A Cross Country Trek

This is William Dampier’s account of his journey from the Pacific Coast to The Caribbean after being forced to scuttle their ship to escape the Spaniards after they had done a few raids.  This journey may well be one of the most important overland trips ever undertaken – Dampier was in the company of Scottish surgeon Lionel Wafer, and mariners Basil Ringrose and Bartholomew Sharp, all of whom wrote journals of their adventures. But given that some of their actions were illegal, and liable to get them hanged when they arrived on British soil, anything they wrote needs to be read with some cynicism, though this piece does have a feel of veracity about it.

Dampier lived in an age, from the mid to late 17th century, when the boundaries between privateering – ie attacking enemy ships for booty, and pirating – pretty much freelance privateers who were independent of any nations was often unclear. Men like him are often seen as violent and uncouth, but his journal shows a highly intelligent, thoughtful and resourceful man with good literary and negotiating skills.  He is one of my heroes, in part because his contribution to English maritime history is often ignored. Dampier was the first European to circumnavigate the world 3 times, he was with the ships who put Alexander Selkirk ashore at Juan Fernandez Island, and was also present at his rescue. He was a superb navigator and his maps of currents were used by Anson and Cook when they went on voyages of discovery. He was a fantastic naturalist, so inspired Cook and Humboldt, he inspired the poetry of Coleridge and other romantic poets, as well as novelists such as Defoe, and Stephenson, as well as a whole host of travel writers.

They don’t seem to travel very far, but this is very hard country,and they are all carrying a lot of gear, including some of the gold they had plundered, which is rather heavy, as well as guns, compasses, powder etc. This story also has a gunpowder accident, which is something I cannot let pass.

“Being landed on  May 1st, 1681, we began our march about  3 o’clock in the afternoon, directing our course N.E. by our pocket compasses, and having gone about 2 miles, we came to the foot of a hill, where we built small huts and lay all night, having excessive rains till 12 o’clock. Next morning, having fair weather, we ascended the hill, and found a small Indian path, which we followed until it ran too much easterly, and then, doubting it would carry us out of our way, we climbed some of the highest trees on the hill, which was not meanly furnished with as large and tall trees as ever i saw. At length we discovered some houses in a valley on the north side of the hill, but it being steep could not descend on that side, but followed the small path which led us down the hill on the east side, where we presently found some other Indian houses. the first that we came to at the foot of the hill had none but women at home, who could not speak Spanish, but gave each of us a good calabash full of corn drink. The other houses had some men at home, but none that spoke Spanish; yet we made a shift to buy such food as their houses afforded, which we dressed and ate all together; having all sorts of provision in common, because none should live better than others, or pay dearer for anything than it was worth. This day we marched 6 miles.

In the evening the husbands came home, and told us in broken Spanish, that they had been on board of the guard ship, which we fled from 2 days before, that we were not not above 3 miles from the mouth of the river Congo, and that they could go from thence aboard the guard ship in half a tide’s time. We supped plentifullly on fowlds and peccaries, yams, potatoes and plantains served us for bread, whereof we had enough. After supper we agreed with one of those Indians to guide us a day’s march into the country towards the north side; he was to have for his pains a hatchet, and his bargain was to bring us to a certain Indian’s habitation, who could speak Spanish; from whom we were in hopes to be better satisfied of our journey. the third day, having fair weather, we began to stir betimes, and set out betimes, and set out between 6 and 7 o’clock. this morning one of our men having tired gave us the slip. By 12 o’;clock we had done 8 miles, and arrived at the Indian’s house, who lived on the bank of the river Congo, and spake very good Spanish; to whom we declared the reason of this visit.

At first he seemed very dubious of any discourse with us. We could get no answer from him, and all his discourse was in such an angry tone, as plainly declared he was not a friend. However we were forced to make a virtue of necessity, and humour him, for it was neither time nor place to be angry with Indians; all our lives lying in their hand. We were at a great loss, not knowing what course to take, for we tempted him with beads, money, hatchet and long knives; but nothing would work on him, till one of our men took a sky-coloured petticoat out of his bag and put it on his wife; who was so much pleased with the present, that she immediately began to chatter to her husband, and soon brought him into a better humour. He could then tell us that he knew the way to the north side, and would have gone with us, but that he had cut his foot 2 days before, which made him incapable of serving us himself, but he would take care that we should not want a guide; and therefore he hired the same Indian who brought us hither, to conduct us 2 days further for another hatchet. He would have kept us here all day, but our business required more haste, our enemies lying so near to us, for he told us he could go from his house aboard the guard ship in a tide’s time, and this was the fourth day since they saw us. So we marched 3 miles further and built huts where we stayed all night.

