A brass memorial on the wall of the south aisle of St Michael’s church in East Coker, Somerset, England commemorates William Dampier, one of the most intriguing person and utterly pivotal to Britain’s maritime success from the late 17th century.
He was at various times, and often at the same time. His official portrait claims he was ‘prate and hydrographer’ but he circled the world three times, as a common sailor, ship’s captain, navigator, leader of a geographical expedition, petty merchant, privateer, pirate, explorer, mapmaker, logger, author, naturalist. He published widely on his travels, which inspired much of the literature that followed, especially that of Defoe and Swift. His charts were used by Hood and Cook on their famous journeys of exploration.
He was also a superb observer and recorder of nature. His most famous book was ‘A New Voyage Around the World’ He crossed the isthmus of Panama with pilot Basil Ringrose and Scottish surgeon Lionel Wafer, both of whom published their own journals. He was a pilot on Woodes Rogers voyage which captured the treasure ship from Manilla , the voyage that rescued Alexander Selkirk who is said to have inspired ‘Robinson Crusoe’. He was the first Englishman to reach Australia in 1688. Despite this success, he died penniless in March 1715. Which perhaps shows how hard his life was, as throughout his writings it is clear that his main motivation was to make his fortune and retire. As such he really was the precursor of Crusoe with his obsession with the value of everything that came within his reach. Dampier was also, like many talented people whose stories I have discovered, an orphan, with no family inheritance due to him, so possibly drove him to such lengths to find success.
Also missing from the records is any detail of his wife, called Judith, but whom he must have scarcely spend any time with. In the mid 18th century Bristol there was an alderman Dampier with a single daughter. A son perhaps?
Kris Lane describes him: “William Dampier was among the best early practitioners of scientific travel writing, and he was by far the most travelled. Almost nothing escaped his omnivorous, dispassionate gaze, and his painstaking efforts to record observations on everything from meteorology to local marriage customs won him the praise of generations of followers. His ‘New Voyage Round the world’ inspired scientific explorers from Cook to Humboldt to Darwin. Dampier’s darker, buccaneering side, meanwhile, fired the imaginations of poets such as Coleridge and Mansfield, and novelists such as Stephenson and Conrad. Full of contradictions and surprises even after three centuries, Dampier remains essential Reading.”