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Eighteenth-Century Life 26.3 (2002) 45-57
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Measuring the Marvelous:
Science and the Exotic in William Dampier
University of Sydney
University of Sydney
William Dampier, the first English explorer after the hiatus in Britain's history of exploration during the mid seventeenth century, traversed virtually the whole range of the exotic, in both geographic and ethnographic terms. He sailed around the Caribbean, the exotic zone par excellence, and traded on the Yucatán peninsula; he marched with pirates across the Panama Isthmus; he was a buccaneer and a gunrunner in the New World and cruised along the west coast of the Americas and across to Guam and the Philippines in specific imitation of Drake; he got himself marooned in the Dutch East Indies; he famously landed on the Western Australian coast and described its natives in a disparaging manner; and he sailed along the north of New Guinea and discovered New Britain. He returned to England twelve years later, with no less to show for his adventures than a tattooed native from the Spice Islands. He had seen it all and wrote it up in two acclaimed travel narratives: A New Voyage Round the World, published in 1697, and A Voyage to New Holland, which appeared in two parts, in 1703 and 1709. 1 [End Page 45]
Dampier's origins were ordinary. The orphaned son of an East Coker tenant farmer, he was an unlikely candidate for the exotic career that saw him crisscross the Equinoctial Line to the very margins of geography and society and held him for long years from England. What drove him? The "Golden Dreams" of gold and silver, spices, and ambergris that he entertains, retrospectively and intermittently, in A New Voyage, are never more than that: indulgent fantasies, speculative glosses upon Elizabethan invention and ambition. In a marginal note in the manuscript version of that work, a reworked account "Revised and Corrected by Friends" of the no longer extant journal that formed its basis, he declares his motivation as curiosity—"I came into these seas this second time more to Endulge my cureosity then to gett wealth" (BL Sloane 3236, fol. 128r). Yet it can be argued that social legitimization is the more likely goal of the work's narrative persona. A New Voyage conceals vestigial swashbuckling narrative within scientific observation so as to become a kind of apologia pro vita sua in which, it has recently been argued, 2 Dampier seeks to reclaim the "English" identity that his buccaneering had forfeited, much as another famous West Country sea dog, Captain Henry Morgan, was able to refashion himself through the deputy governorship of Jamaica and a knighthood conferred upon him (1674) largely for his successful, if temporarily embarrassing, sacking of Panama City (1670). Clearly, Dampier made an impression: A New Voyage was immediately accorded an eight-page "Account" in the Philosophical Transactions. 3 He had succeeded in transforming himself into a natural philosopher and, in January 1699, set off on a second investigative trip to New Guinea and New Holland sponsored by the Admiralty, but, one notes, with a very inferior vessel, courtesy of HM Supplies, which sank beneath him before he could get back to England.
Swift's sneer at Dampier in Gulliver's Travels (1726)—"a very loose and uncorrect account of my travels; with direction to hire some young gentleman of either university to put them in order, and correct the style, as my cousin Dampier did by my advice, in his book called A Voyage Round the World" ("A letter from Captain Gulliver to his cousin Simpson")—is as unworthy of him and as revealing of his literary snobbery as, say, Pope's comparable glancing contempt for Defoe in the Dunciad (1728). Dampier was one of the truly popular writers of his and Swift's era, much like Cook at the end of the eighteenth century and for much the same reasons. As an observer and transcriber of natural phenomena he is a worthy precursor of the great natural historians and marine...