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Dampier, William (DNB00)

DAMPIER, WILLIAM (1652–1715), buccaneer, pirate, circumnavigator, captain in the navy, and hydrographer, son of a tenant-farmer at East Coker, near Yeovil, was baptised on 8 June 1652. His father died ten years afterwards; and his mother, who had kept on the farm, died in 1668, when the boy, who had alternated between the neighbouring grammar school and his mother's house, was sent to sea in charge of a Weymouth trader. The hardships of a voyage to Newfoundland disgusted him with that employment; but after a short spell at home, he went to London and entered on board an East Indiaman, in which he sailed to Bantam, returning to England just as the Dutch war broke out in 1672. In 1673 he was an able seaman on board the Royal Prince, Sir Edward Spragge's flagship, and in her was present in the hard-fought engagements of 28 May and 4 June, but was sent to hospital, sick, before the third battle on 11 Aug. He was shortly afterwards put on shore at Harwich, whence he was permitted to return to Somersetshire. Here he soon recovered his health, and the next year accepted the offer of Colonel Helyar, his father's old landlord, to go out to Jamaica as assistant-manager of his plantation. Soon tiring of this employment, Dampier engaged himself on board a coasting trader. About the beginning of August 1675 he shipped on board a ketch bound to the bay of Campeachy with a cargo of rum and sugar to exchange for logwood. His attention was early turned to hydrography and pilotage, the points of which he seems to have carefully noted throughout his whole career; and in his account of this voyage he has ‘described the coast of Yucatan from the landfall near Cape Catoche to the anchorage at One-Bush-key with minuteness and accuracy’ (Smyth). Although life among the logwood cutters was hard and involved much drinking of punch, Dampier, though only a fore-mast hand, was able to keep some sort of a diary, and to note the incidents of a voyage protracted by the ignorance and incapacity of the master. While homeward bound, the ketch blundered on to almost every shoal, reef, or island on the way, as well as on to some that were not on the way; ‘and so,’ says Dampier, ‘in these rambles we got as much experience as if we had been sent out on a design.’ When at last, after thirteen weeks, the ketch managed to reach Jamaica, the recollection of the rollicking times among the logwood cutters still lingered pleasantly in Dampier's memory. He determined to go back and join them, and made his way to Triste, where he arrived in February 1676. The logwood cutters were a wild set; the work was severe, the lodging rude, the earnings high, and the debauchery excessive; and among them, alternating log-cutting with piracy or ‘buccaneering,’ Dampier continued for rather more than two years, in which time he managed to accumulate a considerable sum of money. In the autumn of 1678 he returned to England, proposing, it would appear, to employ his capital in the West India trade, and especially in the logwood traffic, which was exceedingly lucrative. While in England he filled up the intervals of business with courtship and matrimony. Of his wife nothing is known except that her christian name was Judith, and that he describes her as a young woman ‘out of the family of the Duchess of Grafton.’

In the spring of 1679 he sailed again for the West Indies, leaving his wife at Arlington House. He remained at Jamaica for some months, and at Christmas, when on the point of returning home, was persuaded to go on a short voyage to the Mosquito coast, and, putting into Negril Bay, was tempted to join a party of buccaneers, or, as he calls them, privateers. Four men of the same party besides Dampier kept journals, which are now in the British Museum, and of which more or less garbled versions have been published. We have thus a fairly complete account of the exploits of these ‘privateers,’ whose only commissions—as their commander, Sawkins, sent word to the governor of Panama—were on the muzzles of their guns. Dampier's position remained quite subordinate. During this most remarkable adventure they crossed the isthmus, sacked Santa Marta, seized on a number of Spanish ships, and, sacking, plundering, and burning as they went, got as far southward as the island of Juan Fernandez. Having quitted it, they attacked Arica on 30 Jan. 1681, but were repulsed with great loss, and drew back discontented, and quarrelling among themselves. The quarrel ended in a break-up of the party; and off the Plata, or Drake's Island, some fifty of them, including Dampier, separated from the others, fetched the Gulf of San Miguel, and after many hardships succeeded in crossing over the isthmus and making their way to the neighbourhood of Point San Blas, where, among the Mulatas, or, as they were then called, the Samballoes, they found a French ship cruising ‘on the account.’ With these pirates Dampier continued for about a year, and in July 1682 went with nineteen others to Virginia.

