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William Dampier

English Privateer & Explorer

Born: 1652

Died: 1715

William Dampier is credited as making the first substantive English contact with Nova Hollandia, however, he was not the first. In 1622 Trial wrecked at the not-found Trial Rocks. These rocks likely were in the coastal waters immediately north of the Monte Bello Islands in Western Australia. In 1681 the British ship London approached closely enough to the Abrolhos to permit her captain to sketch a constituent group of islands. In any event, Dampier, and the mission with which he was associated was first to land on the continent and make significant observations.

Early in January 1688, with Dampier as crew, the English pirate ship Cygnet was beached on the northwest Australian coast, somewhere in the vicinity of King Sound in Western Australia. While the ship was careened, Dampier continued making notes in a journal that was to serve him well.

Throughout his travels in the Orient and southward through Timor, Dampier kept careful notes expressing his observations. He was precise and gave clear impressions in his observations in a way that did not become common until the 1700's. The maintenance of his careful journal records served as testament to Dampier's ability as a Pacific sea captain in the British tradition. The journals established his credibility within the Admiralty in London.

That Dampier was a dedicated buccaneer is of some dispute, and it has been reasonably expressed that he merely found pirate ships and company a convenient way to travel. On departure from the coast of New Holland (by mutual agreement) Dampier was separated from his shipmates in the Nicobar Islands. From there he made his way in a small craft, crowded with seven shipmates, through a hurricane and to Sumatra. After further ramblings in the vicinity and accounts added to his journals, Dampier returned to London. He arrived with virtually nothing, except the journals he had kept.

Dampier decided to publish his work and did so in 1697. He titled the work New Voyage Round the World and it was very quickly popular. Tasman's journals had been published three years earlier and England began to take interest in exploring for Terra Australis incognita. In short order the Admiralty outfitted Dampier with a ship, HMS Roebuck, and commissioned him to carry out a plan of exploration.

The original plan called for a transit of Cape Horn and an approach to Nova Hollandia from the east coast side, then northward toward the known regions of New Guinea. However, delays in departure pushed the schedule back to make for a winter rounding of the Horn. Dampier knew this was not a good judgement, so plans were redrawn to use the traditional Dutch route around Africa and across the Indian Ocean to the western side of the continent.

Dampier had additional problems. His crew was short on experience and inclined toward disobedience, particularly as their captain had a buccaneer background and his ship, the Roebuck, was a leaky castoff of the Admiralty, with suspect timber structure. Even so, Dampier brought the crew safely to Hartog Island, though he searched fruitlessly for good water in the region of the large bay behind the island. The bay he called Shark Bay for the large number of these animals he viewed there.

 Dampier's immediate need was to find water, but he found none in the region of Hartog's Island. As winter was approaching, he turned north and eastward, passing Northwest Cape, until he reached the island archipelago that bears his name. In 1644 Tasman had charted this region, but had left large gaps in his map where he had departed from the immediate coast. Dampier was optimistically confident there existed a passageway to the great South Sea (Pacific Ocean) from where he stood at the westerly portion of the north coast of Australia, bearing to the south and east. He reasoned its entrance lay in one of the gaps left on Tasman's chart, and if not, then surely there was a great river emptying from the continent at one of these unmapped spots. He continued east, without having found reasonable water.

As Dampier continued along the barren coast toward the east, it became evident he would not be able to continue. In hopes of at least reaching the location where he had anchored with the Cygnet crew in early 1688, Dampier determined he must abandon the effort and make for Timor. The Roebuck had been on the New Holland coast for five weeks and its men were showing signs of scurvy. At Roebuck Bay Dampier turned away from the mainland coast.

Following refreshment in Timor, Dampier proceeded toward New Guinea, which he sighted on the first day of 1700. He then pointed more north, then sailed eastward well out of sight of New Guinea, until he came to the island of New Hanover at New Guinea's eastern end. This land was known by previous visitors (and now by Dampier) to be a part of the New Guinea mainland. Dampier sailed south on the east side (which was actually New Ireland), then west along the southern edge of [what is now] New Britain. Then to Dampier's surprise he came to the end of land on his starboard side, and as he turned north, a passage opened to the water north of New Guinea. Dampier determined that New Britain (which he called the three islands he had coasted) was an island. Dampier Straits separate the New Guinea mainland from these islands.

Dampier intended sailing south along the eastern coast of Nova Hollandia and finding the eastern entrance to the channel which would reach northwestward to Dampier Archipelago and the Roebuck Bay area. However, the condition of his ship was such that serious consideration of the voyage not plausible. He continued west, across the top of New Guinea, on to Batavia. A wide southern loop prior to reaching Batavia tracks a search of the Roebuck for Trial Rocks. However, due to his own incapacitation due to an illness and the crew's inability to navigate well, the Roebuck went into Batavia without a significant search for the rocks.

Once readied for the journey back to England, the Roebuck departed. The state of the ship could not be solidly counted as seaworthy and off the island of Ascension in the Atlantic critical planks gave way and the ship was lost. Amazingly, the crew made it to shore with an amount of food and water and survived until they were retrieved by four English ships. Many of Dampier's papers were lost in the Roebuck. [Roebuck is found]

In the early stages of the voyage, Dampier had great difficulty with his subordinate officer (a man named Fisher). Fisher was early on removed from the vessel and Dampier had him placed into a Brazilian jail. On his release, Fisher returned to England and began sowing seeds of Dampier's censorship within the Admiralty. [Indications are that Dampier was justified in his management of Fisher.] On Fisher's groundwork and the loss of the Roebuck, Dampier was court martialled and fined all of his pay and banned from future command of any of Her Majesty's ships.

Dampier did eventually return to sailing. He was hired as a privateer to harass the Spaniards and at one point did circumnavigate the globe (with a stop in Batavia) again. Even so, it was Dampier's writing which was his legacy into the future. His journals were competently constructed and gave vivid impressions of the world of the Indo-Pacific, and the writings stirred the public and carried his reputation through these years of discovery.

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