreland. Agents alarmed the backers by reporting back that he wasspending money in a reckless manner! Before long the crew becamedisillusioned with the expedition, which they felt lacked clearobjectives. Dampier had allowed a number of captured Spanish ships togo free, presumably accepting a ransom himself rather than sharing theloot with the crew. He was also accused of cowardice in an actionagainst 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! Notlong after this the two ships were separated, Dampier continued thevoyage on board the St George.
Meanwhile travelling on theCinque Ports was Alexander Selkirk, he fell out with his captain andwas marooned on the deserted Island of Juan Fernandes 350 miles west ofthe coast of South America. He was alone on the island from 1704 until1709 with only the wild goats, rats and feral cats for company!
OnDampier’s return the backers of the voyage began to ask many awkwardquestions about the damage to both ships, and the lack of returns inthe form of booty. However he quickly left on a further privateeringparty lead by Captain Woodes Rogers. On this trip Juan Fernandes wasrevisited and Selkirk was rescued, his story inspiring Daniel Defoe’stale “Robinson Crusoe”.
Meanwhile Elizabeth Crosswell thesister of one of the original backers funded an investigation intoDampier’s command of the original voyage. On his return Selkirk gaveevidence, as did many of the original crewmembers. The evidence told atale of mismanagement, incompetence, cowardice and greed (many of theprofits finding their way into Dampier’s pockets), furthermore it wasalleged that Dampier’s failure to sheath the ships lead to theirvirtual destruction by the rampant Toredo worm that was very active inwarm oceans. The evidence was never presented in court, and Dampierdied not long after at 63.
All in all Dampier lead acontroversial life. Despite all this his journals remain a wealth ofinformation about the life of buccaneers, and particularly thedifficulties of navigation at that time. His 2 published journalsinclude:- “A New Voyage around the World” (1697), and “Voyage to NewHolland” (1709).

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