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Yale University Press
Naturalists at Sea: Scientific Travellers from Dampier to Darwin

Naturalists at Sea: Scientific Travellers from Dampier to Darwin

by Glyn Williams


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300180732
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/31/2013
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Glyn Williams is emeritus professor of history, University of London. He is the author of more than a dozen books on European voyages of exploration.

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Copyright © 2013 Glyn Williams
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-18073-2


The 'rambling voyages' of William Dampier, Self-Taught Naturalist

For the maritime nations of Europe, the late seventeenth century was part of 'the Dark Age of Pacific historiography', that long interval between the discovery voyages of the sixteenth century and the systematic explorations of the age of Cook. The immensity of the Pacific Ocean, inexact navigational instruments, the ravages of scurvy and the straitjacket of winds and currents posed huge problems to methodical exploration. After the Dutch explorations of Tasman in the 1640s the slow-moving course of Pacific exploration came to a halt. English enterprise in the ocean had been represented by the predatory voyages of Drake and Cavendish in the reign of Elizabeth I, and when interest revived in the 1670s the motives were the same as those that had prompted the Tudor adventurers: trade and plunder. The Pacific caught the English imagination not as a vast, trackless ocean but as the western rim of Spain's rich American empire. The 'South Sea' that now began to feature in English enterprise and literature was confined to the waters that lapped the shores of Chile, Peru and Mexico, the hunting ground of those rapacious marauders, the buccaneers.

The first incursions of the buccaneers were chaotic ventures as they straggled across the Panama Isthmus and relied on seizing local craft once they reached the South Sea; but during the 1680s buccaneer ships fitted out in Europe entered the Pacific through the Strait of Magellan or around Cape Horn. Neither exploration nor legitimate trade featured high on the buccaneers' list of objectives. 'Gold was the bait that tempted a Pack of Merry Boys of us', one of them admitted. Violent, disputatious, anarchic, they looted and burned their way along the Pacific coast from Valdivia to Acapulco. Moving between sea and land, switching from ship to ship, often taking to small boats and frail canoes, the buccaneers led a life of hardship and danger. With all ports closed to them, they might be at sea in their overcrowded craft for months on end; food and water were often in short supply; and scurvy was an ever-present menace. They received no regular wages, but operated on the chancy basis of 'no purchase, no pay'. The crews were made up of many nationalities, but in England they held a place in popular esteem that reflected admiration for their perceived role as fighters against Spain and popery, and for the 'rags to riches' aspect of their lives. Essential to this heroising process were the buccaneers' own accounts. Given the conditions in which they travelled, it is remarkable that a handful managed to write and preserve journals that were a cut above the usual sea-logs. Among them were Basil Ringrose, who had enough classical learning to negotiate with the Spaniards in Latin, and whose narrative was published in 1685 in the second English edition of the Dutch writer Olivier Exquemelin's History of the Bucaniers of America; Bartholomew Sharpe, the first English seaman to round Cape Horn in an easterly direction; ship's surgeon Lionel Wafer, whose notes on the Cuna Indians of southeast Panama were of interest to anthropologists well into the twentieth century; and, above all, William Dampier, 'an exact Observer of all things in Earth, Sea and Air', whose New Voyage round the World, published in 1697, became a classic of travel and adventure.

Born in East Coker, Somerset, in 1651, and educated at a local grammar school, Dampier made his first voyage as an eighteen-year-old to Newfoundland before joining an East Indiaman bound for Java in 1671. On his return he enlisted in the Royal Navy and served in the Third Dutch War before being hospitalised in 1673. The next year Dampier sailed to Jamaica, where he spent a few months helping with plantation management before quarrelling with the manager, who referred to Dampier as 'a self-conceited young man and one that understands little or nothing, and one that has been given to rambling, and therefore cannot settle himself to stay long in any place'. We get some hint of Dampier's intention to keep a record of his activities as he prepared for his voyage to Jamaica, for he asked for paper, ink and quills as well as a pair of stout shoes and ingredients for making punch. After abandoning his plantation job, Dampier sailed to the Bay of Campeachy (Campeche) in the southern part of the Gulf of Mexico where he spent most of the next three years cutting logwood, a hazardous and strenuous occupation, although the profits made from the red dye extracted from the trees were high. On the mosquito-infested marshy shores where the logwood trees grew, the cutters lived in crude huts thatched with palm leaves that offered little protection in the rainy season, when the cutters might step from their beds 'into the Water perhaps two Feet deep, and continue standing in the wet all Day, till they go to Bed again'.

