I n 1907, an argument broke out in East Coker, England, over a proposed memorial to an underappreciated 17th-century explorer, William Darnpier. The accomplished native son had circled the globe three times, recorded the unique wildlife of the Galapagos about 150 years before Darwin, and visited Australia 80 years before Cook. He enriched English with over 1,000 new words— including avocado, barbecue, and sea lion. But some residents could not get beyond one salient fact: Darnpier was a pirate. “They thought of him as a bloodthirsty cutthroat,” says Diana Preston, coauthor with her husband, Michael, of A Pirate of Exquisite Mind, a biography of Dampier due out in April, 2004. . Dampier was slighted again, and the memorial was limited to a small brass plaque.

Wanderlust. The son of a tenant farmer, Dampier went to sea in the 1670s, eventually joining a crew of buccaneers. Over the next 40 years, he wandered from the Galapagos to Vietnam, raiding Spanish ships and settlements. But he was also a child of the Enlightenment. As he traveled, he recorded his observations in journals he preserved in bamboo. Dampier drew on them to write three travelogues, beginning with A New Voyage Around the World in 1697. His books became bestsellers while impressing the Royal Society with their scientific rigor. He published the first account of Australia’s aborigines and the first English description of the zebra, the breadfruit, and the effects of marijuana.

His writings galvanized generations of scientists, writers, and explorers. Based on his observations in the Galapagos, he coined the term “sub-species,” inspiring Darwin. His maps of winds and currents aided Cook and Nelson. Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe studied his colorful travel narratives. And, during an unhappy stint in the British Navy, he returned with the first botanical specimens from Australia. He was a better explorer than pirate, failing to pull off any really lucrative raids. But Dampier, who died in 1715, was driven as much by curiosity as by a desire for wealth. “He reminded us,” Diana Preston says, “of the first backpacker.”

                                                                                             —Katherine Marsh



February 23 / March 1, 2004. (pg. 74)

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