1651 - 1715
painted by T. Murray, 1698
William Dampier (son of George and Ann Dampier) was born in 1651 at East Corker, Somerset, England. Some books quote 1652 but this was a cousin - also named William - who was born to George's brother William Sr.
Dampier was well educated and decided early in life that he wanted a life of exploration. He was first apprenticed to a ship builder in Weymouth and he went on a short voyage (with his employer) to France and Newfoundland. This trip convinced him that life exploring the tropical areas of the world would be a far more pleasant experience.
Next he went to Java as an able seaman aboard an East Indiaman before becoming involved in the 3rd Anglo - Dutch war during which he saw action twice. He seems to have preferred a life away from the rigours of the navy and spent most of the following years at sea on private ships.
His first major overseas journey was to Jamaica in the West Indies where he worked on a sugar plantation for 9 months in 1674. William seems to have been misled into this venture and believed he was going to work as an overseer but when he got there found he was just another employee.
It was at this stage that he first seems to have come into contact with the privateers that operated in the area although he did not yet join up with them. While at One Bush Key he lost most of his possessions during a storm (1676) before working his passage back to England.
On his return he purchased land in Dorset where he married his wife Judith. We know very little of her as William seems to have spent most of his life away from home and she almost goes without mention in his books. In fact we do not even know her surname.
In 1678 (one source says 1679) William travelled back to the West Indies and stayed for 9 years during which time he joined privateer ships that were operating in the region sacking Spanish towns and capturing Spanish ships. To start with, the privateers had a large force of men (almost 500) and 9 ships.
The first raid Dampier was engaged in was on Porto (Peurto) Bello but little treasure was found. The next target was Panama but this proved to be too difficult and the number of privateers had dwindled somewhat.
Much is made of Dampier's exploits during this period and he has mistakenly been called a pirate, although it is true that later in life some of the actions he became involved in were distinctly piratical. Byron wrote of him being ‘The mildest mannered man who ever scuttled a ship or cut a throat.’
Privateers were in fact legally recognised by the English authorities and had permission to take action against the Spanish. They were in fact unpaid forces acting for the crown who paid themselves by capturing Spanish treasure.
Dampier sailed with the buccaneer Sir Henry Morgan in the West Indies before going to Virginia in 1682. Little is known about what he did while there but a year later he joined the privateer ship Revenge (Capt. John Cook). During his time on this ship a friendly vessel (a Danish ship) was seized in a real act of piracy and the new ship was re-named the Batchelor's Delight. Raiding was still unsuccessful and for a time the ship Cygnet (Captain Swan) joined in the attempts to secure Spanish gold. Swan had attempted to trade with the Spanish held coast but was rebuffed and had to sell his cargo at a loss. He was then forced into privateering although he was quite unsuited to the life.
The Batchelor's Delight and Cygnet were joined by other ships but no clear leader emerged and as a result actions were badly planned and un-coordinated. The Spanish, tired of the attacks on their ships and towns, now sent a fleet to disperse the raiders and as the privateers were outnumbered 3:1 they had no choice but to retreat.
After a series of failures, Dampier transferred to the Cygnet and sailed to Guam and the Philippines. The ship ran short of provisions on its voyage and the crew blamed those in charge. A plan was hatched to kill and eat the officers including Captain Swan and Navigator Dampier. Luckily for Dampier they reached Guam with 3 days rations to spare. Captain Swan was forced off the ship at Mindanao and was rumoured to have been murdered by the local ruler. Dampier was needed as navigator and so was kept on board when the ship sailed south. After sailing to Thailand and China the Cygnet sailed south through the Indonesian archipelago.
On January 15th 1688 the ship sailed into the waters of the north west coast of Australia. (January 5th is sometimes quoted but this was based on the old Julian calendar not the Georgian calendar that later came into use in Europe.) Dampier is often quoted as the first Englishman to set foot on the Australian mainland but there is no proof that he was the first member of the crew of the Cygnet to step ashore. The ship's new Captain, named Reed or Read, barely gets a mention in the history books.
