William Dampier is one of my all time heroes. He was from a small country town – East Coker in Somerset, possibly an orphan who became one of the greatest explorers and mapmakers of all time. His charts were used by Captain Cook on his voyages of discovery that led to so much of Britain’s empire building decades later. He was at various times a privateer, a pirate, a woodcutter, treasure hunter, slave owner, and wsa the first make to sail round the world three times. He was the first Englishman to set foot on what was later named Australia, and a town is named after him. He was one of a rare group which included Batholomew Sharp, and Lionel Wafer whose writing inspired the disastrous Scottish settlement of Darian. He travelled and wrote of their adventures at the turn of the 17th century. He was also present when Alexander Selkirk was set ashore on Juan Fernandez island, and also when he was rescued, and was one of the few people to take one of the Spanish treasure ships. and he was a briliant writer, of ‘A New Voyage Round the world’. but was also put on trial for cruelty.
I have read lots about this man, but last week I was in the National Portrait Gallery, where his life size portrait (above) is hanging.
I have seen this picture so many times, yet seeing the original stopped me in my tracks.
This man is one of the great heroes of these islands. I am utterly in awe of him. and yet to gaze into those sad, spaniel eyes is something else. He should be staring at us with pride, at a life – certainly of physical hardship – but of immense achievement.
Yet he looks so sad. So mournful even.
Maybe because his life was not what he had chosen, and in this he shares much with a near contemporary, and fellow author, Daniel Defoe. For all of Dampier’s achievements, there seemed to be a desire to make money and settle down. All his achievements seemed to be little more than a background for his desire to settle down, for some comfort in his old age. and that is the one thing that seemed to elude him.
We know he had a wife called Judith, but know nothing of her, or whether they had children. He died at the age of 63, and his will was proven, but we have no idea where or exactly when he died.
When people talk of what the Britihs Empire achieved – both good and bad – I am drawn back to Dampier’s face. The face of a man who sacrificed so much, and yet his portrait shows us the price he paid for his incredible life.