This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966
William Dampier (1651-1715), seaman and author, was baptized on 5 September 1651, the son of a tenant farmer of East Coker, Somerset, England. After participating in various trading and privateering ventures on both sides of Central America he joined, in 1683, a group of buccaneers bound for the Pacific by way of Cape Horn. Three years later he set out upon his first crossing of the Pacific as one of the crew of the Cygnet.
Before his return to England in 1691 Dampier had visited the Philippines and the islands of the eastern archipelago, had spent three months of 1688 on the Australian coast in the vicinity of King Sound and had taken part in a series of trading voyages in south-east Asia. His account of these experiences, when published in 1697 and 1699, immediately established him as an authority on the South Seas; in direct consequence of this reputation the Admiralty consulted him on the best method of exploring these waters. Given command of the expedition prepared for that purpose, Dampier, with the rank of captain, sailed from England in January 1699 in H.M.S. Roebuck and on 6 August anchored at the entrance to the inlet he named Shark Bay. A week later he started on a coasting cruise to the north-east in search of water. Failing to find it he left the coast near Roebuck Bay on 5 September bound for Timor. From January to April 1700 the Roebuck was on the north coast of New Guinea and it was in this period that New Britain, the only major discovery of the voyage, was sighted and named. The crazy condition of his ship, which caused her to founder on the homeward passage, prevented Dampier from pursuing his original plan of examining the seas east and south of New Guinea and deprived him of the honour of discovering the east coast of Australia.
Dampier appeared to have little ability in managing the crews placed under him, and in 1702 a court martial declared him unfit to command any of His Majesty's ships. This verdict might well have been noted by those who appointed him next year to lead a privateering expedition to the South Seas, since that enterprise ended in grievous failure. Nevertheless, he made another voyage round the world between 1708 and 1711, not as a commander but as pilot to the efficient and successful Captain Woodes Rogers. Whatever his virtues as a sailor, Dampier was immensely popular as an author, his works setting an entire fashion in travel literature and influencing such men as Swift and Defoe. New Voyage Round the World ran to four editions within two years of its publication in London in 1697, and there were seven editions of his works by 1727. The second volume was published in 1699 and the third and fourth, dealing with the Roebuck, in 1703 and 1709. To these must be added his unfortunate account of the 1703 fiasco, Capt. Dampier's Vindication of his Voyage to the South Seas in the Ship St George (London, 1707). His insatiable curiosity and his total freedom 'from affectation and the most distant appearance of invention' resulted in a wealth of description of all he saw so exact as to be of scientific as well as literary interest. His account of the winds and currents of the Pacific in the 1699 volume has earned the respect of navigators and meteorologists to the present day.
Dampier's direct contribution to Australian history was slight; indeed, his own impression of the west coast was unfavourable, since it seemed to him to be a long series of reefs and shoals behind which lay sandhills and barren country, apparently without water and inhabited by 'the miserablest People in the World'. There is nothing in this description of the topography to endanger his reputation for accurate observation. Nevertheless the great interest in the southern continent roused by his books was sustained throughout the century and the final exploration of the Pacific was carried out by his fellow-countrymen. The discovery and settlement of eastern Australia may be viewed as the indirect but none the less real conclusion of Dampier's work. He died in London in 1715.
J. Bach, 'Dampier, William (1651–1715)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dampier-william-1951/text2345, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 9 October 2015.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966