The Robinson Library

The Robinson Library >> History of Discoveries, Explorations, and Travel
William Dampier

[dam' pE er] privateer who circumnavigated the world three times

William Dampier

William Dampier was baptized on September 5, 1651, the son of a tenant farmer of East Coker, Somerset, England (the date of his birth is not recorded). Almost nothing else is known about his early life except that when he was about sixteen he was apprenticed to a merchant ship at Weymouth, with which he made voyages to France and Newfoundland. In 1670 he gained release from his apprenticeship and signed onto a ship bound for the East Indies. Joining the Royal Navy in 1672, he served in the Dutch War under Sir Edward Sprague and participated in the two battles of Schooneveld before being stricken with illness and put ashore. In 1674 he sailed to Jamaica as the under-manager of a plantation.

places associated with Dampier's early life
places associated with Dampier's early life

First Privateering Experiences

Unable to stay off the sea for long, Dampier left his plantation job after a few months and took several trips with coastal traders traveling around the Jamaican coast. He then became engaged in the logwood trade, in which capacity he made two trips to the Bay of Campeachy, in 1675 and 1676. He subsequently spent about two years alternating between the logwood trade and privateering (having been exposed to that "lifestyle" during his days as a trader) before returning to England in 1678.

After acquiring enough merchandise to establish himself as a merchant trader, Dampier returned to Jamaica in 1679. He soon decided against being a trader, however, and joined up with a group of privateers instead. In March 1681, the privateers sacked Portobello (on the north coast of Panama). From there, they sailed to the Isthmus of Darien, which they crossed on foot. After a raid on an inland fort resulted in no treasure being taken, the men succeeded in capturing three Spanish gunships, which they then used for the capture of another five vessels, one of which was carrying a cargo of gold coins. A number of the privateers then returned overland, but some, including Dampier, took the "treasure ship" on a voyage down the Peruvian and Chilean coasts, sacking and plundering along the way. They ended their southward voyage at the Juan Fernandez Islands in late-December 1680, began their return trip up the coast in early-January 1681, and arrived back on the Caribbean side of Panama in May. After another year of privateering along the Caribbean coasts of Central and South America, Dampier made his way to Virginia, where he was engaged by Captain John Cook for a privateering voyage against the Spaniards in the South Seas.

major sites associated with Dampier's early privateering days
major sites associated with Dampier's early privateering days

First Circumnavigation of the World

Dampier next set sail in August 1683, as a crewmen aboard the Revenge, with Cook as Captain. From Virginia, the privateers sailed across the Atlantic to the Cape Verde Islands, where supplies were taken on and repairs were made to the ship. From there, Cook set a course for the Straits of Magellan, but unfavorable winds blew the ship to Guinea instead. After taking on fresh provisions, the ship continued down the African coast until it reached Sierra Leone. By this time Cook had decided that he needed a new ship, so when a new 36-gun Danish ship was seen in Sierra Leone, he seized it. Upon boarding, the privateers found that the ship had not only been provisioned for a long voyage but that she was also carrying about 60 black female slaves, revelations which led them to rename the ship Batchelor's Delight.

In mid-November, after burning the Revenge and (presumably) selling the women to another slave trader, the privateers once again set sail for the Straits of Magellan. They passed the Falkland Islands in late-January 1684, but bad weather and contrary winds conspired to prevent passage through the Straits. In February 1684 the Batchelor's Delight succeeded in rounding Cape Horn and entering the Pacific, and in late-March she made landfall in the Juan Fernandez Islands.

At Juan Fernandez, the Batchelor's Revenge was joined by the Nicholas, under Captain John Eaton, and the two ships together captured four ships off Peru before taking refuge in the Galapagos Islands in late-May. From there, the ships intended to sail to the Cocos Islands, but the wind blew them to Costa Rica instead. When within sight of land, Captain Cook, who had fallen ill at Juan Fernandez, died suddenly. He was replaced by the quartermaster Edward Davis by common consent. After burying Cook at Caldera Bay, they resumed their privateering. The two ships parted ways in September, but the Batchelor's Delight was joined in her pursuits by Captain Charles Swan and the Cygnet in October. Those two ships were subsequently joined by other French and English buccaneers, and that small fleet spent several months plying the waters off Panama and Mexico. Dampier finally got tired of simply sailing back and forth and, in late-August 1865, joined the Cygnet, which Swan was planning to take across the Pacific.

Not knowing how long the voyage across the Pacific would take, Swan decided to err on the side of caution and make sure his ship had enough provisions to last 60 days. The gathering of those provisions ended up taking several months, but the Swan finally set off on its transpacific voyage from Cape Corrientes, Mexico, on March 31, 1686. By the time the ship reached Guam, on May 21 (a voyage of 51 days), there were barely two days' worth of provisions left. Dampier calculated their distance sailed as 7,302 miles (2,434 leagues), 1,600 miles further than English charts showed, and he was possibly the first Englishman to calculate the distance with any accuracy.