In 1678, Dampier returned to England with some capital, and married. He must also have brought home with him a journal about his experiences as a logwooder, which was to appear as Voyages to Campeachy. This was not published until 1699 as part of Voyages and Descriptions, the second volume of his travels, and has still not received as much attention as it deserves since it stands in the shadow of the more celebrated New Voyage round the World and deals with a less dramatic period of Dampier's life. Although it was almost certainly written after the New Voyage, and was intended to profit from that book's success, Voyages to Campeachy shows that Dampier was keeping detailed notes while in his twenties and before he became a buccaneer. His account described the perilous life of the logwood cutters, and the dangers they faced from alligators, snakes, hurricanes and hostile Spaniards. In June 1676 a hurricane destroyed the cutters' huts and their equipment, tore up trees and turned the shoreline into a flooded shambles. In the midst of the chaos, Dampier had enough presence of mind to save his notes, which included one of the first detailed descriptions of a hurricane. In less dramatic sections Dampier described the Bay area and its Indian inhabitants, and the wildlife: animals, fish, birds, insects and vegetation. The contents page for Chapter II included 'A Description of some Animals, Squashes, large long-tail'd Monkies, Ant-bears, Sloths, Armadillos, Tigre Catts, Snakes of three sorts, Calliwasps, Huge Spiders, Great Ants and their Nests, Rambling Ants, Humming Birds, Black-Birds, Turtle Doves' – to give only the first part of the list.

In 1679, Dampier returned to Jamaica, where he joined a force of buccaneers who the following April crossed the Isthmus of Panama. It was the beginning of Dampier's long career as a buccaneer and global traveller, and he did not return to England until 1691. Six years after his return the firm of James Knapton published an account of his travels. The title-page of the New Voyage round the World reveals the extent of his journeys: not a single cruise, but a series of wanderings and diversions to 'the Isthmus of America, several Coasts and islands in the West Indies, the Isles of Cape Verd, the Passage by Terra del Fuego, the South Sea Coasts of Chili, Peru, and Mexico, the Isle of Guam, one of the Ladrones, Mindanao, and other Philippine and East-India Islands near Cambodia, China, Formosa, Luconia, Celebes, &c. New Holland, Sumatra, Nicobar Isles, the Cape of Good Hope, and Santa Hellena'. It had taken him thirteen years to complete his interrupted circumnavigation, a fact he turned to his advantage in his account: 'one who rambles about a Country can usually give a better account of it, than a Carrier who jogs on to his Inn, without ever going out of his Road'. His 'better account' was clearly intended to be different from the blood-stained narratives written by Exquemelin, Sharpe and Ringrose; rather it would be 'a mixt Relation of Places and Actions', with descriptions of the 'Soil, Rivers, Harbours, Plants, Fruits, Animals, and Inhabitants. Their Customs, Religion, Government, Trade, &c.' Adding to the book's appeal were the maps drawn by one of the leading cartographers of the day, Herman Moll. There were 'Actions' in plenty, and these probably formed the main attraction for most of his readers.

Serving on a half-dozen different ships, Dampier took part in raids on Spanish shipping and settlements along the coasts of Chile, Peru and Mexico. His account of the buccaneers' violent activities makes vivid reading, but contains little about Dampier's own participation in them. Usually, he was at pains to hint that his motives were different from those of his companions, and that he was driven by a quest for knowledge rather than for wealth. For example, he explained that in 1686 he remained on the buccaneering vessel the Cygnet as she left the South Sea to sail west across the Pacific to Guam and Mindanao because that was 'a way very agreeable to my Inclination' and it would 'Endulge my curiosity'.

