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Pirate of Exquisite Mind: The Life of William Dampier

Pirate of Exquisite Mind: The Life of William Dampier

by Diana Preston, Michael Preston

Darwin took his books aboard the Beagle. Swift and Defoe used his experiences as inspiration in writing Gulliver's Travels and Robinson Crusoe. Captain Cook relied on his observations while voyaging around the world. Coleridge called him a genius and "a man of exquisite mind." In the history of exploration, nobody has ventured further than Englishman


Darwin took his books aboard the Beagle. Swift and Defoe used his experiences as inspiration in writing Gulliver's Travels and Robinson Crusoe. Captain Cook relied on his observations while voyaging around the world. Coleridge called him a genius and "a man of exquisite mind." In the history of exploration, nobody has ventured further than Englishman William Dampier. Yet while the exploits of Cook, Shackleton, and a host of legendary explorers have been widely chronicled, those of perhaps the greatest are virtually invisible today—an omission that Diana and Michael Preston have redressed in this vivid, compelling biography.

As a young man Dampier spent several years in the swashbuckling company of buccaneers in the Caribbean. At a time when surviving one voyage across the Pacific was cause for celebration, Dampier ultimately journeyed three times around the world; his bestselling books about his experiences were a sensation, influencing generations of scientists, explorers, and writers. He was the first to deduce that winds cause currents and the first to produce wind maps across the world, surpassing even the work of Edmund Halley. He introduced the concept of the "sub-species" that Darwin later built into his theory of evolution, and his description of the breadfruit was the impetus for Captain Bligh's voyage on the Bounty. Dampier reached Australia 80 years before Cook, and he later led the first formal expedition of science and discovery there.

A Pirate of Exquisite Mind restores William Dampier to his rightful place in history—one of the pioneers on whose insights our understanding of the natural world was built.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Piratical rewards of the 17th century came at a high price. The hapless buccaneer toiled for years on a creaky wooden ship, roasting in the rigging, dreaming of the glint of Spanish gold. It is extraordinary to read, in Diana and Michael Preston's carefully researched book, of a swashbuckling English pirate who was primarily motivated by a thirst for knowledge. — Sara Wheeler
Publishers Weekly
Dampier's adventures and observations ignited the imagination of a generation, but today his name is largely unknown. This exhaustive biography by Diana Preston (Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy; The Boxer Rebellion; etc.) and husband Michael won't make Dampier famous again, but it will give readers a clear understanding of one of the most well-traveled men in history. In the late 1600s, Dampier, an Englishman, circumnavigated the globe three separate times. The authors draw heavily on the books and articles Dampier published about his adventures, and they include the most mundane of details ("The buccaneers sailed on, pausing to bury at sea one of their number, who apparently expired of high fever exacerbated by hiccups brought on by a drinking bout at La Serena"). During his time as a buccaneer, Dampier launched dozens of raids on gold-laden Spanish ships, marched through Panama's jungles and mutinied many times. What distinguished him from an ordinary pirate, as the title indicates, was his sharp eye for observation. He was the first self-made naturalist to visit the Gal pagos; his sketches of the region's turtles set the stage for Darwin's future visit. He also drew detailed maps of nearly every place he visited, charts that defined Western Europe's knowledge of the Americas and the South Seas. His theories about how wind patterns affect ocean currents are still used today. Indeed, Dampier's scientific and historical legacy holds up better than his swashbuckling escapades, which, though exciting, hold slightly less novelty. 65 b&w illus., maps. Agent, Michael Carlisle. (Apr.) Forecast: This alternate selection of the Book-of-the-Month, History and Quality Paperback Book Clubs should appeal to historians and pirate buffs, as well as fans of Patrick O'Brian novels and those enthralled by Pirates of the Caribbean. Like Humboldt's Cosmos (Forecasts, Feb. 9), it illuminates a largely forgotten adventurer. Booksellers might position the books together. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Rich with incident and novelty, the life of a swashbuckler whose exploits and writings impressed generations of readers, including Darwin and Humboldt, though he's little remembered today. Thoroughly dazzled by their subject, the authors aim to redress that injustice. Nonfiction veteran Diana Preston (The Boxer Rebellion, 2000, etc.) and husband Michael convey Dampier's life in punchy, declarative sentences, strained only by the sheer plentitude of his doings. Most of the material comes from his published works; Dampier pretty much invented the modern travel narrative, fashioning bestsellers borne on "the accessibility of his writing and the exoticism of his experience." Much of the rest comes from records at the Court of Admiralty; he was also an active buccaneer and a lousy leader of men. Cut of standard English piratical cloth, this rumbustious plunderer of Spanish ships and towns always had an eye skinned for booty or opportunities for ransom. His pioneering qualities and inexhaustible curiosity made him a natural star in an age "when inquiry was fashionable and ingenuity admired." The Prestons present Dampier as an ambiguous figure, a man who would engage himself in daring and bloody raids, then turn around and write A Discourse of Trade-Winds, Breezes, Storms, Seasons of the Year, Tides, and Currents. He was hungry not just for filthy lucre, which often evaded his grasp, but also for appreciating and appraising the strange lands he visited as he circumnavigated the globe the times. (He visited Australia years before Cook.) No silver or gold? No problem for Dampier, who would take his payment in observations of flamingoes so numerous they looked like "a wall of new brick" (pink,17th-century brick, that is), or in hunting with the raja of Mindanao, or in savoring the local oysters. Yeomanly treatment of a man who "wanted desperately to make his fortune but was seduced by the quest for knowledge." (65 b&w illustrations, 12 maps) Book-of-the-Month Club/History Book Club/Quality Paperback Book Club alternate selection; author tour. Agent: Michael Carlisle/Carlisle & Co.

