Life of a Buccaneer

When a young man, William Dampier had gone out to Jamaica to manage a large estate; but not liking the slave-trading business, he crossed over to Campeachy, and lived for a while in the woods, cutting the more valuable kinds of timber. Here he became acquainted with the buccaneers who made the lonely coves of Campeachy their headquarters; and being persuaded to join them, he entered upon a life of lawless daring, constantly fighting and plundering, meeting with the wildest adventures; often captured by the American natives and still more often by the Spaniards, but always escaping to enter upon exploits of fresh danger.

In 1688 he joined a company of buccaneers, who proposed to make a voyage around the world and plunder on their way. It took them more than a year to reach the East Indies, where they spent a long time, sometimes attacking Spanish ships or Dutch fortresses, sometimes leading an easy and luxurious life among the natives, often quarrelling among themselves and even going so far as to leave their captain with forty men on the island of Mindanao. But at length, the time came when it was necessary to seek a quiet spot where they would be able to clean and repair the bottoms of their ships. So it wasn’t surprising that they landed on the north-west coast of Australia. They lived there for twelve days at the place now called “Buccaneers’ Archipelago”. They were the first known Europeans who held any communications with the natives of Australia and the first to publish a detailed account of their voyage.

Change of Direction

Growing tired of the lawless life (and having become wealthy), Dampier bought an estate in England, where he lived some years in retirement, till the love of adventure led him out on the seas again. This time he was determined that his trip should be more honest; and, his thoughts reverting to the great unexplored land, he asked permission from the English Government to go on a voyage of discovery.

First Impressions of Australia

In 1699 a small vessel, the Roebuck, was given to him and with this, he explored the west coast, from Shark Bay to Dampier’s Archipelago: then along the north-west coast as far as Roebuck bay, in all about 900 miles; of which he published a full and fairly accurate account. He was a man of keen observation and delighted in describing the habits and manners of the natives, as well as the peculiarities of the plant and animal life, of where ever he visited. During the time he was in Australia he frequently met with the blacks and became well acquainted with them. He gives this description of their appearances –

The inhabitants are the most miserable wretches in the universe, having no houses nor garments. They feed upon a few fish, cockles, mussels and periwinkles. They are without religion and without government. In the figure, they are tall, straight-bodied, thin with small long limbs.

The country itself, he says, is low and sandy with no fresh water and scarcely any animals, except one which looks like a raccoon and jumps about on its long hind legs.  He says of his adventure, that the only pleasure he had had in his voyage was the satisfaction of having discovered the most barren spot on the face of the earth.

This account is, in most respects, correct, so far as regards to the portion of Australia visited by Dampier. But, unfortunately, he saw only the most inhospitable part of the whole continent. There are many parts whose beauty would have enchanted him but as he sailed along nearly a thousand miles without seeing any part that was not miserable barren, it is no wonder that he reported the whole land to be worthless. He was subsequently engaged in other voyages of discovery, one in which he rescued the famous Alexander Selkirk from his lonely island; but, amid all his subsequent adventures, he never again entertained the idea of returning to Australia.

Dampier as Author

Dampier published a most interesting account of all of his travels in different parts of the world and his book was for a long time exceedingly popular. Dafoe used some of the materials it contained for his celebrated novel, “Robinson Crusoe“. The work also became the standard book of travels. But it turned away the tide of discovery from Australia; for those who read of the beautiful islands and rich countries he had visited, no one dreamed of incurring the labour and expense of a voyage to so dull and barren a spot as Australia. Thus we hear of no further explorations in this part of the world for nearly a century, and even then, no one thought of sending ships especially for the purpose.