Our journey on the 4th and 5th days lay through iwld pathless woods. I verily believe we crossed the river 30 times on the 4th day, the Indians having no paths to travel from one part of the country to another, and therefore guiding themselves by the rivers. We arrived at 10 o’clock in the morning on the 5th day at a young Spanish Indian’s house, who received us very kindly. His plantation offered us store of provision, yams and potatoes, but nothing of any flesh, except 2 fat monkeys we shot, part whereof we distributed to some of our company who were weak and sickly; for others we got eggs. We had a Spanish Indian in our company who first took up arms with Captain Sawkings [a famous leader of the buccaneers, killed by the Spaniards while attacking the town of Puebla Nova] and had been with us ever since his death. He was persuaded to live here by the master of the house, who promised his sister in marriage, and to be assistant to him in clearing the plantation; but we would not consent to part from him here, for fear of some treachery, but promised to release him in 2 or 3 days, when we were out of danger of our enemies. We stayed here all the afternoon and dried our clothes and ammunition, cleaned our guns, and prepared for a march next morning.

Our surgeon, Mr Wafer, came to a sad disaster here; when drying his powder, a careless fellow passed by with his pipe lighted and set fire to it, so that it blew up and scorched his knee, and reduced him to that condition that he was not able to march. We then allowed him a slave to carry his things, being all of us the more concerned at his accident, because liable ourselves every moment to misfortune, and none to look after us but him.

The sixth day we set out again, having hired another guide. Two of our men were not able to keep company with us, but came after as they were able. the last time we forded the river, it was so deep, that our tallest men stood in the deepest place, and handed the sick, weak, and short men over; by which means we all got over safe, except those 2 that were behind. Foreseeing a necessity of wading through rivers frequently in our land march, I took care before I left the ship to provide myself a large joint of bamboo, which I stopped at both ends, closing it with wax, so as to keep out any water. In this I preserved my journal and other writings from being wet, though I was often forced to swim. When we were over this river, we sat down to wait the coming of the 2 who were left behind, and in half an hour they came. But the river by that time was so high, that they could not get over it, neither could we help them over, but bid them be of good comfort and stay till the river did fall; but we marched 2 miles farther by the side of the river and there built our huts. We had scarce finished them before the river rose much higher, and overflowing the banks, forced us to remove to higher ground: but night came on before we could build fresh huts, so we lay straggling in the woods, some under one tree, some under another, which might have been comfortable if the weather had been fair; but the greatest part of the night we had hard rain, with much lightning, and terrible claps of thunder. these hardships made us all careless, and there was no watch kept (though I believe no one slept), so our slaves taking the opportunity went away in the night; all but one, who was hid in some hole, and knew nothing of their design, or fell asleep. those that went away took with them our surgeon’s gun and money.

Next morning we went to the riverside, and found it much fallen; and here our guide would have us ford it again, which we could not. then we planned to swim over; those that could not, we resolved to help over as well as we could, but this would not do for we should not be able to get all our things over. At length we concluded to send one man over with a line who should hale [haul] over all our things first, and then get the men over. This being agreed on, one George Gayny took the lead of a line and made it fast about his neck, and left the other end ashore, and one man stood by the line to clear it away to him. But when Gayny was in the middle of the water, the line in drawing after him, chanced to kink, or grow entangled, and he that stood by to clear it away, stopped the line which turned Gayny on his back, and he that had the line in his hand threw it all into the river after him,  thinking he might recover himself; but the stream running very swift, and the man having 300 dollars [ie in gold – how much must this weigh?] was carried down and never seen more by us. Those 2 men whom we left behind the day before, told us afterwards that they found him lying dead in a creek, where the eddy had driven him ashore, and the money on his back; but the meddled not with any of it, being only in care how to work their way through a wild unknown country. this put period to that contrivance. This was the 4th man we lost in this land journey, for those 2 men that we left behind the day before did not come to us till we were in the North Seas, so we yielded them also for lost. Being frustrated of getting over the river this way, w looked about for a tree to fell across the river. At length we found one, which we cut down, and it reached clear over: on this we passed to the other side, where we found a small plantain walk which we soon ransacked.

