William Dampier: Pirate and… Amateur Scientist

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By Sheldon Greaves

William Dampier. United States Public Domain image.

William Dampier was born in 1651 and grew up to be an English pirate. While he didn't exactly distinguish himself in his "day job", he was a very astute observer of the natural world and a keen explorer.

For instance, he landed on Australia a good one hundred years before Captain James Cook "discovered" it. Dampier was also the first Englishman to describe bananas, avocados, eating with chopsticks, and cashew nuts. Dampiers notes include the observation that the flavor of avocados improves by mixing in lime juice and sugar; possibly the first English recipe for guacamole. In fact, his notes contain so many words that were rare or unknown in the England of his day that his writings are cited over 1,000 times in the Oxford English Dictionary as the first known use in English.

But Dampier had influence on others because of his meticulous notes during his visits to Australia, South America, and the Galapagos Islands. His notes on the latter were studied closely by many in England. Keith Moore, the head librarian at the Royal Society, said: "We know that Darwin had access to Dampier's book. We know that Dampier visited the Galapagos islands, and described them in just the same way as Darwin, and it's the same voyage around the world."

Likewise, his notes on Australian flora were studied by naturalist and scientist Joseph Banks, who sailed with Captain James Cook on his first voyage. This helped lead to the naming of and colonization of Botany Bay. Dampier also introduced innovations in navigation that caught the attention of Horatio Nelson and James Cook.

Dampier indirectly made some contributions to some of the great works of English literature. He is said to have influenced Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Jonathan Swift mentions Dampier by name in his Gulliver's Travels as a mariner comparable to Lemuel Gulliver. And one of Dampier's crewmen, Alexander Selkirk, became the real-life castaway who inspired Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.

Sadly, William Dampier died in penury owing nearly 700 pounds. In fact his last trip had been wildly successful financially, but he died before he could collect his share.

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One Response to William Dampier: Pirate and… Amateur Scientist

  1. Ely Silk says:

    Piracy…even in those days, it was tough to get money for amateur scientists.

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