Wednesday 28 September 2011

William Dampier, Pirate & Explorer

Everyone loves a pirate, so here's a profile of a pirate who gave his name to a Western Australian town. 

I originally wrote it for an ecommerce website many years ago. I think it was meant to accompany a page of pirate-themed toys for sale, but don't hold me to that...

Sometimes a pirate, sometimes an explorer, William Dampier was one of the first Englishmen to set foot in Australia.

Australia is not a place generally associated with pirates. By the time it was settled by Europeans, the great age of piracy had passed it by.

However, one English pirate had a role in our pre-colonial history. William Dampier (1652-1715), a buccaneer for some years in the Caribbean, became the first Englishman to chart the coast of north-western Australia.

Just fill in the map as you go along

How involved he was in piracy is actually an open question. Some have suggested he merely found pirate ships a convenient way to travel. Whatever the truth, he certainly did keep company with pirates and knew their ways well.

He also was an inquisitive explorer. In January 1688, Dampier was one of the first Englishman to set foot on the Australian mainland when his ship, the Cygnet, was beached on the northwest coast near King Sound. The Cygnet carried Dampier to a number of destinations in Asia. Throughout his voyages, he kept well-written notes of his observations.

Dampier had his share of adventures as well. When he separated from his shipmates in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), he took seven crewmen on a small boat through a hurricane to Sumatra. Exploring the area, he kept adding to his journals.

A huge rollercoaster of a tale

He published his work in 1697 as New Voyage Round the World, and it became a best-seller. His work caught the eye of the Admiralty. In 1699 they equipped him with HMS Roebuck, a slightly leaky cast-off, and set him off the explore the coast of Australia (then known as New Holland).

This was no joy-trip. Aside from the suspect nature of the boat’s structure, the captain and crew were of a headstrong buccaneer background. Nevertheless, they reached the west coast safely, and Dampier got to name Shark Bay for the sensible reason that it was a bay with lots of sharks in it.

A cunning plan

Proceeding along the coast to the northeast, Dampier’s urgent need was to find fresh water for the crew. Previous maps of the area were full of gaps, and he felt sure he would come across a river at some point. In an echo of the search for the Northwest Passage in the northern hemisphere, he also believed there must be a Southeast Passage that would lead to the Pacific.

He was right, of course, as the Timor Sea and Torres Strait would have led him there. Unfortunately, the need for water grew too great, and the Roebuck had to leave to resupply in Timor.

This was the end of Dampier’s exploration of the Australian coast, though he did continue on to chart New Guinea and New Britain (now the Solomon Islands). On the Roebuck’s return to England, its planking finally gave way and the ship was lost in the Atlantic. Amazingly, the crew made it to a nearby island with some supplies, and were rescued by passing ships.

Two schools of thought

Although he had achieved some remarkable seamanship and expanded the store of human knowledge with his explorations, Dampier’s voyage had an unhappy ending in England. A former crewman, Fisher, had spread malicious information about him through the Admiralty and, with the loss of the Roebuck, Dampier was barred from commanding future naval vessels.

This didn’t stop him making a career as a privateer, a kind of semi-official pirate. He became a privateer later in his life, earning a commission from the English government to harass Spanish shipping.

He’s an interesting figure, an adventurer who steered a difficult course between official honour and the reckless freedom of pirates. With an Australian town and archipelago named after him on the coast he once explored, it’s worth remembering this early explorer and sometime pirate.

(Public domain image of William Dampier is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and Project Gutenberg)

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