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William Dampier: Buccaneer and Planter

J.H. Bennett introduces William Dampier, the circumnavigator of the globe, and the first Englishman to land in Australia, who spent part of his youth as a planter in Jamaica and a Caribbean buccaneer.

When the Merchant ship Content, bound for Jamaica, sailed out of the Thames estuary on April 6th, 1674, she was manned by a notorious buccaneer, a renowned author, the greatest English explorer of the age, and a worthless plantation hand. Not that Captain John Kent would have recognized any of his crew in these descriptions, but all were personified by Seaman William Dampier in the lives he would lead once the Content ended her long voyage from Charles II’s London to Henry Morgan’s piratical Port Royal.1

In his three circumnavigations of the globe, Dampier became the first Englishman to land in Australia and the discoverer of Dampier Straits and New Britain Island. As one of the floating nation of British and French buccaneers, he shared in the spoil of a score of Spanish towns in America and of Spanish ships in every sea. He was with the pirates in the sack of Porto Bello and the march on Panama in 1679 and 1680.

He was with Woodes Rogers’ privateers in 1709 when they captured the treasure-filled Manila ship off the California coast. Tortuga, Tonkin, Virginia, and Somerset were all equally home to Dampier, who widened the horizons of his countrymen by his extraordinarily popular books of travel, adventure, and sound scientific observation.

Man of action and man of letters, Dampier commanded the attention of Samuel Pepys, who invited him to dine in company with John Evelyn; of Defoe and Swift, who drew on Dampier’s Voyages for Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels; and of Sir Hans Sloane of the Royal Society, who had Thomas Murray paint Dampier’s portrait. In time to come, Dampier was depicted by poets, admirals, literary critics, scientists, and historians, although none told his story more effectively than had Dampier himself. Yet one chapter of Dampier’s life has remained obscure.

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