While we were busy getting plantains, our guide was gone, but in less than 2 hours came to us again, and brought with him an old Indian, to whom he delivered up his charge, and we gave him a hatchet and dismissed him. that evening our Indian planned to leave us, for now we thought ourselves past danger. This was he who was persuaded to stay at the last house we came from to marry the young man’s sister, and we let him go according to our promise. Next day the old man conducted us towards his own habitation. We marched about 5 miles in this valley, and then ascended a hill, and travelled about 5 miles more over 2 or 3 small hills before we came to any settlement. Half a mile before we came to the plantations we lighted on a path which carried us to the Indian’s habitations. We saw many wooden crosses erected in the way, which created some suspicion in us that here were some Spaniards: so we new-primed our guns, and provided ourselves for an enemy, but coming into the town found none but Indians who were all got together in a large house to receive us: for the old man had a little boy with him, that he sent before. They made us welcome to such as they had, which was very mean, for these were new plantations. Two young men promised to guide us to the North side, but told us we must lie still the next day. But we thought ourselves nearer the sea than we were, and proposed to go without a guide, rather than stay here a whole day. However some of our men who were tired resolved to stay behind, and Mr. Wafer, our surgeon, who marched in great pain ever since his knee was burned with powder, resolved to stay with them.

The next week we marched by the river, being much delayed by the floods, and the necessity we were under of crossing the river so many times. On the 16th day we marched 3 miles, and came to a large settlement where we abode all day: not a man of us but wished the journey at an end, our feet being blistered and our thighs stripped with wading through so many rivers, the way being almost continually through rivers, or pathless woods. In the afternoon 5 of us went to seek for game, and killed 3 monkeys, which we dressed for supper. Here we first began to have fair weather, which continued with us till we came to the North seas.

On the 19th day our guides lost their way, and we did not march above 2 miles. On the 21st we marched up a very high mountain; being on the top we went some miles on a ridge, steep on both sides; then descended a little, and came to a fine spring, here we lay all night. Next day we marched over another very high mountain, keeping on the ridge 5 miles. when we came to the north end, we, to our great content, saw the sea; then we descended and parted ourselves into 3 companies, and lay by the side of a river which was the first we met that runs into the north sea. The 23rd day we came through several large plantation walks, and at 10 o’clock came to an Indian’s habitation, not far from the north sea. Here we got canoes to carry us down the river Concepcion to the seaside…

Thus we finished our journey from the South Seas to the North in 23 days, in which time by my account we traveled 110 miles, crossing some very high mountains, but our common march was in the valleys among deep and dangerous rivers. At our first landing in this country, we were told that the Indians were our enemies; we knew the rivers to be deep, the wet season to be coming in; yet excepting those we left behind, we lost but one man, who was drowned as I said. Our first landing-place on the South coast was very disadvantageous, for we travelled at least 50 miles more than we need to have done, could we have gone up Cheapo river or Santa Maria river; for at either of these places a man may pass from sea to sea in 3 days’ time with ease. The Indians can do it in a day and a half, by which you may see how easy it is for a party of men to travel over. I must confess the Indians did assist us very much, and I question whether we had ever got over without their assistance, because the brought us from time to time to their plantations where we always got provision, which else we should have wanted. But if a party of 500 or 600 men were minded to travel from the North to the South seas, they may do it without asking leave of the Indians, though it be much better to be friends with them.

On the 24th of May (having lain one night at the river’s mouth) we all sent on board the privateer, which lay at La Sounds Key. It was a French vessel, Captain Tristian Commander. the first thing we did was to get such things as we could to gratify our Indian guides, for we were resolved to reward them to their hearts’ content. this we did by giving them beads, knives, scissors, and looking-glasses, which we bought of the privateer’s crew; and half a dollar a man from each of us; which we would have bestowed in goods also, but could not get any, the privateer having no more toys. they were so well satisfied with these, that they returned with joy to their friends, and were very kind to our consorts whom we left behind; as Mr Wafer, our surgeon, and the rest of them told us when they came to us, some months afterwards.”

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