The ship was beached and careened (cleaned of worms and barnacles) and for a long time it was believed that this took place at what is now called Cygnet Bay. This has been shown to be false and the latest information suggests that Karrakatta Bay was a more likely site. On March 12th the ship sailed out of Australian waters once more.
Dampier deserted the Cygnet in the Nicobar islands travelling to Sumatra by
canoe. Here he spent some time recovering from the ordeal and
his health was to suffer for some time to come. The Cygnet sank off Madagascar
and if it was not for the notes and drawings made by
Dampier, there would have been no record of his first visit to north Western
When he had recovered enough to travel, Dampier took passage on another East Indiaman (Captain Weldon) and first sailed to Vietnam and the South China Seas. Suffering from dysentery he returned to Sumatra and by 1690 he had been travelling for 12 years.
On September 16th 1991 he was finally back in England. He now set about writing up his journals and 'A New Voyage around the World' was eventually published. This took almost 5 years during which time we know little of Dampier's life. The book was a success and brought Dampier to the attention of the authorities, both geographical and naval.
In 1698 Dampier received a commission from the British Admiralty and one might have expected that he would be given a sound sea-worthy vessel with which to sail to the other side of the world and conduct his exploration. Sadly for Dampier the HMS Roebuck was a worm ridden rotting hulk fit only for the breakers yard. Perhaps the Admiralty’s intense dislike of Buccaneers led them to send him off in a vessel they hoped would sink under him (which in fact it eventually did).
Dampier set off on January 14th 1699 with a plan to prove that Australia (or New Holland as it was then known) was a continent on its own and not connected to Asia or the Americas. If he had been given a seaworthy vessel he may have been able to do this more than 70 years before James Cook completed the task. (In hindsight we have to wonder why anyone thought Australia may have been connected to New Guinea as Torres had sailed between the two in 1607. Perhaps this was due to the jealously guarded maps being kept secret.)
During the voyage, Dampier had an on-going feud with one of the ship's officers whom he eventually beat and off loaded in Brazil. This action was to lead directly to a court martial on his return to England in 1702 that found he was unfit to command any of His Majesty's ships.
(The officer left in Brazil was Lt. George Fisher who was placed aboard by the Admiralty. Fisher detested Dampier calling him an ‘old dissembling cheating rouge’ among other things. Dampier finally tired of Fisher and thrashed him with a cane before leaving him imprisoned in Brazil.)
First landfall was made on August 1st 1699 somewhere along the coast south of Shark Bay (named Shark's Bay by Dampier). No fresh water could be found so the ship sailed north along the coast. (What a difference there might have been in the voyage if Dampier had sailed south instead!)
It has long been believed that Dampier landed near the current site of Broome and a memorial in Roebuck Bay commemorates the landing but as Dampier sailed well out to sea as he passed this area it is now believed that his last landing on the Western Australian coast was made at Lagrange Bay a lot further south.
During his time on the north west coast Dampier made mention in his writings of the pearl shell that was present in the waters. Little did he know the fabulous wealth this was to bring in years to come. He was unimpressed with what he found in Australia and his negative reports helped keep people away from the coast for many years.
Almost destitute, Dampier now began work on his second book, 'A voyage to New Holland' and then made another fruitless voyage (1703) to South America aboard the privateer St. George. The trip did not go well, the crew deserted and the ship finally sank. Dampier was taken prisoner by the Dutch and only managed to get back to England in 1707.
In 1708 he joined the ship Duke as a pilot and on this trip a large amount of Spanish treasure (over 200,000 pounds worth) was captured.
By the time
Dampier died aged 63 in March
1715 his writings had made him
famous. For the final years of his life he lived on credit (the captured treasure for
some odd reason had not by that time been divided up) and he died 2000 pounds in
Dampier remains a popular figure even today. Figures from our website show that more people look up Dampier's page here than any other historic figure from W.A.'s past. If you would like to learn more about other important people in our history then check out our main biographies page.