Although Guam and all nearby islands were Spanish possessions, Swan reassured its resident governor that all he wanted was to buy provisions. The Cygnet stayed until June 2 and then set sail for Mindanao in the Philippines, which it reached on June 22. Mindanao was chosen as it was hostile to the Spanish, whose presence had been repulsed, and the Dutch similarly. Therefore, anyone who was neither Spanish nor Dutch was welcome so long as they displayed friendly intentions. Knowing that the monsoon season was fast approaching, Swan decided it would be a good idea to stay some time on the island. By January 14, 1687, a large number of the crew, including Dampier, were ready to move on. Despite Swan and 36 crewmen still being ashore, the Cygnet weighed anchor and sailed away from Mindanao.

The remaining crew of the Cygnet spent the next year crisscrossing the South China Sea plying their trade. Dampier's function is unknown, but he seems to have been a navigator, recording their positions in his journal. After leaving Mindanao, they called at two other Philippine islands before heading into the Gulf of Siam, where they spent about a month. In June the Cygnet started back for Mindanao, but unfavorable winds blew her to the Pescadore Islands west of Taiwan instead. She finally made it back to Mindanao in mid-October. After spending a couple of weeks making repairs to the ship and restocking their supplies, the privateers set off for Celebes, where they spent three weeks cruising the coast. They reached Timor in early December, and landed on the western coast of New Holland on January 5, 1688, likely becoming the.first Englishmen to set foot on what is now known as Australia. After two months on New Holland, the Cygnet sailed to Nicobar Island, which was reached on May 5. There, Dampier, two other crewmen, a Portuguese, and four Malays were, at their own request, left behind. According to his journal, Dampier by this time had grown tired of privateering and wanted to "settle" into some other sea-based trade.

After spending ten days on Nicobar, the eight men crowded into a canoe with the intention of "sailing" to Achin on the northwest tip of Sumatra, 120 miles away, with only a pocket compass and Dampier’s hand drawn chart to guide them. By the time they finally arrived at their destination, in early June, four of the "volunteer castaways" had died and the other four were very sick. By this time Dampier was ready to make his way back to England, but he had difficulty getting on a ship heading in that direction. After several more adventures in the South China Sea, including at Tonkin and Madras, Dampier accepted a position as Gunner at Bencouli Fort (on the west coast of Sumatra). Dampier finally left for England on January 3, 1691, aboard the Dutch ship Defence. Rampant sickness among the crew and unfavorable winds so hampered the voyage that the ship did not reach the Cape of Good Hope until early April. More delays followed, but Dampier finally arrived in England on September 16, 1691.

Throughout his entire 12 years of travels, Dampier had kept a very meticulous journal, which was about the only possession he had left by the time he got home, fortune having escaped him. It was to prove his most valuable asset, however, for when it was published in 1697, as A New Voyage Round the World, it was an immediate success, and within nine months had gone into three printings and was soon translated into other languages, including Dutch, German, and French.

general route of Dampier's first circumnavigation
general route of Dampier's first circumnavigation

The Roebuck Expedition

On January 14, 1699, Dampier departed England once again, this time as a Captain in the Royal Navy in command of the Roebuck. He had been commissioned by the Admiralty to conduct a scientific survey of New Holland. After stopping for fresh supplies at the Canary and Cape Verde islands, Dampier chose to sail to Brazil before proceeding around the Cape of Good Hope because he knew that the weather and winds would be more favorable if he delayed the rounding. The Roebuck departed from Bahia (now Salvador), Brazil on April 23, passed the Cape of Good Hope on June 3, and arrived on the western coast of New Holland, at a place Dampier named Shark's Bay, on August 6.

After spending about 5 weeks exploring the coast to the northeast and finding no good harbor or estuary, nor fresh water or provisions, Dampier decided to head to Timor, which was reached in early September. The Roebuck spent three months at Timor, and then set sail for New Guinea, the northwest coast of which was reached in January 1700. After then sailing southeast, the northeast tip of what was thought to be part of the New Guinea mainland was sighted. By charting its northern, eastern, and southern coasts, Dampier was able to determine that rather than being a part of the mainland this was actually an island, which he called New Britain. What he did not discover, however, was that what he called St. George's Bay was actually St. George's Channel and that there were in fact two islands, New Ireland (the "original" island) and New Britain.

Had Dampier investigated the western coast of New Britain he likely would have learned that there were two islands, but as his crew was by then getting quite restless he decided to begin the return journey instead. The Roebuck left New Guinea on April 24 and, after visiting many islands on the way, arrived back at Timor on May 18. Leaving Timor on May 27, Dampier set a course toward New Holland, but a contrary wind ended up pushing the ship westward instead, forcing a landing at Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia) on July 2. The Roebuck did not set out again until October 17, but good wind and fair weather allowed it to reach the Cape of Good Hope on December 30. From there, the ship sailed to St. Helena, where it arrived on February 2, 1701. By the time the Roebuck reached Ascension Island on February 21, she was leaking so badly that she had to be abandoned. The crew was stranded on the island until April 8, when they were taken off aboard four ships, and Dampier arrived back in England in mid-May.

general route of the Roebuck Expedition
general route of the Roebuck Expedition

route of New Holland and New Guinea exploration
route of New Holland and New Guinea exploration


