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Posts Tagged ‘William Dampier’

As we venture towards the European colonisation (or invasion) of Terra Australis, let’s catch up on the situation of indigenous Australians around this time.

They possessed one of the oldest continuous cultures on the planet. But what makes their culture distinctly unique is their isolation other cultures.

It was 40,000 years plus years ago that the first humans migrated to Australia. This was during a time of glaciation and much lower sea levels, effectively joining Papua New Guinea and Tasmania to Australia.

Some 10,000 years ago the sea began to rise again, adding to the isolation of the Australian continent. This resulted in minimal contact with outside cultures for thousands and thousands of years (except for a few tribes in the north that may have had limited contact with Indonesian tribes). Over this time indigenous Australians developed their own unique culture, shaped by this isolation and the harsh and varied nature of the Australian landscape.

Aboriginal people at this time lived as they had for thousands of years, in close association with the rhythms of the land, mainly as hunter-gatherers. Aboriginal society was generally mobile and influenced by food availability and the seasons. The population at prior to the arrival of Europeans is variously estimated to be somewhere between 300,000 and 700,000.

Aboriginal society was based on largely oral traditions and complex and, as is obvious now, largely beyond the comprehension of the average European of the time. Research indicates that the indigenous Australians had not only had a rich systems of beliefs (a subject of a future Bytes), but also pioneered a number of innovations, among them being the earliest known human cremations, some of the earliest rock art, the first boomerangs, ground axes, and grindstones in the world.

As Europeans ready themselves to step onto this continent, some 500 individual tribes cover the continent like a patchwork quilt. There is no overarching political system. No chiefs or kings. Tribes met for ceremonies, settled disputes and traded with each other, but that was about it.

Beneath these tribes were are a multitude of clans and family groups of varying sizes, from 6 to 40. There was also around 250 languages, along with intricate and shared oral traditions and spiritual beliefs united by the Dreaming, a world view that unites the spiritual, human and natural world.

You could easily think of this continent as being made up of a multitude of individual nations all with dynamic relationships and alliances, but a single world view.

But there was one thing over and above the Dreaming that unites indigenous Australia, and that is a strong and permanent relationship with the land…and unfortunately this is something that the Europeans coveted most of all.

So as the Europeans approach this Great Southern Land we need to prepare ourselves for an impending clash of two very different cultures…cultures formed separately over thousands of years on opposite sides of the world. One rich and spiritual, the other individualistic and legalistic.

And as if to exacerbate this future clash the fires of prejudice were being stoked in Britain and Europe by the writings of the European explorers of the time.

We have to look no further than the writings of William Dampier in his New Voyage Round the World in 1697. His description of indigenous Australians created stereotypes that policy makers took to heart:

So wrote Dampier:

“The inhabitants of this country are the miserablest people in the world. The Hodmadods of Monomatapa, though a nasty people, yet for wealth are gentlemen to these; who have no houses and skin garments, sheep, poultry, and fruits of the earth, ostrich eggs, etc., as the Hodmadods have; and setting aside their human shape, they differ but little from brutes….”

Though to be fair, not all spoke as harshly as this. For example Captain Cook wrote a little more favorably about the Aboriginal inhabitants in 1770:

“… they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them … the Earth and sea of their own accord furnished them with all things necessary for life …”

What we will now see as we move towards the arrival of the first European colonists is a conflict over the very stuff of Terra Australis – a peoples’ identity and the land itself. A clash that will see the indigenous population dwindle from 100% of the population of this Great Southern Land, to some 2.5 % today…

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“I first set out of England on this voyage at the beginning of the year 1679, in the Loyal Merchant of London, bound for Jamaica…” 

So starts Captain William Dampier in his book A New Voyage Around The World, which describes his first circumnavigation of the World.

Dampier was a character of the age, variously described as a buccaneer, explorer, sea captain, author and scientific observer. From our point of view he is a man who is to contribute greatly to the unveiling of the Great Southern Land.