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Walker & Company
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Read an Excerpt


Explorer, Naturalist, and Buccaneer: The Life of William Dampier
By Diana Preston Michael Preston

Walker & Company

Copyright © 2004 Diana and Michael Preston
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8027-1425-0

Chapter One


On 6 April 1674 the merchant ship Content sailed down the Thames, bound for the fast-growing colony of Jamaica. Onboard was a nervous, thin-faced young man on his way to work on a sugar plantation. Twenty-two-year-old William Dampier had balked at the last moment. He feared being sold as an indentured servant when the ship berthed in Jamaica. As wind filled the sails and the small vessel began to creak and roll, it was too late to change his mind. However, he had sensibly agreed with the ship's captain, John Kent, that he would work his passage as an able seaman. As such, the law required Kent to discharge him as a free man on his arrival.

Dampier had good reason to be suspicious. The colonies had a ferocious appetite for cheap labor for their burgeoning tobacco and sugar plantations. Agents determinedly roamed London's streets and taverns searching for people to cajole and bully into signing indentures, thereby selling themselves into periods of servitude. Sometimes they simply befuddled them with drink before bundling them up the gangplank; then they took their commission and hastily departed. Their victims sobered up to find themselves at sea. Seaman Edward Barlow often watched such servants going under the hammer in Jamaica and knew the going rate: "for country men and such as have no trades ten, twelve or thirteen pounds ... but they that have any trades, they sell for sixteen, twenty, and sometimes for twenty-five pound." On the slightest and most dubious pretexts, employers arbitrarily extended the period of indentures without recompense. It was little better than slavery.

William Dampier's position was, he realized, somewhat ambiguous. He had accepted "a seasonable offer" to go to Jamaica from Colonel William Helyar, squire of East Coker in Somerset, and his late father's erstwhile landlord. Helyar was on the lookout for young men willing to work on his sugar plantation, Bybrook. As a boy, Dampier had impressed the squire with his knowledge of the crops grown by Helyar's tenants. Dampier wrote proudly, "[I] came acquainted with them all, and knew what each sort would produce ... in all which I had a more than usual knowledge for one so young, taking a particular delight in observing."