Here he remained till August 1683, when he and the whole party joined a vessel commanded by one Cook, who had been in the former expedition in the South Sea and had returned across the isthmus in company with Dampier. This vessel was bound on a cruise round Cape Horn into the Pacific, and came to Virginia for no apparent reason except to pick up these nineteen men. When they put to sea, they found their ship too small, and decided to look along the coast of Africa in hopes of finding one better suited for their purpose. At Sierra Leone they found a Danish ship mounting thirty-six guns, which they promptly laid aboard, carried, and took to sea (Brit. Mus. Sloane MS. 54). Dampier says not a word of this, nor indeed much of any of their piratical exploits; and the voyage, if we were to judge solely from Dampier's narrative, might be thought mainly one of discovery. It was, in fact, one of ordinary piratical adventure.

After leaving Sierra Leone, the pirates resolved to carry out their original design, and, steering southwards, doubled Cape Horn; they then touched at Juan Fernandez, where they found a Mosquito Indian who had been left there by Dampier's friends three years before. From Juan Fernandez they passed on to the Galapagos and the coast of New Spain. In July 1684, being then off Cape Blanco, their captain, Cook, died, and was succeeded in the command by Edward Davis [q. v.], who, in company with several other free cruisers, more especially Eaton and Swan, scourged the coast of South America for the next twelve months; their fleet mustering sometimes as many as ten sail, with nearly a thousand men, English and French. Swan, in a ship named the Cygnet, had been with Davis nearly the whole time till 27 Aug. 1685, when the two parted, Davis resolving to stay on the coast of Peru, while Swan wished to go on the Mexican coast, and afterwards westwards across the Pacific. ‘Till this time,’ writes Dampier, ‘I had been with Captain Davis, but now left him and went aboard of Captain Swan. It was not from any dislike to my old captain, but to get some knowledge of the northern parts of this continent of Mexico; and I knew that Captain Swan determined to coast it as far north as he thought convenient, and then pass over for the East Indies, which was a way very agreeable to my inclination.’ After a cruise of some months on the coast of Mexico, and finding that he was too late for the Manila ship of the year, Swan proposed to go to the East Indies. ‘Many,’ says Dampier, ‘were well pleased with the voyage, but some thought, such was their ignorance, that he would carry them out of the world.’ They consented at last, the more readily, it would appear, from their bad success on the coast of Mexico, where the very rich commerce of the country was carried on almost wholly by land. Accordingly, they set out from Cape Corrientes on 31 March 1686, and after a voyage of great hardship, reached Guam on 20 May. ‘It was well for Captain Swan,’ Dampier says, ‘that we got sight of it before our provision was spent, of which we had but enough for three days more; for as I was afterwards informed, the men had contrived first to kill Captain Swan and eat him when the victuals was gone, and after him all of us who were accessory in promoting the undertaking this voyage. This made Captain Swan say to me after our arrival at Guam, “Ah! Dampier, you would have made them but a poor meal;” for I was as lean as the captain was lusty and fleshy.’ After twelve days' stay among the Ladrones, they pushed on to the Philippine Islands, which they reached on 21 June. At Mindanao they remained for six months, recompensing themselves for their severe privations by excessive drunkenness and debauchery, ‘which disorderly actions,’ says Dampier, ‘deterred me from going aboard, for I did ever abhor drunkenness.’ He, however, went on board in January, when the men, weary of doing nothing and being desirous of change, left Captain Swan and thirty-six of their fellows on shore and put to sea. Dampier says that he endeavoured to persuade his shipmates to return and pick up Swan, but they refused to do so; and he continued with them, ‘knowing that the further we went, the more knowledge and experience I should get, which was the main thing that I regarded.’ They cruised from China to New Holland for the next eighteen months, at the end of which time Dampier made up his mind to desert or to ‘escape;’ and after some difference of opinion with his companions, he and three others, with a few native prisoners, were put ashore, 16 May 1688, on Nicobar Island, from which, it was thought, they would be unable to escape. They succeeded, however, in making friends with the natives, bought a canoe, provisioned it with breadfruit, and on the 15th put to sea, trusting to Dampier's experience as a navigator, and to his pocket compass. The boat was but ill calculated for a long voyage. A terrible storm threatened to overwhelm them, and, for the time being, wakened Dampier's conscience to a sense of the wickedness of his course of life. ‘I had been,’ he says, ‘in many imminent dangers before now, but the worst of them all was but a play-game in comparison with this. I must confess that I was in great conflicts of mind at this time. Other dangers came not upon me with such a leisurely and dreadful solemnity. … I made very sad reflections on my former life, and looked back with horror and detestation on actions which before I disliked, but now I trembled at the remembrance of.’ As the storm passed off, they reached Sumatra, all utterly exhausted. Two of the party died; possibly, also, some of the Malays, who were lost sight of; Dampier himself was very seriously ill. ‘I found my fever to increase,’ he says, ‘and my head so distempered that I could scarce stand, therefore I whetted and sharpened my penknife in order to let myself blood, but I could not, for my knife was too blunt.’ Eventually he got to Acheen, where he recovered; and for the next two years he was employed in the local trade, making voyages to Tonquin, Madras, and other places; then, coming to Bencoolen, he was appointed master-gunner of the fort, and was detained there somewhat against his will. He managed at last to escape on board the Defence, Indiaman (2 Jan. 1691), and after many hardships finally arrived in the Downs on 16 Sept., having been absent for upwards of twelve years. The only property which he had brought home consisted of a so-called Indian prince, a Menangis islander, curiously tattooed, out of whom he hoped to make money in the way of an exhibition. He was forced, however, by urgent need, to sell his ‘amiable savage,’ who shortly afterwards caught small-pox and died at Oxford (cf. Evelyn, Diary, Bohn's edit. ii. 363).