On his return from the Roebuck expedition, Dampier was court-martialled for cruelty. On the outward voyage, Dampier had quarrelled with his Lieutenant, George Fisher, a long-time naval officer who apparently did not like being under the command of an ex-pirate. The quarrel culminated in Dampier beating Fisher and putting him in chains until the ship reached Brazil. There he was handed over to the governor, who imprisoned him until he could be sent, first to Lisbon, and then onto England. Upon his return, Fisher complained to the Admiralty about his treatment. Dampier responded to the complaint upon his own return, but was court-martialed on June 8, 1702. The court found him "guilty of very hard and cruel usage towards Lieutenant Fisher" and ordered that he forfeit all pay due; he was also deemed unfit to ever be employed as commander of a Royal Navy ship again. Although he had once again failed to make any money directly from his voyage, he was able to use his charts of coastlines and his record of trade winds and currents in the seas around Australia and New Guinea to compile and publish two more books, A Voyage to New Holland (1703) and A Continuation of a Voyage to New Holland (1709). He had also managed to save a few of the specimens collected during the voyage, and the selling of them to naturalists also helped to alleviate the loss of pay.

Second Circumnavigation

In April 1703, despite being "black-balled" by the Admiralty, Dampier was hired to command the 26-gun ship St. George with a crew of 120 men, on an expedition against French and Spanish interests in the South Seas (England was at war with both nations at the time). The St. George was joined by the 16-gun Cinque Ports with 63 men, and the two ships sailed from Ireland on September 11, 1703. After stopping at Madeira, Cape Verde, and Grande Island, they made a storm-tossed passage around Cape Horn and arrived at the Juan Fernandez Islands in February 1704. While resupplying there, they engaged a heavily-armed French merchantman in a seven-hour battle, but they were ultimately beaten off.

In March, the two ships sailed for the coast of Peru, off which Dampier succeeded in capturing several small Spanish ships. He only took part of each ship's cargoes, however, because he did not want his own ships to be too heavily burdened. Dampier's principal objective was a raid on Santa Maria, a town on the Gulf of Panama rumored to hold stockpiles of gold from nearby mines. The raid was launched on April 27, but Dampier met with far more resistance than he had anticipated and was ultimately forced to withdraw.

In May, the Cinque Ports separated from the St. George and, after putting Alexander Selkirk ashore alone on an island for complaining about its seaworthiness, sank off the coast of what is today Colombia. Some of its crew survived being shipwrecked, but were made prisoners of the Spanish. Selkirk was ultimately marooned for a little more than four years, and it is believed by many that he was the inspiration for Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.

On June 7, the St. George, now operating on her own, captured a small ship off the coast of Ecuador. Although the ship's cargo proved unremarkable, she was carrying a packet of letters, one of which was from the Captain of the French ship they had fought in February, telling of the presence of English privateers. Another letter told how the Spaniards had fitted out two men of war, both of which were cruising the Bay of Guayaquil waiting for them. One of those ships, a 32-gunner, was engaged by the St. George on July 22. The engagement lasted about six-and-a-half hours, during which the St. George suffered nine casualties and had her foremast damaged, and ended with a mutual disengagement.

On August 16, the St. George caaptured a 40-ton barque in the Gulf of Nicoya. By then, however, many of her crew had become disillusioned and, on September 2, twenty-one of them seized the bark and sailed away. On September 23, after making repairs to the St. George, Dampier and his remaining men, along with another captured bark named the Dragon, sailed out in search of a Spanish galleon that was supposed to be carrying millions of gold pieces. That ship was engaged on December 6, but proved too much for the privateers. This failure further inflamed the feelings of discontent among the men, most of whom were ready to go home. Dampier, however, wanted to spend a few more weeks off Central and South America and then go to India, where everyone would then be free to do as they pleased. All originally agreed to Dampier's plan, but on February 1, 1705 thirty-five of them set sail for India aboard the Dragon, leaving Dampier and the remaining twenty-eight to make do with the St. George, which was by then in seriously bad condition.

After making what repairs they could to the St. George, Dampier and what remained of his crew set out for India. Fortunately for them, they were able to capture a small Spanish vessel full of provisions before reaching open ocean, and it was aboard that vessel that they eventually reached the East Indies. Nothing else is known about this voyage except that Dampier was arrested by the Dutch as a pirate after reaching the East Indies. How long he was imprisoned is not known, but he was back in England by the end of 1707.

general route of Dampier's second circumnavigation
general route of Dampier's second circumnavigation

Third Circumnavigation

In 1708, Dampier was engaged to serve on the privateer Duke, as sailing master under Captain Woodes Rogers. Sailing from England, the expedition enjoyed great success in South America before sailing to the East Indies, where it also enjoyed success. By the time it returned to England in 1711, the privateers had taken about 17,000 worth of goods, gold, and ships (equivalent to 18.7 million today). Dampier did not get to enjoy his share for long, however, as he died sometime in 1715.


Australian Dictionary of Biography
Shark Bay World Heritage Area

See Also

Costa Rica
Canary Islands
New Guinea
St. Helena

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> History of Discoveries, Explorations, and Travel

This page was last updated on 09/05/2018.