Helyar had provided Dampier with some supplies on the understanding that he would work for a period in return, but there was no formal agreement between them specifying for how long or on what terms. This perplexed Helyar's London agents, Rex Rock and Thomas Hillyard, particularly when Dampier began to demand further items before the voyage: paper, ink and quills, a pair of shoes, and a pound of soap. He also insisted on a grater, a nutmeg, and two pounds of sugar-essential ingredients for making punch. The two men complained to Helyar "that William Dampier has been very extravagant."

Dampier rightly suspected that Rock and Hillyard intended to recoup the outlay by indenturing him on their own account, if not that of Squire Helyar, but they had waited too long. They tried to make Dampier sign indentures aboard the Content before she sailed, but he protested angrily. He was supported by fellow passengers also on their way to Bybrook-a doctor, carpenter, mason, and the doctor's boy, Charles Wentworth. The carpenter and mason in particular became "very quarrelsome," fearing they too would be compelled to sign indentures. Customs officials, alerted by the angry shouting on deck, began to ask awkward questions about kidnapping. Helyar's exasperated agents gave up, pacifying the vociferous Bybrook group with shoes, pipes, "more brandy and a joint of fresh meat."

The situation degenerated further into farce. An embarrassed Hillyard later confessed to Squire Helyar that "the person that went by the name of Charles Wentworth that was supposed to be the doctor's boy was discovered to be a young woman." "Charles Wentworth" was, in fact, the doctor's mistress. She insisted vehemently that she was a boy until an intimate body search in the captain's cabin "found her otherwise." One of the officials suggested that she might even be a murderess escaping in disguise, and she was taken ashore to explain herself. She claimed that, knowing Squire Helyar opposed sending women to his plantation, she had disguised herself "for the love of her husband." Rex Rock, determined to see the last of the doctor and his paramour, hastily forged a marriage certificate, perfunctorily aging it by rubbing it on an old shoe. He also dredged up a witness prepared to swear he had seen the couple married. The stratagem worked: "The searchers seeing the evidence so plain" caved in and said ""What love is this! ... God forbid that we should part man and wife.'" Yet further expenditure followed. "Mrs. Wentworth'" needed suitable clothes, and Squire Helyar received a bill for shoes, stockings, blue aprons, and a becoming velvet cap, as well as for yet more brandy.

By 11 April the Content, with her expensive passengers was out into the Atlantic beyond Land's End. Dampier observed with a practiced eye how the favorable winds drove the Content "merrily along." He was no novice at sea. Born in East Coker the second son of a tenant farmer in 1651, he was lucky to receive a good education, including a grounding in Latin and arithmetic. A sharp intelligence and a driving curiosity prompted a desire "of seeing the world." His father, George, had died at the age of forty when Dampier was seven and his mother, Anne, seven years later during the Great Plague. Orphaned, Dampier persuaded his guardians to apprentice him to a shipmaster in Weymouth. A short voyage to France was followed by a longer one to Newfoundland. The latter left him "pinched" with cold and with a lifelong distaste of cold climates.

Nevertheless, the sea, and what it seemed to promise, nagged at him. Before long, he was in London, drawn by the densely massed ships anchored in the River Thames whose swaying masts resembled a forest stripped of leaves. Here, at the end of 1670, he was offered the "warm voyage and a long one," which he had "always desired." He sailed downriver on the East Indiaman John and Martha, gazing on a city still partly wrecked by the Great Fire four years earlier. The shattered fabric of St. Paul's Cathedral lay untouched, awaiting the gunpowder and battering rams that would clear the way for Christopher Wren's grand new design.

That earlier voyage took Dampier around the Cape of Good Hope to Java in the East Indies. He began to learn the art of "conning," or navigating the ship. In those days, navigation was indeed such an art that the ship's navigator was often known as the ship's "artist." As part of his education, Dampier began to observe the patterns of the winds and weather, how they varied, and how best to use them to secure a safe passage. He found out about the difficulties of navigation the hard way. On the return voyage, poor weather and the consequent inability to navigate by the sun and stars, meant that they sailed past St. Helena, "where [they] thought to water and to refresh." Water was strictly rationed. For "the first time," lamented Dampier, "I began to know the value of flesh water for we took in none all our way home from the East Indies."