Of Dampier's life during the next six years we have no account. In 1697 he published the account of his ‘Voyage round the World,’ in 1 vol. 8vo, with a dedication to Charles Montague [q. v.], afterwards Earl of Halifax, but at this time chancellor of the exchequer, president of the Royal Society, and the avowed patron of letters and science. The book had an immediate success, running through four editions within two years. This prompted the author to bring out a second volume, containing the accounts of his voyages from Acheen to Tonquin and Madras, which had been omitted from the first volume; the account of his early adventures with the logwood cutters in the Bay of Campeachy, and ‘A Discourse of Winds,’ which is one of the most valuable of all the ‘pre-scientific’ essays on meteorological geography, and is even now deserving of close study. This was published in 1699, with a dedication to the Earl of Orford, at that time first lord of the admiralty, to whom Dampier had been recommended by Montague as a man qualified to take command of an exploring voyage which the government resolved to fit out after the conclusion of the peace in 1697. Dampier was accordingly directed to draw up a proposal for such a voyage, and suggested that, as little was known of the Terra Australis, a voyage in that neighbourhood would be of the best advantage, and suited to his previous experience. In another letter he proposes to fill up with provisions at Madagascar and ‘run over directly from thence to the northernmost part of New Holland, where I would water if I had occasion, and from thence I would range towards New Guinea. There are many islands in that sea between New Holland and New Guinea … and it is probable that we may light on some or other that are not without spice. Should I meet with nothing on any of these islands, I would range along the main of New Guinea, to see what that afforded; and from thence I would cross over to the island Gilolo, where I may be informed of the state of those parts by the natives who speak the Malayan language. From Gilolo I would range away to the eastward of New Guinea, and so direct my course southerly, coasting by the land; and where I found a harbour or river I would land and seek about for men and other animals, vegetables, minerals, &c., and having made what discovery I could, I would return home by the way of Tierra del Fuego.’

Dampier was appointed, by order of 25 March 1698, to command the Jolly Prize ‘when fitted out’ (Admiralty Minute); but on his reporting (30 June and 6 July) that the Jolly Prize was ‘altogether unfit for the designed voyage,’ he was appointed to the Roebuck, in which he sailed from the Downs on 14 Jan. 1698–9. After touching at the Canaries, Cape Verd Islands, and Bahia, he made a long sweep round the Cape of Good Hope, and sighted the coast of Australia on 26 July. A few days later he anchored in Shark's Bay, and during August searched along the coast, finding no convenient harbour or river, and not being able to get any good water or fresh provisions. As scurvy was rapidly establishing itself among his ship's company, he crossed over to Timor in the beginning of September. Having refreshed his men and cleaned the ship's bottom, he sailed for the coast of New Guinea, on which he came 3 Dec.; then, ‘passing to the northward,’ he says, ‘I ranged along the coast to the easternmost part of New Guinea, which I found does not join to the mainland of New Guinea, but is an island, as I have described it in my map, and called it New Britain.’ Of the north, east, and south coasts of this island he made a fairly correct running survey, though it was left for Carteret [see Carteret, Philip] to discover that St. George's Bay was really St. George's Channel, dividing the island into two; and as Dampier did not visit the western side, he described the land as of much greater extent than it really is. He was prevented from doing more by the discontented state of his crew and the crazy condition of the ship. He anchored at Batavia on 4 July, and, having refitted and provisioned, sailed for England on 17 Oct. 1700. He refitted again at the Cape; but the ship was worn out, and on 21 Feb., when, fortunately, within sight of Ascension, she sprang a dangerous leak. On the morning of the 22nd she anchored in North West Bay, about half a mile from the shore; but after twenty-four hours' hard work all efforts to save her proved vain. She was therefore beached and abandoned, Dampier and the other officers staying on board till the 24th. Ascension was, at that time, an utterly desolate island. The shipwrecked party, however, discovered the remarkable spring of good water near the top of the mountain, and lived, comfortably enough, on goats and turtle, until 3 April, when they were relieved by a homeward-bound squadron of ships of war and East Indiamen.

