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June 2006
- by Carol Standish

Book Cover A Pirate of Exquisite Mind
Diana and Michael Preston
Berkeley Publ. Group, 335pp $15

As a reader of marine history and adventure, the title of this book intrigued me, just not enough to rush out and buy it. I wrote the title down and kept copying it from list to list for almost a year when finally, the book jumped itself out at me from the biography shelf at B&N. “Explorer, Naturalist and Buccaneer” read the sub-title. Sounded pretty much like most of the seagoing high achievers of the age of exploration except for the pirate part. I thought the fellow should be famous for that peculiar combination of activities alone. I had never heard of William Dampier—he certainly isn’t “household word” like Captain Cook and Captain Kidd—and what does his “exquisite mind” have to do with his unsung piracy or other adventures?

In their prologue, the authors, Diane and Michael Preston boil “who” down to a single sentence. “He was a pioneering navigator, naturalist, travel writer, and explorer, and hydrographer who was, indeed, quite happy to seek his fortune as a pirate.” Then, in the course of their energetic and detailed account of Dampier’s adventures and achievements they reveal the “why” of his obscurity.

Born probably in 1651 (records are missing) to a Scottish tenant farmer on Somerset estate, he served in “Dutch War” in the Royal Navy in 1673. When he returned to his home, both parents then dead, he was recruited by the Squire to work on his sugar plantation in Jamaica. Wary of becoming indentured he eventually arrived a free man (in itself, an adventure worthy of a novel) and briefly worked at the plantation before making his own way in the New World, working with native woodcutters in Honduras, exploring, and traveling for the sheer pleasure of personal discovery. He was a meticulous observer and kept a journal on virtually all of his travels. When they were eventually published his work was read not just for the scientific observations but simply for the pleasure of the reader. He became the first travel writer.

Dampier accomplished a lot of “firsts.” He was the first man to voyage three times around the globe, discovering Australia and identifying it as an island a full 80 years before Cook. (Both Cook and Horatio Nelson made use of Dampier’s maps.)

His accounts of his adventures on the high seas were an inspiration to such literary greats in the next generation as Swift and Defoe. Alexander Selkirk, the real Robinson Crusoe had sailed with Dampier and was rescued from Juan Fernandez Island by another ship, piloted by Dampier.

The first naturalist to visit all five continents, he was in the first party of Britons to visit the Galapagos where he observed and wrote about location-dependent variations within species in advance of Darwin. In fact, Both Darwin and Joseph Banks “mined” Dampier’s writing.

Dampier correctly theorized about the influences on winds and currents and wrote “A Discourse of Trade-Winds, Breezes, Storms, Seasons of the Year, Tides and Currents,” which became a classic reference for meteorologists and hydrographers of the era. In fact, the British Navy used the “Discourse” well into the twentieth century—through World War II.

Dampier was indeed both a Renaissance man and a swashbuckler. His driving energy, relative good health, insatiable curiosity about the world about him and his “exquisitely” inquisitive and observant mind drove him to seek and to record. He was curious about everything and determined to find out more about every plant animal, person and phenomenon he encountered.

But he was without a formal education or any blood connection to the power elite of his time. He was so much an egalitarian that after an apparently an uneventful stint in the Royal Navy in his youth, he was unable to function productively in an hierarchical, authoritative system. Although a problem solver and a strategist, he was not a leader. (He did some major tippling.) Naval officers generally hated him. And worst of all, he was a Scot.

So, although his writings were recognized as major contributions to the accumulating knowledge of the physical world, by the literati and the scientific community of the day he had no champions among the truly powerful. Hooray for the Prestons! They did a lively and thorough job of researching and resurrecting this giant achiever. Their research is meticulous (even their sources section is fascinating) and they took the trouble of re-tracing Dampier’s travels themselves, poor things. What a trip!

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