William Dampier, explorer and buccaneer, was born in the mid 17th century in the parish of East Coker, which was made famous as the title of one of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.
East Coker has other nautical and adventuring connections: in the 18th century, flax grown there was used to make sailcloth for Nelson’s ships, and in the 20th century East Coker hemp provided rope for the successful 1953 Everest expedition.
Orphaned at 16 and apprenticed to a shipmaster, Dampier took to the sea. He was engaged in and led several successful voyages of exploration, as well as being the first person to circumnavigate the world three times. On his second circumnavigation, he and seven other men were captured and thrown into a Peruvian jail. When they finally made it back to England, Dampier’s crew charged him with cowardice, brutality and drunkenness, and his captain’s rank was taken away.
He died a pauper in 1715 and was buried in an unmarked grave.
Alexander Selkirk – the real Robinson Crusoe – spent his last years living in a cave he’d built in his father’s garden.
In 1704, Dampier led a privateering expedition to the Pacific, captained by Thomas Streadling. The sailing master was Alexander Selkirk, whose experience inspired Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. Against Selkirk’s advice, Streadling decided to round Cape Horn at the height of the storm season. He was thrice beaten back by ferocious seas and eventually landed at the uninhabited Mas a Tierra island, 400 miles off the west coast of Chile. It was sometimes used by pirates to refit their ships and collect fresh fruit and water. Today, it is known as Robinson Crusoe Island.
Certain the ship was unseaworthy, Selkirk demanded he be left alone on the island to await rescue. He packed up his bedding, a firelock rifle with powder and bullets; tobacco; a hatchet, knife and kettle; a Bible, some other books and his mathematical instruments, and the ship set sail without him. As the longboat pulled away from the shore, he had second thoughts and tried to call it back but Streadling ignored him and sailed on.
Selkirk was left alone on the island for four years and four months. In 1709, the English privateer called Duke arrived at the island, piloted by William Dampier. On the way back, partly as a result of Selkirk’s superb seamanship, the Duke captured a richly-loaded Spanish merchantman of which Selkirk was made captain for the voyage home.
The prize money made Selkirk rich, but he never readjusted to society. In 1720 he returned to sea with the Royal Navy, only to die from drinking infected water off the coast of Africa.
There is nothing so desperately monotonous as the sea, and I no longer wonder at the cruelty of pirates.
When William Dampier was shipwrecked off Ascension Island, he survived on a diet of goats and turtles.
T. S. Eliot is buried in the same church where William Dampier was christened.
Dampier had an unusual degree of influence on men much more famous than himself, including Darwin, Nelson, Alexander von Humboldt, Captain Cook, Captain Bligh and Benjamin Franklin, as well as Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe. He dined with the diarists John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys.
Dampier was the first man to make the connection between winds and currents and the first to make integrated wind-maps of the world. Cook and Nelson studied his navigational innovations, Franklin admired his meteorological observations and almost every explorer in the 18th and 19th centuries carried with them a copy of his masterpiece A New Voyage Round The World.
Darwin called his books ‘a mine of information’ and affectionately referred to him as ‘old Dampier’ in his diary.
It is never too late to be wise.
William Dampier is cited more than 1,000 times in the Oxford English Dictionary.
Words that he introduced into the English language include: avocado, barbecue, breadfruit, caress (as a verb), cashew, chopsticks, petrel, posse, settlement, snapper, soy sauce, stilts (house supports), subsistence (in a farming context), sub-species, swampy, thunder-cloud, snug and tortilla.
William Dampier produced the first known detailed record of Australian flora and fauna.
A slave, known as the painted Prince Jeoly, the first of many 'tattoo attractions', appeared in London in 1691 in the company of William Dampier.