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Capt. William Dampier: gentleman pirate

Jan 1, 2003

In the field of ocean navigation, there may be no greater enigma than Capt. William Dampier. A consummate navigator, cartographer, explorer, zoologist, botanist, drug runner, author, lecturer, slaver, and pirate, Dampier was equally at home swinging a cutlass beside blood-thirsty crew mates on the Spanish Main as he was lecturing on his discoveries before genteel scholars in London salons. And by the end of his life Dampier had undertaken three circumnavigations of the globe, making him one of the most traveled men of the 17th and early 18th centuries.

Dampier, born in England in 1652, joined the Newfoundland fishery in 1670. By 1683 the experienced seaman was a member of the crew of Bachelor's Delight, a former Danish vessel of 36 guns converted to the needs of her pirate crew. But Dampier chose not to participate in the debauched revels of his peers when they returned to land to celebrate having taken a rich "prize" or having successfully raided a coastal town. While his mates were drinking and whoring, he would gather up his charcoal, pencils, and drawing paper, and ramble about whatever rock he happened to be on at the time to study and record the local flora and fauna. When he tired of documenting the nesting habits of exotic birds, he might then choose to survey and map the coast or study and record the local winds and tidal variations. His book, Discourse of Winds, Breezes, Storms, Tides, and Currents of the Torrid Zone advanced the knowledge of fellow navigators tenfold.

Dampier completed his first circumnavigation on September 16, 1691, returning to England broke but with his writings, maps, drawings, and a collection of items gathered during his travels. During the next six years he made a tenuous living lecturing before the "nobler classes" on the curiosities he had collected and recorded during his voyage. In 1697 Dampier published a hugely successful book recounting his exploits and discoveries, called A New Voyage Round The World. The overwhelming success of the book brought him an offer of command of HMS Roebuck from the Admiralty for the purpose of conducting a voyage of discovery to the Far East. Unfortunately, Dampier's arrogant behavior toward his officers made him unsuitable as commander, and he was court-martialed upon his return.

On Dampier's third circumnavigation he acted as pilot: a position for which his personality was eminently more suited. It was during this voyage with Capt. Woodes Rodgers that Dampier's ship called at Juan Fernandez Island rescuing Alexander Selkirk, the model for Daniel Defoe's castaway, Robinson Crusoe.

Obviously, Dampier was not a typical Edward (Blackbeard) Teach or William Kidd when it came to fostering a pirate image. But he was chameleon-like, and could be the scholarly "Dr. Jekyll" one minute, and the infamous "Mr. Hyde" the next, the latter especially when he was in command of a vessel. When he died in meager circumstances in 1715, few realized how much Dampier's books would later assist explorers and scientists like Capt. James Cook and Charles Darwin, and that his writings would help lay the foundations of the future sciences of hydrography, botany, and zoology.