William Dampier was born at Hymerford House in East Coker, Somerset, in 1651. He was baptised on September 5, 1651, but his precise date of birth is not recorded.
Little is known of his early life other than that William sailed on two merchant voyages to Newfoundland and Java before joining the Royal Navy in 1673.
His Royal Navy service was cut short due to a catastrophic illness, and he returned to England for several months of recuperation.
After trying various other careers, including plantation management in Jamaica and logging in Mexico, William eventually joined buccaneer Captain Bartholomew Sharp’s pirate expedition in 1679.
This was his first circumnavigation of the globe, during which they accompanied a raid across the Isthmus of Darién in Panama and captured Spanish ships on the Pacific coast of that isthmus.
William also began writing about his escapades in a journal.
Bartholomew’s pirates then raided Spanish settlements in Peru before returning to the Caribbean.
William Dampier then made his way to Virginia, where in 1683 he was engaged by privateer John Cooke.
Cooke and Dampier entered the Pacific via Cape Horn and spent a year raiding Spanish possessions in Peru, the Galápagos Islands, and Mexico.
Cooke died in Mexico, and a new leader, Edward Davis, was elected captain by the crew.
William Dampier transferred to Captain Charles Swan’s ship, the privateer Cygnet, and on March 31, 1686 they set out across the Pacific to the East Indies, raiding Guam and Mindanao.
On Mindanao, Dampier left Swan and 36 others behind and sailed to Manila, Poulo Condor, China, the Spice Islands, and New Holland (Australia).
On January 5, 1688, the Cygnet with Dampier aboard was beached on the northwest coast of Australia, near King Sound.
William Dampier returned to England in 1691 via the Cape of Good Hope, penniless but in possession of his journals.
He also had as a source of income the famous painted (tattooed) Prince Jeoly and his mother, whom he had purchased as slaves and subsequently exhibited in London; thereby generating publicity while a book based on his diaries titled “A New Voyage Round the World was being printed in 1697.
The Roebuck expedition
Willaim Dampier assumed command of the 26 gun warship HMS Roebuck in July of 1698 with a commission from King William III.
This anomalous Royal Navy appointment of a former buccaneer to the command of one of King William’s ships is explained by Dampier’s growing reputation following the publication of his travelogue as well as the fame garnered from his widely exhibited tattooed slaves Prince Jeoly and his mother.
His mission was to explore the east coast of New Holland, the name given by the Dutch to what is now Australia, and Dampier’s intention was to travel there via Cape Horn.
The expedition set out on January 14, 1699, too late in the season to attempt the Horn, so it headed to New Holland via the Cape of Good Hope instead.
Following the Dutch route to the Indies, Dampier passed between Dirk Hartog Island and the Western Australian mainland into what he called Shark Bay on August 6, 1699.
Dampier then followed the coast north-east, reaching the Dampier Archipelago and Lagrange Bay, just south of what is now called Roebuck Bay, all the while recording and collecting specimens, including many shells.
From there, Dampier bore northward for Timor. He then sailed east and on December 3, 1699 rounded New Guinea, which he passed to the north.
They then sailed around the northern part of New Guinea, following the south-eastern coasts of New Hanover, New Ireland and then on February 27, 1700, William Dampier came across an island he named Nova Britannia (New Britain).
Today, the passage between the New Guinea and New Britain islands is named “Dampier Strait.”
By this time, however, Dampier’s ship the Roebuck was in such bad condition that he was forced to abandon his plan to examine the east coast of New Holland while less than a hundred miles from it.
In danger of sinking, Dampier attempted to make the return voyage to England, but the ship foundered at Ascension Island on February 21, 1701.
While anchored offshore the ship began to take on additional water, and though sent below to effect repairs, the carpenter could do nothing with the worm-eaten planking. As a result, the vessel had to be run aground. Dampier’s crew was marooned there for five weeks before being picked up on April 3rd by an East Indiaman and returned home in August of 1701.
Although many papers were lost with the Roebuck, Dampier was able to save some new charts of coastlines, and his record of trade winds and currents in the seas around Australia and New Guinea.
William Dampier’s account of this expedition was published as A Voyage to New Holland in 1703.
Also, on his return from the Roebuck expedition, William Dampier was court-martialled for cruelty.
William Dampier, Captain, HMS Roebuck.
Crime: Hard and cruel usage of the lieutenant.
Sentence: Forfeit all pay due and deemed unfit to command any of His Majesty’s ships.
Dampier was then appointed commander of the 26-gun English privateer ship St George, with a crew of 120 men. They were joined by the 16-gun Cinque Ports with 63 men, and sailed on September 11, 1703 from Kinsale, Ireland.
The two ships made a storm-tossed passage round Cape Horn, arriving at the Juan Fernández Islands off the coast of Chile in February 1704.
While watering and provisioning there, they sighted a heavily armed French merchantman, which they engaged in a seven-hour battle but were driven off.
Dampier succeeded in capturing a number of small Spanish ships along the coast of Peru, but released them after removing only a fraction of their cargoes because he believed they “would be a hindrance to his greater designs.”
The greater design he had in mind was a raid on Santa María, a town on the Gulf of Panama rumoured to hold stockpiles of gold from nearby mines. When the force of seamen he led against the town met with unexpectedly strong resistance, however, he withdrew.
In May 1704 the Cinque Ports separated from St George and, after putting Alexander Selkirk ashore alone on an island for complaining about the vessel’s seaworthiness, sank off the coast of what is today Colombia. Some of its crew survived being shipwrecked but were made prisoners of the Spanish.
It was now left to the St George to make an attempt on the Manila galleon, the main object of the expedition. The ship was sighted on December 6, 1704, probably the Nuestra Señora del Rosario. It was caught unprepared and had not run out its guns. But while Dampier and his officers argued over the best way to mount an attack, the galleon got its guns loaded and the battle was joined. St George soon found itself out-sized by the galleon’s 18- and 24-pounders, and, suffering serious damage, they were forced to break off the attack.
The failure to capture the Spanish galleon completed the break-up of the expedition. Dampier, with about thirty men, was left in St George, the rest going on board a captured barque and crossing the Pacific to Amboyna in the Dutch settlements. The undermanned and worm-damaged St George had to be abandoned on the coast of Peru. Dampier and his remaining men embarked in a Spanish prize across the Pacific, where they were thrown into prison as pirates by their supposed allies the Dutch but later released.
Now without a ship, Dampier eventually made his way back to England at the end of 1707.
Then in 1708, Dampier was engaged to serve on the privateer Duke, not as captain but as sailing master.
The Duke beat its way into the South Pacific Ocean round Cape Horn in consort with a second ship, the Duchess.
Dampier then completed his third circumnavigation by way of the East Indies and the Cape of Good Hope as the sailing master of the Encarnación, dropping anchor at the Thames in London on October 14, 1711.
William Dampier then died in March of 1715 in the Parish of St Stephen Coleman Street, London.
The exact date and circumstances of his death, and his final resting place, are all unknown.
In 2001, the wreck of the Roebuck was located in Clarence Bay, Ascension Island, by a team from the Western Australian Maritime Museum.
Now WE know em