Returning to England, he quickly wearied "of staying ashore." The outbreak in 1672 of the Third Dutch War provided an opportunity to return to sea. The war was the continuation of an intermittent and bitter trade conflict between the English and the Dutch that had first flared twenty years earlier, and which had, among other matters, resulted in the ceding in 1667 of New Amsterdam to England to become New York. At the age of twenty-one, Dampier enlisted in the Royal Navy, where he served on the Royal Prince under the ebullient, hard-living Sir Edward Spragge. His shipmates reputedly included the future pirate William Kidd. Dampier fought in two engagements, experiencing for the first but not the last time the acrid smell of smoke from the guns, shot crashing through oak timbers, the crack of musketry, and the screams of the injured. However, he fell ill and in August 1673 witnessed the final engagement of the war from the deck of a hospital ship. Dampier "languished a great while" in a hospital in Harwich, but as his health returned, so too did his "old inclination for the sea" and his hunger to travel. Squire Helyar's offer came at just the right time.

The Content finally sighted Jamaica toward the end of June 1674. The island had been in English hands since 1655, when Oliver Cromwell's Puritan forces-under Admiral William Penn (father of the founder of Pennsylvania) and General Robert Venables-had seized it from the Spanish. Many soldiers and sailors from among "the strict Saints," as the Puritan forces liked to be known, had settled on the fertile island. They took over the cattle ranches and cocoa walks abandoned by the Spanish and benefited from generous duty and tax concessions. After Charles II's Restoration in 1660, new waves of royalist settlers arrived with promises of rewards for their loyalty.

Jamaica was an excellent base from which to harass the Spanish Main-as the British called the mainland of Central and South America bordering the Caribbean. Also, the great Spanish treasure galleons carrying silver and gold from Cartagena to Havana lumbered temptingly past within 300 miles. Unsurprisingly, Jamaica soon attracted pirates and privateers anxious to raid Spanish wealth. The Jamaican authorities, first Puritan and later royalist, connived with them, and they had some spectacular successes.

In April 1671, Welshman Henry Morgan sailed triumphantly into Jamaica's port Royal with loot from Panama, one of the New World's wealthiest settlements. Morgan had sacked the city after crossing the Isthmus of Panama with 1,200 men in less than nine days. As they retreated, the Spaniards had scorched the country behind them, and Morgan and his men were compelled to chew leather bags to quell their hunger. In a pitched battle before the walls of Panama, Morgan outflanked his enemy and took the city. Morgan's zeal led to an orgy of drunken rape and pillage. In their zest for profit Morgan and his men reportedly used torture, including suspending unfortunate Spaniards by their testicles, to make the citizens reveal their treasure. It took 175 pack animals to carry the booty back over the isthmus to the Caribbean.

Three years later, Dampier stepped ashore into a thriving town of 6,000 inhabitants. It stood on the natural breakwater of a jutting, cactus-covered sand-spit and was already one of the busiest ports of the New World. The deep, wide harbor could accommodate 500 ships, many bringing ever-increasing numbers of slaves direct from West Africa to work the plantations. Others carried anything from lace to grindstones, flints for muskets, and white clay pipes. Warehouses crowded the waterfront. Departing vessels were loaded with sugar, hides, tortoiseshell, ebony, cotton, and dyes. The nostril-twitching scent of ginger and cinnamon spiced the dockside air.

Close to the water's edge was the first building thrown up by the English: a small fort with a round tower hurriedly constructed to repel Spanish attempts to retake the island. At the Restoration it was judiciously christened Fort Charles by the ruling Puritans, and the surrounding town, previously known by the English as Cagway, renamed Port Royal in nervous tribute to the new monarch. Some of the 800 or so houses lining the narrow, sandy streets were imposing four-story buildings, built from the red brick brought out by ships as ballast. They were handsomely furnished with oak tables, chairs, and chests, some inlaid with ivory and tortoiseshell, much of it looted from the Spanish and cheerfully sold in the shops of Port Royal. Most citizens ate and drank off Spanish pewter. The wealthy supped off Spanish silver. The thriving population of tradesmen earned twice or thrice what they would have made in England.

