William Dampier

Dampier's Monkey

The South Seas Voyages of William Dampier.

William Dampier was born in Somerset, England in September 1651, which was 45 years after Australia had been discovered by Dutchman William Janszoon. It was also 35 years after Dirck Hartogh had landed at Shark Bay in Western Australia and 26 years after Pieter Nuyts had rounded Cape Leeuwin and sailed as far east as present day Streaky Bay. Interestingly it was also exactly 200 years before gold was discovered in New South Wales.

Dampier was brought up to a trade and had been apprenticed before joining the Royal Navy. From here he set out on his own and went to Jamaica to make his fortune. As it did not work out the way he had expected he worked as a logwood cutter for a season or two. Having gained at least some riches he returned to England to win himself a wife from the Duchess of Grafton's household. Four years later, at the age of 27, he married Judith.

Shortly after his marriage he was after even more riches and returned to Jamaica, without his wife. He now became involved in trading but after a while abandoned it for the supposed riches of gold in the steaming rainforests of Panama. As this was not exiting enough he once more returned to sea and for the next few years, like Columbus before him, sailed with crews of reckless desperadoes and even joined up with buccaneers and pirates.

He later joined the Cygnet, which had left London in 1683 to trade in the South Seas under command of Captain Charles Swan, as navigator. While on the Cygnet, and temporarily reappointed navigator after duelling and wounding a fellow officer, Dampier sighted the Australian coast on 4 January 1688. It was exactly 100 years before Arthur Phillip brought the first fleet to the east coast.

Dampier was not impressed, nor were his companions, with what they saw. He entered a number of comments about the place in his journal. New Holland, he wrote, is a very large tract of land. It is not yet determined whether it is an island or a main continent. (This would have to wait until 1802 when Matthew Flinders circumnavigated it.) He did not think much of its Aborigines, or the desolate country they inhabited, either. The New Hollanders he thought absolutely miserable, who had no houses, clothing, beards, possessions or sustenance. They don't worship nor do they want anything.

This section of his journal is nothing but a list of negatives, it being remote, empty, barren,and waterless. Could this really be the fabled Terra Australis Incognita? His writings greatly influenced the attitudes of Joseph Banks, Matthew Flinders and the early European settlers a century later.

When they left the West Australian coast some seven weeks later on 12 March 1688 he did not realise that he would be back again and in command of his own ship. As they had not found any gold, silver or other riches it was decided to turn north to the tropics which had to have them as it did everywhere else in the world.

After some more adventures, including opium running, he returned to England in 1691 where he started with his book A New Voyage Round the World, which was published in 1697 and proved an immediate success. He now won sufficient attention from the leading members of both the Royal Society and of the Admiralty to be offered the captaincy of the Roebuck. While this was being fitted out for more journeys to the South Seas she was rammed and badly damaged by the Isabella.

When Dampier returned to Australia on the Roebuck and went ashore at Rottnest Island and the Swan River in 1699 it was 18 months after Captain William de Vlamingh had done. On her way back to England the Roebuck had to be abandoned and sank. Dampier and his men were saved and returned to London in 1701. The Roebuck was not located until 300 years later in 2001 by an expedition of the Western Australian Maritime Museum.

It was not exactly a happy home coming for him as he was court martialled for losing his ship but also was accused of being a pirate who had tied Dutch sailors back-to-back and thrown them overboard. Dampier was fined all his pay and declared 'not a fit person to be employed as commander of any of her Majesty's ships'.

A few months later though he was taken to Queen Anne by Prince George, Lord High Admiral and member of the Royal Society and offered command of the St George and arrangements were made for his wife to be paid while he was at sea. Meanwhile he was still writing and in 1703 his Voyage to New Holland was published. Three years later he was imprisoned by the Dutch in Batavia for a short time. When back in England once again he concentrated on his writings which kept him busy until 1715 when he died.

So who really, or what, was Dampier the man? He evidently was an expert navigator and mariner, having sailed three times around the world and survived the dangers and hardships of long years at sea. He was the successful author of three major books and several other works. He had also been a Royal Navy Captain, buccaneer, privateer, pirate, slave trader and drug runner. Above all he had proved himself to be a successful hydrographer, cartographer and businessman.

Dampier's Monkey does provide these answers as it is more about Dampier himself than his place in history. The book highlights his passions, ambitions, personal code of conduct and his own sense of achievement. The book also examines late seventeenth century ways of understanding an expanding world by re-evaluating Dampier's travel narratives. As an extra bonus the author has included a transcription of Dampier's journal of his voyages in the South Seas, complete with his annotations.

Review by Nic Klaassen.

Dampier's Monkey by Adrian Mitchell, @ $45.00 is available from
Wakefield Press

Telephone 08 8352 4455


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