A Pirate of Exquisite Mind

The difference between privateering (government authorized attacks on enemy commerce by private parties during wartime) and piracy (a criminal offense) was often ignored in the Caribbean where William Dampier’s adventures began. Authors Diana and Michael Preston note that he always referred to his companions as privateers in his printed works, regardless of the actual legal position. As Dampier painfully slogged across the Isthmus of Panama, participated in raids on Spanish cities on both coasts of South America, and joined attempts to capture the Manila Galleon treasure fleet, he kept in mind a request by the Royal Society in 1666 that seamen traveling to exotic places carefully observe and record detailed descriptions of natural and cultural phenomena. Returning to England after twelve years in which he circumnavigated the globe, Dampier assembled his diary and carefully preserved notes into A New Voyage Round the World (1697).

Dampier’s colorful narrative of his adventures became an instant best seller, reprinted several times the first year. London literary and scientific circles feted Dampier. The Prestons describe how his work influenced Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Charles Darwin carried the book on his voyage around the world and incorporated Dampier’s observations into his theories. Explorers, including Captain James Cook, used his careful descriptions of geographical features as navigation aids. Meticulous data on ocean winds and currents, assembled in Dampier’s second book of travels, influenced maps of the world’s oceans for several centuries.

The authors excessively insist on Dampier’s uniqueness; hardly a chapter goes by without claiming he was first at something. Using careful modifiers, they assert he was first to describe chopsticks—in English, in print. They praise him as the first Briton to set foot on Australia, ignoring significant achievements of his Dutch forerunners. Even when not exceptional, Dampier’s adventures and achievements are a fascinating read.