Tag Archives: exploration

William Dampier: Pirate, Navigator, Naturalist, and Explorer

NPG 538; William Dampier by Thomas Murray

Portrait of William Dampier by Thomas Murray, oil on canvas, circa 1697-1698, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

At age 18, William Dampier (1652–1715) was apprenticed to a seaman at Weymouth. He served briefly in the Third Anglo-Dutch War, worked on a Jamaican sugar plantation and aboard merchant ships, before deserting his post to join a buccaneer fleet. After an unsuccessful attack on Panama City, he joined a group of French and English pirates with whom he raided Costa Rica and frequented the buccaneer base at Tortuga before being driven away by Spanish warships. In 1686, Dampier sailed more than 6000 miles across the Pacific from Cape Corrientes, Mexico, to Guam, later carrying on through the South China Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. From there, his ship turned southward and in 1688 became the first English ship to visit New Holland (Australia). His journey continued through India, Sumatra, Vietnam, and the Malay peninsula, until he finally returned to England in 1691, making him the first Englishman to circle the globe since Thomas Cavendish a century before.

A second trading voyage to the West Indies resulted in a mutiny and a change of occupation from trading to piracy. Dampier remained with the ship until the end of his term of employment, but upon returning to London and asked for his back wages, he was instead accused of aiding the mutineers and received no money.


Dampier published accounts of his voyages in 1697, 1699, and 1703.

From early in his career, he had kept a regular journal where he recorded observations of the winds and tides, geography, plants and animals, and native peoples. In 1697, left with few assets besides these journals, he published his observations under the title, A New Voyage Round the World. Dampier’s account of strange foreign lands was straightforward and practical rather than sensational, and proved extremely popular among merchants, statesmen, and scientists, as well as the general public. Within his lifetime, A New Voyage Round the World went through seven printings in English and translations into Dutch, French, and German.


“Plants found in New Holland,” from A Voyage to New Holland… (London, 1703).

In 1699, Dampier’s fortunes were on the rise. He published a second volume under the title Voyages and Descriptions and returned to the Pacific, this time as captain of the HMS Roebuck, the first voyage intended specifically for scientific exploration. He sailed around Australia and New Guinea, discovering the island which he named New Britain before the ship’s poor condition forced him to return home, carrying with him specimens of around forty Australian plants (now in the Sherardian Herbarium at Oxford).

Once again, however, Dampier’s return home was not a happy one. He arrived in England to face a court martial for assaulting an officer on board the HMS Roebuck, and was judged to be unfit for command. He returned to the Pacific yet again as commodore of a privateering expedition during which, after a hurried refit on the island of Juan Fernandez, the ship’s master Alexander Selkirk preferred to be marooned there rather than set sail on a vessel he did not believe to be seaworthy. Selkirk would remain on the island for five years before being rescued by another privateer vessel commanded by Captain Woodes Rogers and piloted by none other than William Dampier.


Views of the Brazilian coastline in A Voyage to New Holland… (London, 1703).

Although Dampier and Selkirk had grated on each other’s nerves during the earlier voyage, it was on Dampier’s recommendation that Rogers appointed Selkirk as mate on board his ship. Selkirk’s abandonment and subsequent rescue, described in Rogers’ journal and in The Englishman magazine, are widely believed to be the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s novel, Robinson Crusoe.

Dampier’s third book, A Voyage to New Holland, in the Year 1699, was published in 1703, and contained the first description of Aboriginal Australians. Although his account unfortunately depicted them as ‘the miserablest People in the world’, his writing nevertheless sparked intense interest in the south Pacific.

Over the course of his career, Dampier would circumnavigate the globe three times, making him the first person to do so.  His books, with their detailed records of weather patterns, safe harbours, disposition of native peoples, sources of food, and advice on maintaining health while at sea, were for a long time considered essential reading for mariners and recommended by the likes of Cook, Howe, and Nelson. Dampier’s writings also inspired literature such as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner“. 


Voyages and Descriptions includes “A Discourse of Trade-Winds,” which was used in compiling Admiralty Sailing Directions as late as the 1930s.

