The Pirate Who Collected Plants
From Plantation to Pirate Ship
Orphaned at an early age, William Dampier whetted his appetite for the sea with several long voyages. He moved from England to Jamaica to help manage a sugar plantation, but that didn’t work out. So he went to Mexico, where he took up logging and began describing wildlife. When a hurricane destroyed his camp, Dampier joined a band of buccaneers. The pirate’s life provided Dampier with a source of income. But it also had another advantage that was just as important to him: the chance to visit and explore far-flung, little-known parts of the world. The first stop was Central and South America—including the Galapagos Islands, which would later play an important role in the development of Charles Darwin’s theories about evolution.
Observations of the New World
In between pillaging and plundering, Dampier spent every spare moment exploring the natural environment and meticulously documenting everything in sight. He was charmed by all the new animals and plants he came across. He described the hummingbird, for example, as:
…a pretty little feathered creature, no bigger than a great, over-grown wasp.;
Of the armadillo, he wrote:The head is small with a nose like a pig….on any danger…she lies stock-still like a land-turtle. And though you toss her about she will not move herself.
His passion and detailed descriptions would one day inspire scientists, writers, and British armchair travelers alike.
Long Trip Around the World
In 1679 Dampier signed up with a group of buccaneers who planned a trip to the South Seas. They ended up sailing all the way around the world. One of the places they stopped was Australia—making Dampier the first Englishman to visit that continent. He wrote:
It is not yet determined whether it is an island or a main continent, but I am certain that it joins neither Asia, Africa nor America.
The journey lasted more than 12 years. Besides his observations of animals and plants, Dampier kept careful records on winds, currents, and latitude and longitude. He stored all his notes in bamboo tubes sealed with wax. When he returned to Europe, he wrote his first book, A New Voyage Round the World. It became a best-seller, and Dampier became something of a celebrity.