“It might seem odd to speak in the same breath of piracy and science; of the violent tales of buccaneer adventures and of the growth of enlightenment modes of knowledge,” writes historian Anna Neil. But perhaps this is not so bizarre, she argues: “Since at least [Francis] Drake’s time, buccaneers had been identified as circumnavigators, colonialists and explorers as much as swashbucklers and murderers.”
That’s because buccaneers (a term used for pirates primarily restricted to the Caribbean region) often published journals of their adventures, in which “the writers move back and forth between dramatic stories of attack and plunder, and natural-historical accounts of the climate, plants, animals, and peoples of the various places they visit,” writes Neil. And no pirate kept a better journal than 17th century adventurer, William Dampier.
Throughout his adventures, William Dampier jotted down meticulous observations of the natural world while his shipmates pillaged, plundered, and raided just a few miles away. Caribbean scholar John Ramsaran quotes one scholar, who imagines Dampier “writing up his journal, describing a bunch of flowers, or a rare fish, in the intervals between looting a wine-shop or sacking a village.”
Dampier was fastidious about his journal, and diligent about upkeep. During one harrowing trek across the Isthmus of Darien in Panama, accompanied by more than 40 mutinying pirates, Dampier kept his journal dry by shoving it into a tube of bamboo and stopping it with wax at both ends.
In the pages of his notebook, Dampier expressed a great curiosity about the world—and a great keenness for eating basically any animal he came across. This included shark (which his men ate “very savorily”), wallaby (a “very good Meat,” similar to raccoon), flamingo, and many, many sea turtles.
Dampier’s first book, A New Voyage Around the World, was published in 1697, after almost two decades of buccaneering across the West Indies. The volume made him famous practically overnight. In it, Neil argues that Dampier purposefully downplayed his piratical actions, while emphasizing his novel scientific discoveries. “Dampier’s journals…attempt to cleanse the criminal pasts of their author by downplaying his acts of violence and presenting him instead as an explorer and scientific journalist,” writes Neil. “Dampier himself insisted that his journey was motivated more by a disinterested intention ‘to indulge my curiosity [rather] than to get wealth.'”
Dampier’s rebranding was ultimately successful, as Neil writes:
The scientific community was convinced: while other members of the buccaneer party were defending themselves against charges of piracy, Charles Montague, president of the Royal Society, had introduced Dampier to the First Lord of the Admiralty, who then commissioned him to explore the coast of New Holland.
Dampier would go on to lead the first government-sponsored expedition of scientific discovery. He’d become the first person to circumnavigate the globe three times. He would also make significant contributions to the field of hydrography with precise observations about ocean movement. Dampier was a man who wanted to travel as far as possible and learn as much as he could. And, despite later attempts to distance himself from his shady past, it seems that along the way, he was perfectly happy to seek his fortune as a pirate.