His was the first English language description of breadfruit, plantain, and bananas, and it was Dampier who first introduced the words “barbecue” and “chopsticks” into the English language. His legacy lives on in the names of Dampier Strait in Papua New Guinea, Dampier Land in Western Australia, and the Dampier Archipelago off the west coast of Australia.


At the time of Dampier’s expedition, much of Australia remained uncharted.

Cardiff University holds the fifth edition of A new voyage round the world (1703), third edition of Voyages and descriptions (1705), and the first edition of A Voyage to New Holland, in the Year 1699 (1703). Although they belong to different editions, they are bound uniformly as a set and bear the property stamp of “T. Falconer,” possibly the English jurist and explorer Thomas Falconer (1805-1882) who served as judge of Glamorganshire, Brecknockshire and Rhayader from 1851 to 1881.


The high and low adventures of Robert Knox, sailor, prisoner and discoverer of cannabis

Captain Robert Knox (1642-1720)

Among the many books on voyages and exploration in the Cardiff Rare Books Collection is a copy of Robert Knox’s An historical relation of the island Ceylon, in the East Indies. First published in 1681, the work was one of the earliest European accounts of the inhabitants, customs and history of Sri Lanka. How Knox came to write the book is a remarkable tale of adventure, misfortune and daring escapes.

Rajahsinge II, King of the Kandyan Provinces of Ceylon

Rajahsinge II, King of the Kandyan Provinces of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and Knox’s jailer

Robert Knox was just 14 years old in 1655 when he first joined his sea captain father on the ship Anne for a voyage to India. Three years later, the Knoxes set sail again for Persia in the service of the East India Company but had the ill luck to run into a storm which destroyed the ship’s mast and forced them to put ashore in Ceylon for repairs. King Rajasinghe II was suspicious of the Europeans’ intentions and ordered the ship be impounded and the Knoxes taken captive along with sixteen member of their crew.

Knox's "Historical relation of the island Ceylon", complete with a glowing endorsement from Sir Christopher Wren and a Preface by Robert Hooke

Knox’s “Historical relation of the island Ceylon”, complete with a glowing endorsement from Sir Christopher Wren and a Preface by Robert Hooke

The sailors were forbidden to leave the kingdom but otherwise treated fairly, with some of the captives eventually choosing to enter the king’s service. Although Knox refused to work for the king, he was still permitted to become a farmer and make a living. Knox senior died from malaria in February 1661 but Robert remained in captivity for 19 long years before finally making a bid for freedom with a fellow crewman. They managed to reach a Dutch fort on the coast of the island and gain passage to the Dutch East Indies, before at last setting sail for home aboard an English vessel.


The grisly fate which awaited servants who displeased the king; Knox believed, apparently with good reason, that entering the king’s service would result in his death

Map of Ceylon showing Knox's escape route

Map of Ceylon from “Historical relation…” showing Knox’s escape route

Knox returned to London in September 1680, having spent the journey writing the manuscript for a book about his experiences. When published a year later as An historical relation of the island Ceylon, the book immediately attracted widespread interest, influencing Daniel Defoe’s famous castaway tale Robinson Crusoe and turning Knox into a celebrity. He continued to work for the East India Company for another thirteen years after his return, captaining the Tonqueen Merchant for four further voyages to the East which made him a wealthy man.

A yadda or wild man of Ceylon with pipe

A yadda or wild man of Ceylon with pipe

One final strange adventure in Knox’s remarkable life deserves our attention. Having become close friends with the scientist Robert Hooke, Knox often returned from his travels with gifts and curiosities for Hooke. After one trip, he presented the scientist with the seeds of a plant previously unknown in Europe. This “strange intoxicating herb,” which Knox referred to as ‘Indian hemp’ or ‘bangue’, is  better known today as cannabis indica. In December 1689, Hooke gave a lecture to the Royal Society in which he provided the first detailed description of cannabis in English, praising its “very wholesome” virtues and noting that Knox “has so often experimented it himself, that there is no Cause of Fear, tho’ possibly there may be of Laughter.”