Residents had plenty to spend their money on, from bullbaiting and cockfights to liquor. Port Royal had no fresh water of its own. Canoes brought supplies from the site of modern Kingston across the bay, and a high wind could easily mean a day without water. Perhaps in compensation, Port Royal's superabundance of imported alcohol struck contemporaries as remarkable. Given the amount of sugar grown, there was also a huge quantity of cheap local rum, originally called "rumbullion" and nicknamed "Kill devil." Not everyone liked it. One visitor dismissed it shudderingly as "hot, hellish and terrible."

All the favorite foods from home were available, but care was needed to prevent meat from spoiling. "They cannot keep beef past some few days and [even] that [when it is] salted. Otherwise in three-four hours tis ready to corrupt." But menus provided additional "very good victuals," in particular the meat of the green turtle-so named from the color of its fat. Forty sloops were involved at any one time in hunting them in the Cayman Islands and bringing them to Port Royal, where they were kept in pens till needed. They fetched the high price of "fifteen shillings a piece." A rather cheaper delicacy was sold by the dozen: rats. One observer rather doubtfully recorded, "when they have been bred among the sugar canes [they] are thought by some discerning people very delicious victuals."

Port Royal was famous for sexual excess. Brothels abounded, filled with "such a crew of vile strumpets, and common prostitutes, that tis almost impossible to civilize" the town, since they were "its walking plague, against which neither cage, whip nor ducking-stool would prevail." Men paid 500 pieces of eight just to see "a common strumpet" naked. These "hot Amazons" congregated in taverns like Betty Ware's, where seamen dueled with cutlasses in a mad hubbub of "obscene masculine talk and behaviour" from these women. Their numbers included No-Conscience Nan, Salt-Beef Peg, and Buttock-de-Clink Jenny. The most famous of them, Mary Carleton, had recently departed. Of her, a contemporary said: 'A stout frigate she was or else she never could have endured so many batteries and assaults.... she was as common as a barber's chair: no sooner was one out, but another was in." Even Jamaica's governor admitted that formerly "strict puritan Saints" were now among the colony's "most debauched devils." The sights so disgusted one cleric that he left by the same ship that had brought him, declaring: "This town is the Sodom of the New World" and "the majority of its population pirates, cut-throats, whores and some of the vilest persons in the whole of the world."

Dampier and his companions traveled inland from Port Royal to the more sober and respectable Spanish Town, as the old Spanish capital of St. Jago de la Vega was known. Here they were given a cordial welcome by William Whaley, the manager of Bybrook and Squire Helyar's godson.


Excerpted from A PIRATE OF EXQUISITE MIND by Diana Preston Michael Preston Copyright © 2004 by Diana and Michael Preston. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Born and raised in London, Diana Preston studied Modern History at Oxford University, where she first became involved in journalism. After earning her degree, she became a freelance writer of feature and travel articles for national UK newspapers and magazines and has subsequently reviewed books for a number of publications, including The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times. She has also been a broadcaster for the BBC and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and has been featured in various television documentaries.

A Pirate of Exquisite Mind: Explorer, Naturalist and Buccaneer: The Life of William Dampier (Walker & Company, April 2004) is a new biography of the 17th-century British explorer, naturalist, scientist, pirate and buccaneer William Dampier coauthored by Diana and her husband, Michael Preston.

Diana's decision to write "popular" history led her to The Road to Culloden Moor: Bonnie Prince Charlie and the '45 Rebellion (Constable UK, 1995). It was followed by A First Rate Tragedy: Robert Falcon Scott and the Race to the South Pole (Houghton Mifflin, 1998), The Boxer Rebellion (Walker & Company, 2000), and Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy (Walker & Company, 2002).

When not writing, Diana and Michael are avid travelers. Together, they have sojourned throughout India, Asia, Africa, and Antarctica, and have climbed Mount Kinabalu in Borneo, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and Mount Roraima in Venezuela. Their adventures have also included gorilla-tracking in Zaire and camping their way across the Namibian desert. They live in London, England.

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