During 1687 the Cygnet cruised in the North China Seas before heading south through the Dutch East Indies to Timor, and farther south still to the little-known coast of New Holland (modern Australia) 'to see what that Country would afford us'. In January 1688 the Cygnet anchored in Karrakatta Bay in King Sound on Australia's northwest coast where she remained for five weeks. From there the vessel sailed into the Indian Ocean to the Nicobar Islands, where Dampier left her. His adventures were far from over as he sailed with a few companions in an outrigger canoe to Sumatra and then on to Achin. Off the coast of Sumatra the little craft was caught in a storm that threatened to swamp it: 'The Sea was already roaring in a white Foam about us; a dark Night coming on, and no Land in sight to shelter us ... I had a lingering View of approaching Death, and little or no hopes of escaping it; and I must confess that my Courage, which I had hitherto kept up, failed me here.' Surviving this crisis, Dampier was struck down with a serious illness at Achin. There he described, but claimed never to have tried, marijuana: 'They have here a sort of plant called ganga, or band ... It is reported of this plant, that if it is infused in any liquor, it will stupefy the brains of any person that drinks thereof; but it operates diversely, according to the constitution of the person. Some it keeps sleepy, some merry, putting them into a laughing fit, and others it makes mad.' Once recovered, Dampier resumed his wanderings, spending time in Malacca (Melaka), Tonkin (Vietnam), Cambodia and Madras, as well as serving as a gunner in Sumatra. At last he was showing signs of travel-weariness – 'I began to long after my native Country, after so tedious a Ramble from it' – and in January 1691 he set sail from Sumatra in an East Indiaman, and arrived home in September. With him came an enforced visitor to England: Jeoly, 'the painted [tattooed] Prince', captured on a small island near Mindanao. Once back in England, shortage of funds compelled Dampier to sell his half-share in the unfortunate Jeoly, who was exhibited at sideshows before dying of smallpox.

Little is known about Dampier's movements between his return to England and the publication of his New Voyage six years later. Recent research has shown that in 1694 and 1695 he was involved in an abortive project at La Coruña in northern Spain to salvage Spanish wrecks in American waters. The venture collapsed when mutineers led by Henry Every (soon to become better known as the pirate 'Captain John Avery') sailed away on the flagship to embark on a career of freebooting in eastern waters. It was possibly during his months of idleness at La Coruña that Dampier began the task of revising and polishing his journal with a view to publication. Of Dampier's care in writing and safeguarding his notes there can be no doubt. Escaping from the Cygnet among the Nicobar Islands in May 1688, he was in a canoe that overturned, soaking 'my Journal and some Drafts of Land of my own taking, which I much prized', and which were only saved after much drying in front of 'great fires'. During this canoe voyage Dampier also referred to his 'Pocket-book' in which he had entered navigational details before leaving the ship. Three years later, he described another escapade in which 'I came by stealth from Bencooly [Benkulen], and left all my books Drafts and Instruments Cloaths bedding ... and wages behind. I only brought with me this Journall and my painted prince.' The length of time Dampier was away argues against the existence of a single journal. As he crossed the rivers and swamps of the Panama Isthmus in 1681 he described how he placed 'my Journal and other writings' in a bamboo cane plugged with wax to keep them dry, and 'the journal' that Dampier brought back to England probably consisted of a number of separate logs, notebooks and loose sheets. Given the precarious circumstances of his travels, moving from ship to ship, sometimes in small boats, sometimes living a hand-to-mouth existence on land, it is remarkable that Dampier managed to obtain the necessary writing materials to keep a detailed record, and then protected it from insect ravages, enemy action and the carelessness of shipmates. Of these original manuscripts there is no trace, although the Sloane Manuscripts in the British Library contain a journal of Dampier's voyages which internal evidence shows was written after his return to England. The main text is in the hand of an unknown clerk, but it contains many additions and corrections in Dampier's handwriting. Even so, it is considerably shorter than the published account of 1697, and contains little of the information on the natural history of the places Dampier visited that made A New Voyage so original and valuable an account.