Dampier, though an admirable observer and excellent hydrographer, was ignorant of discipline and quite unused to command. He had scarcely sailed from England before he quarrelled with his lieutenant, George Fisher, an old officer who had seen much service and was probably not quite pleased at being now put under the orders of an old pirate. The quarrel culminated in Dampier beating Fisher with a cane, putting him in irons till the ship arrived at Bahia, and handing him over as a prisoner to the governor, who clapped him into the common gaol till an opportunity occurred for sending him to Lisbon and England. There Fisher laid charges of cruelty and oppression against his captain, and at a court-martial held on 8 June 1702, Dampier was found ‘guilty of very hard and cruel usage towards Lieutenant Fisher;’ nor did it appear to the court ‘that there had been any grounds for this his ill-usage of Lieutenant Fisher.’ The court therefore adjudged ‘that Captain Dampier be fined all his pay to the chest at Chatham,’ and further pronounced the opinion ‘that Captain Dampier is not a fit person to be employed as commander of any of his majesty's ships’ (Minutes of the Court-martial). Yet on 16 April 1703 ‘Captain William Dampier, being prepared to depart on another voyage to the West Indies, had the honour to kiss her majesty's hand, being introduced by his royal highness the lord high admiral’ (London Gazette, No. 3906).

Dampier was not really bound to the West Indies, but to the south seas, in command of the St. George privateer of 26 guns and 126 men, having also under his orders the Cinque Ports of 16 guns and 63 men; and after many delays got finally to sea from Kinsale on 11 Sept. 1703. From Dampier himself we have no account of this voyage; that which has been published, in form similar to his other voyages, and often sold as a fourth volume, being by one Funnell, who calls himself ‘mate to Captain Dampier,’ but who, according to Dampier, was steward. The narrative is written in no very friendly spirit, and some of the statements were afterwards categorically denied by Dampier; especially those which referred to his frequent quarrels with his officers. Knowing however, the truth of his former behaviour, we are justified in believing that his conduct in this command was marked by the same want of self-control. He is charged with being frequently drunk, with habitually using foul and abusive language, with oppression, and with gross cowardice. That part of these charges was true, we know; and though it is difficult to believe in actual cowardice, it may well have been that, in the new position of command in a sea-fight against a superior force, he was too keenly sensible of the danger and the responsibility. It appears certain that of the lieutenants of the St. George one was virtually ‘marooned,’ and the other, who had been a mate in the Roebuck, deserted; that there were frequent mutinies and desertions among the men of both ships; that the two ships parted company; that Alexander Selkirk, the master of the Cinque Ports, was ‘marooned’ at Juan Fernandez; that a French ship, which they met near Juan Fernandez, beat them off; and that they made a fruitless attack on the Manila ship (6 Dec. 1704), which repelled them with much loss. The failure of this, the chief object of the expedition, completed the break-up of the party, and, after much recrimination, Dampier, with about thirty men, was left in the St. George, the rest going on board a captured bark, crossing the Pacific to Amboyna, where they were thrown into prison as pirates, but afterwards released and permitted to return to England. Funnell, the historian of the expedition, was of this party, and from the time of his leaving the St. George the indications of her voyage are very scanty. It appears, however, that the ship, being too large for their diminished numbers, and also very crazy, was left on the coast of Peru, Dampier and his men embarking in a Spanish prize, in which they also crossed the Pacific to one of the Dutch settlements, where they in turn were imprisoned. It was not till the close of 1707 that Dampier returned to England, no richer in material wealth, and considerably poorer in reputation. Funnell's account had been already published, and Dampier now replied to it in an angry and badly written pamphlet, or, as he called it, ‘Vindication,’ denying some of Funnell's statements, and explaining away others; and this ‘Vindication’ has been frankly accepted by most of Dampier's biographers, who have spoken of Dampier's assertions as disproving Funnell's. Proof on either side is utterly wanting, and we are left to weigh the probabilities of statements, in themselves plausible, put forward by Funnell and insisted on by Welbe, against the contradiction published by Dampier.

