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William Dampier: ‘Buccaneer’ and Explorer

‘Who are they?’

Could the indigenous people of Australia’s rugged western coast believe what they were seeing?

‘They look human but they look so pale, so ghost-like. Where do they come from? What are they doing here? What do they want?’

How difficult it is for us to imagine what people were thinking and feeling during this first encounter between two different cultures on Australian soil. 

The encounter between these indigenous people of Western Australia – probably members of the Bardi tribe – and a group of English ‘buccaneers’ desperate for water was recorded by William Dampier in his 1697 bestseller, A New Voyage Round The World.

It is over 300 years since Dampier’s death. Almost 100 years before the First Fleet sailed into Botany Bay, William Dampier sailed into King Sound in Western Australia, becoming one of the first Englishmen to set foot on the Australian mainland.

Dampier had a huge impact on the world’s scientific studies in a number of areas. Renowned as a navigator, he produced maps that were still used a century later by sailors like Captain Cook. His study of winds formed the basis of modern meteorology (the science of studying weather), and his research into currents helped to establish the science of hydrography (studying the physical features of oceans, seas, coastal areas, lakes, and rivers). His detailed observations of plant and animal species laid important groundwork for later studies in biology. Furthermore, he contributed over 80 words to the English language, such as ‘avocado’, ‘barbecue’ and ‘chopsticks’.

Dampier’s stories of his adventures even influenced the writing of a very famous novel, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, which was published in 1719. Its main character was based on a real-life acquaintance of Dampier, Alexander Selkirk, whom Dampier had witnessed being miraculously rescued after four years stranded on a remote island.

But despite Dampier’s fame during his lifetime and the adventurous life he led, he is sadly almost unknown today.

Some people suggest that his ‘buccaneer’ background is the reason he is not admired as much as other, similar historical figures. Buccaneers were like pirates – the original pirates of the Caribbean! They were often hired by powerful people to raid other ships, sometimes illegally. 

When Dampier was orphaned at 16, he travelled to the Caribbean to work on the sugar-growing estate of an English squire; but this area, in the seventeenth century, was a brutal place where men were regularly assaulted and kidnapped. Dampier was worried that he would become a victim of human trafficking.

He decided that a safer and more appealing option was to join the buccaneers. This lifestyle appealed to many men. Buccaneers worked together, making decisions democratically; they had opportunities to make their fortunes; they were sometimes employed by the government to attack the enemies of England; and they lived a life of adventure on the high seas. All of these were far better than becoming a servant or a slave!

But most importantly, buccaneering gave Dampier lots of opportunities to indulge his intense curiosity about the world and his desire to explore God’s creation. He wrote that he loved enquiring into ‘the various and wonderful Works of God in different parts of the world’.

His book shows us glimpses of Dampier’s faith in God that are perhaps unexpected, given what he was doing for a living! Not long after leaving the coast of ‘New Holland’ – now called Australia – Dampier sailed into a horrific storm:

I had a lingering View of approaching Death, and little or no hopes of escaping it… I had long before this repented of that roving Course of Life, but never with such concern as now. I also called to mind the many miraculous Acts of God’s Providence towards me in the whole Course of my Life, of which kind I believe few Men have met with the like. For all these I returned Thanks in a peculiar Manner, and once more desired God’s Assistance…*

Dampier’s final resting place is unknown, but we do have his Will, which also reveals his reliance on God:

I, Capt. William Dampier, of London, Mariner, being diseased and weak in body, but of sound and perfect mind and memory (praised be God therefore)… I recommend my soul into the hands of almighty God, my Creator, hoping by and through the merits, death and passion of my ever blessed redeemer to enjoy eternal life.**

His life may have been a lot more ‘colourful’ than the life of an average Christian believer of his day; but this did not stop William Dampier from experiencing a sense of wonder at God’s creation and relying completely on Him for his eternal future.

Written by Annie Hamilton.

References and Further Reading:

* 18 May 1688, as noted in William Dampier, A New Voyage Round The World: The Journal of an English Buccaneer, published 1697.

** Adrian Mitchell, Dampier’s Monkey: The South Sea Voyages of William Dampier, Wakefield Press, 2010.

Diana and Michael Preston, A Pirate of Exquisite Mind – Explorer, Naturalist and Buccaneer: The Life of William Dampier, Walker & Company, 2004.

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