One of the most puzzling aspects of the authorial relationship between Dampier's New Voyage and the Sloane journal is their different descriptions of the Aborigines of New Holland. The Cygnet's anchorage of five weeks in King Sound in early 1688 was the longest known stay by Europeans on the Australian mainland. Earlier Dutch landings had been for a matter of days, sometimes only hours, and often without any contact with the local inhabitants. Dampier, by contrast, saw enough of the Aborigines to devote several pages to them, and his description of them in the New Voyage was to live long in the European memory. Naked, black, without dwellings,

the Inhabitants of this Country are the miserablest People in the World ... setting aside their Humane Shape, they differ little from Brutes. They are tall, strait-bodied, and thin, with small long Limbs ... Their Eyelids are always half closed, to keep the Flies out of their Eyes ... They are long-visaged, and of a very unpleasing Aspect, having no one graceful Feature in their Faces. Their Hair is black, short and curl'd like that of the Negroes, and not long and lank, like the Common Indians. The Colour of their Skins, both of their Faces, and the rest of their Body, is Coal-black, like that of the Negroes of Guinea.

They had no metal or implements; their only weapons were wooden swords and spears. They grew no crops, trapped nothing and seemed to live on small fish stranded at low tide. Their speech was unintelligible. Some of them were taken on board the ship, where they showed no curiosity about their new surroundings. Attempts were made to press them into service carrying water casks, but 'all the signs we could make were to no purpose, for they stood like Statues, without motion, but grinn'd like so many Monkeys, staring one upon another'.

This unprepossessing description was to be transmitted to generations of readers and scholars. In the mid-eighteenth century one of Europe's leading natural scientists, the Comte de Buffon, simply translated Dampier when he came to categorise the inhabitants of New Holland. In Australian waters more than seventy years after Dampier's landing, James Cook and Joseph Banks on the Endeavour had the New Voyage to hand as they strained for their first sight of life on the shores of southeast Australia. Banks wrote, 'We stood in with the land near enough to discern 5 people who appeared through our glasses to be enormously black: so far did the prejudices which we had built on Dampiers account influence us that we fancied we could see their Colour when we could scarce distinguish whether or not they were men.' In his earlier manuscript account Dampier is briefer and more accurate – for example, on the nature of the Aborigines' hair: 'They are people of good stature but very thin and leane I judge for want of food[;] they are black yet I belive their haires would be long if it was comed out but for want of Combs it is matted up like a negroes' hair.' He does not refer to them as 'the miserablest People in the World', there are no references to beastlike appearances, and the Aboriginal lifestyle is fairly described as a simple one, in which 'they are not troubled with household goods nor cloaths'.

Excerpted from NATURALISTS AT SEA by GLYN WILLIAMS. Copyright © 2013 Glyn Williams. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations and Map ix

Acknowledgements xiii

Introduction 1

1 The rambling voyages' of William Dampier, Self-Taught Naturalist 7

2 'Ten years of preparation; ten hours of exploration: The Alaskan Tribulations of Georg Wilhelm Steller 32

3 'My plants, my beloved plants, have consoled me for everything': The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Philibert Commerson 54

4 'No people ever went to sea better fitted out for the purposes of Natural History': Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander 73

5 'A kind of Linnaean being': The Woes of Johann Reinhold Forster 95

6 'Curse scientists, and all science into the bargain: Cook, Vancouver and 'experimental gentlemen 122

7 'Devilish fellows who test patience to the very limit': Naturalists with La Pérouse and d'Entrecasteaux 150

8 'All our efforts will be focussed on natural history': The Scientific and Political Voyage of Alejandro Malaspina 179

9 'When a botanist first enters so remote a country-he finds himself in a new world': The Australian Surveys of Nicolas Baudin and Matthew Flinders 201

10 'Like giving to a blind man eyes': Charles Darwin on the Beagle 232

Conclusion 260

Notes 264

Select Bibliography 289

Index 297

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