The shipowners of the day, at any rate, seem to have pronounced against Dampier, and to have declined entrusting him with the command of another expedition. He therefore engaged himself as pilot on board the Duke privateer, commanded by Captain Woodes Rogers [q. v.], which, in company with the Duchess, sailed from England in August 1708, passed round Cape Horn into the Pacific, rescued Selkirk from his solitary imprisonment on Juan Fernandez, captured one of the Manila ships, crossed the Pacific, and, coming home by the Cape of Good Hope, arrived in the Thames on 14 Oct. 1711, bringing with them specie and merchandise to the value of nearly 200,000l. Dampier's share of this would have been a competence in his old age, but the prize money was not paid till 1719. He died early in March 1714–15, in the parish of St. Stephen, Coleman Street, London, as is shown by the endorsement of his will, still preserved in Somerset House; but his name does not appear in the St. Stephen's register. The will is dated 29 Nov. 1714, and was proved 23 March 1714–15. It describes ‘Captain William Dampier, Mariner,’ as ‘diseased and weak of body, but of sound and perfect mind,’ and leaves his ‘goods or household stuff’ and nine-tenths of all property to his cousin, Grace Mercer of London, spinster, who also is sole executrix; the remaining tenth is left to his brother, ‘ George Dampier of Porton, near Breadport, in the county of Dorset, Gentln.’ No mention is made of his wife. The value of the property is not stated; but the common story that he died unknown and in penury is without foundation. His portrait, by Thomas Murray, formerly in the possession of Sir Hans Sloane, is now in the National Portrait Gallery.

Dampier was an excellent hydrographer, and possessed an almost unique talent for observing and recording natural phenomena. His ‘Discourse on the Winds’ may be even now justly regarded, so far as it goes, as a text-book of that branch of physical geography; and his treatment of the many other subjects which fell within his experience is perhaps equally good. In their clear, easy, homely, common-sense style, his writings are almost classical; his surveys and charts, making allowance for the imperfections of the age, are most highly commendable, and his dogged determination to keep and preserve his journal through all hardships, dangers, and adverse circumstances, is beyond all praise. But it does not, therefore, follow that he was the incarnation of all the virtues. The report of his dismissal from the navy by sentence of court-martial has been doubted (Charnock) or boldly denied (Smyth). He has, again, been described as a leading man even among the buccaneers and pirates. His own account, and still more the accounts of his shipmates, show that in reality he held no position, and was but lightly esteemed. His appointment to command the Jolly Prize or Roebuck was given solely on account of his literary and scientific merits, and proved unfortunate; for he showed himself an incompetent commander, whose sobriety, honesty, and courage even were impugned, and whose highest idea of discipline was calling his subordinate officers ‘rogues, rascals, or sons of bitches.’

[The first and principal authority for Dampier's Life is in his own writings. Very little, if anything, is known of his private life beyond what he himself has told us in his New Voyage round the World (1697), dedicated to Charles Montague; Voyages and Descriptions (1699), the supplement to the former, with other interesting matter, dedicated to the Earl of Orford; and the Voyage to New Holland in the year 1699 (in two parts, 1703, 1709), dedicated to the Earl of Pembroke. These three, with Funnell's Narrative, are now often catalogued as Dampier's Voyages in 4 vols. Captain Dampier's Vindication of his Voyage (4to, 1707) is a contradiction of some of Funnell's statements, of which an Answer to Captain Dampier's Vindication, by J. Welbe, maintains the truth in a manner much more explicit and condemnatory. There have been many popular biographies, little more than imperfect abstracts of the Voyages: the only one which can be considered in any sense original is attributed to Captain (afterwards Admiral) W. H. Smyth, in United Service Journal, July-November 1837. The Letters referred to respecting his Voyage to New Holland are in the Public Record Office, Captains' Letters, D. 1; and the minutes of the courts-martial in Courts-Martial, vol. 10. Besides these, bearing less directly on the subject, are Hacke's Collection of Original Voyages (8vo, 1699); Voyage and Adventures of Captain Bartholomew Sharp (8vo, 1684); Dangerous Voyage and Bold Attempts of Captain Bartholomew Sharp, by Basil Ringrose (8vo, 1699); A Cruising Voyage round the World, by Woodes Rogers (8vo, 1712); and a Voyage to the South Sea, by Edward Cooke (8vo, 1712). Many of the original manuscripts are in the British Museum, being Sloane 46 a and b, 49, 54, 3236, 3820.]

J. K. L.