Dampier was born in 1652, the son of a farmer near Yeovil, south west of London. Some 20 years or so later we find him on the other side of the world cutting and loading log-wood on the Bay of Campeachy in the present day Gulf of Mexico. Not satisfied with life there, in 1679 he sets sail on a grand adventure that will lead to his first circumnavigation of the World. Importantly he would popularise this voyage in his very successful book A New Voyage Around The World which regales stories of his travels and numerous buccaneering adventures.

It was in fact the very success of his journals that propel him into our journey of discovery. The British Admiralty become aware of his experience in the Pacific and seek his advice on the exploration of this part of the World. In 1699 they provide him with the command of the Roebuck and a commission to explore the east coast of New Holland (the name the Dutch had given to our Great Southern Land, Australia).

So at the age of 47 Dampier, Englishman and buccaneer, is at the helm of the Roeback, and at the centre of our journey of discovery.

However, not all goes well, supporting a view that perhaps notoriety, not talent put him in command of this expedition. He sets off late in the season in 1699 traveling via the Cape of Good Hope and the roaring forties. It is soon clear, however, that the 21-gun ship was not up the task of such an arduous trip, nor did he have good relations with his crew, actually having to clap one of his lieutenants into irons on the way. Scurvy follows, as well as chronic water shortages not making for a happy time when he reaches the coast of Western Australia.

But despite all of this Dampier pushes on, following the Western Australian coast north to Roebuck Bay near modern day Broome, then heading for Timor.

From January to April 1700 he follows the North Coast of New Guinea and during this time discovers New Britain. But instead of heading to explore the east coast of Australia he heads homeward, the cause, the poor state of the Roeback. In fact Dampier and his crew barely makes the volcanic Ascension Island in the mid Atlantic. Soon after their arrival their ship flounders and sinks. Dampier and sixty men have to wait two months until they are rescued.

Although in reality doing little more than previous visitors (like the accidental visitor Dirk Hartog) Dampier does popularise the exploration of the Pacific, again publishing a book of his journeys, A Voyage to New Holland in 1703 and 1709 (Part 2). Dampier’s visit also produces the first detailed observations of Australian flora and fauna. But other than this, the voyage is not much of a success, and falls well short of the goal of exploring the east coast of Australia.

Dampier himself was disappointed in what he saw. Viewing this new land as a mixture of dangerous shoals and reefs surrounding a barren land inhabited by ‘the miserablest people in the world’.

On Dampier’s return to England things did not get much better. He was court martialed for his treatment of Lieutenant Fisher (who he had clapped in irons), found guilty, fined all his pay and declared to be “not a fit person to be employed as commander of any of His Majesty’s ships.”

However, this did not stop Dampier. With the outbreak of the Spanish War of Succession his buccaneering experience again puts him to the fore with the Admiralty. Sought out as because of his knowledge of the Pacific and experience as a privateer he is given command of a ship the St. George in 1703. From there he fades from our story of discovery, but he will still circumnavigate the world another two times.

Dampier’s role in the exploration of the Great Southern Land is indirect, but significant. His ability with the pen, along with his scientific observations, inspires his fellow countrymen to join in the exploration of the Pacific. Once again, here come the English…and they are serious this time…

SIDENOTES:

Books by William Dampier

  • A New Voyage Round the World, (1697)
  • Voyages and Descriptions, (1699)
  • A Supplement of the Voyage Round the World
  • The Campeachy Voyages
  • A Discourse of Winds
  • A Voyage to New Holland, (Part 1 1703, Part 2 1709)

Wikipedia provides the following interesting list on the impact of William Dampier:

  • His observations and analysis of natural history helped Charles Darwin’s and Alexander von Humboldt’s development of their theories,
  • He made innovations in navigation technology that were studied by James Cook and Horatio Nelson.
  • Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, was inspired by accounts of real-life castaway Alexander Selkirk, a crew-member on Dampier’s voyages.[5]
  • His reports on breadfruit led to William Bligh’s ill-fated voyage in HMS Bounty.
  • He is cited over a thousand times in the Oxford English Dictionary notably on words such as ‘barbecue’, ‘avocado’, ‘chopsticks’ and ‘sub-species’. That is not to say he coined the words, but his use of them in his writings is the first known example in English.
  • His travel journals depicting Panama influenced the undertaking of the ill-fated Darien Scheme, leading to the Act of Union of 1707.
  • His notes on the fauna and flora of northwestern Australia were studied by naturalist and scientist Joseph Banks, who made further studies during the first voyage with Captain James Cook. This helped lead to the naming of and colonization of Botany Bay and the founding of modern Australia.
  • He is mentioned in the Gabriel García Márquez short story The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship.
  • Jonathan Swift explicitly mentions Dampier in his Gulliver’s Travels as a mariner comparable to Lemuel Gulliver.
  • He is believed to have influenced the writing of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.

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A little background note to assist us to understand the next character in our story of discovery, namely William Dampier.

Dampier has variously been described as an English buccaneer, ships captain, author and scientific observer. Some have described him as one of the greatest nautical explorers behind the likes of Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh.

It is the descriptor of buccaneer that is worth clarifying, as there are three terms that are often used interchangeably, that of Pirate, buccaneer and privateer.

Let’s first turn to a privateer

Basically a privateer is someone who is authorised by the government to attack enemy vessels at sea. During the 1600’s and beyond a Letter of Marque and Reprisal was often provided as a government license that authorized a private vessel to attack and capture enemy ships. A privateer could quite legally plunder a ship of another designated country, and even bring the vessel before courts for condemnation and sale.

Sailing the high seas for prizes under the authority of a Letter of Marque was considered an honorable pastime, as opposed to wanton acts of indiscriminate piracy. But be warned, things did not always turn out famously for privateers. For anyone interested in the fate of one famous privateer (not pirate) see the book about Captain William Kidd, The Pirate Hunter by Richard Zacks. This book tells the tale of how William Kidd started out as a legitimate English privateer, but was later hanged for alleged acts of piracy (basically to protect his aristocratic sponsors who authorized him to hunt down pirates and capture their plunder).

A privateer was often used as a tool used to bolster a smaller navy, or to distract opposing forces by requiring them to protect their trade routes from attack. You may also hear of the term Corsair, which is French version of the privateer.

Now comes the term buccaneer.

Today the term is often used interchangeably with that of a pirate, but the term had a different meaning originally. The term buccaneer was applied to privateers who specifically attacked Spanish shipping in the Caribbean Sea during the mid to late 17th century. The term actually comes from the Arawak term buccan, a wooden frame for smoking meat.

So a buccaneer is a specific type of privateer. For example the English viewed buccaneering as a cheap way to wage war on the Spanish. There was an additional benefit of a return on investment as the English crown took a cut of the plunder as payment in exchange for providing a Letter of Marque.

Now to Piracy, which is pretty straight forward.

Piracy is the unauthorised plunder of both shipping and coastal towns. The history of piracy stretches back thousands of years, and the one universal rule was, where there was an ocean and trade, there was piracy.  From the Mediterranean Sea to the seas off China.

The so-called “classic era” of piracy was in and around the Caribbean from the late 1500’s to the 1720’s. One interesting side note is that pirate ships were one of the first democratic institutions of this era. This was in great contrast to the current modus operandi of Western society at the time. In general the captain and quartermaster were elected by the crew. They in turn appointed the ships officers. There was logic in this approach, as it provided checks and balances and ensured that only a successful captain who delivered “results”, (or plunder) remained leading the ship.

For a pirate getting caught during these times often meant meeting a gruesome end. Often it was punishment meted out by “dancing the hempen jig”, or hanging. In England many pirate executions’ took place at Execution Dock on the River Thames. At that time they were very much public executions, drawing great crowds, with some then locked into iron cages where their bodies would rot over several years, visible to all those who sailed by. It was a clear reminder of the fate of those caught and prosecuted for piracy.

So, in our next byte we meet a man who will greatly add to the knowledge of this Great Southern Land. A man who would, amongst other achievements, be the first man to circumnavigate the world three times….

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