Captain William Dampier: First Englishman to visit Australia [chapter 3 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton]

[Editor: This is chapter 3 of “The story of Australia” by Martin Hambleton. Published in The Sunday Mail, 1 July 1934.]

The story of Australia — III.

Captain William Dampier

First Englishman to visit Australia

We have seen how Spaniards and Dutchmen in their little ships succeeded in getting nearer and nearer to Australia; and, although the Dutchmen actually touched upon its northern and western shores, they did not, and could not, guess the real nature of the mighty land of which they caught glimpses. Then England appeared on the scene, in the person of Captain William Dampier, a most extraordinary character, who was born in 1652 and died in 1715.

Dampier was a Somersetshire man, born near Yeovil, and brought up on a farm. After the death of his father and mother he was sent to sea, and made a journey to Newfoundland. The hardships of the voyage, however, made him determined never to go to sea again.

He went to London, but after a time, changing his mind, sailed on a vessel to Bantam, Java, and when war with the Dutch broke out he took part in several battles. Then, after a period of sickness and rest in Somersetshire, he went to Jamaica to help to manage a sugar plantation there; but once again the sea called him, and he sailed along the coast of Yucatan. After spending some time among the lawless logwood cutters he joined a buccaneering expedition, which crossed the Isthmus of Darien, ravaging Spanish settlements and capturing Spanish and other vessels.

It was a rollicking, lawless life, yet through it all this strange seaman, half pirate, half scientist, kept a journal and made a careful study of winds and tides, which he published as a very valuable work later. He also made careful botanical studies.

Dampier’s first visit

He now joined another expedition and sailed on a voyage round Cape Horn to the west coast of South America and as far north as Mexico. Here quarrels arose, and one of the ships, the Cygnet, with Dampier on board, crossed the Pacific to the East Indian Islands, suffering great privations. From here, Dampier says, they stood off south, intending to touch at “New Holland” “to see what that country could afford us.”

These privateers did not give a name to the part of New Holland they touched. In all probability the coast, which they first sighted, was that of North Australia, and they may have anchored off either Bathurst or Melville Island. Dampier had nine weeks ashore while the Cygnet was being repaired, and in his book he gave a full description of what he had seen.

“New Holland,” he says, “is a very large tract of land. It is not yet determined whether it is an island or a main continent, but I am certain that it joins neither to Africa, Asia, or America. The natives are the most miserablest people on earth, and, setting aside their human shape, differ but little from brutes.”

On March 12, 1688, the Cygnet sailed away and steered northwards. Reaching the Indian Ocean, Dampier and a few men were marooned on the Nicobas Islands as they wished to start a trade in ambergris. Later they made a perilous voyage in a small boat to Atcheen, in Sumatra, and afterwards Dampier got a passage to England.

In the quiet interval between 1691 and 1699 he described vividly his journeyings. He was a splendid writer, this strange old pirate, who would burn a city and then turn with rapture to gaze on a beautiful flower.

Coast explored

In the beginning of the year 1699 Dampier was given the command of the Roebuck, and sent on a voyage to explore the Australian coast. On July 25 Australia was sighted and the ship was anchored in Dirk Hartog’s Roads. This opening Dampier called Shark’s Bay, a name it has ever since retained. He paints a very pretty picture of his first view of this place, telling us of sweet-scented trees and beautiful wildflowers. His men caught sharks and devoured them with relish — probably a pleasant change to the salt beef to which they were accustomed.

Leaving Sharks Bay Dampier sailed north-east and fell ill with a number of small rocky islands called Dampier’s Archipelago. All along the coast men were sent ashore to obtain fresh water, but all to no purpose. His second impression of the natives was no better than the first. He says that they had the most unpleasant looks and the worst features of any people he ever saw, “though,” says he, “I have seen a great variety of savages.”

As fresh water could not be found, Dampier determined to sail to Timor. He had spent five weeks in cruising off the coast, covering in all 1000 miles, but without making any sort of discovery of importance. On December 5, 1699, a course for Timor was taken, and on the seventh nothing of the coast was visible.

Shipwrecked and rescued

On the voyage home the Roebuck sank off Ascension Island, where he and his men lived for two months on turtles and goats. Eventually the Anglesea, an English man of war, rescued them and took them to Barbadoes, where Dampier accepted an offer to return to England on an East Indiaman named the Canterbury.

Dampier’s pictures of Australia were just as gloomy as those of the men who had preceded him, and for nearly a century it remained neglected and unwanted. He made it a land of savages and alarming animals, a land of arid, dead coasts, and a land unfit for human habitation. It was no wonder that exploration in the Southern Ocean ceased to appeal to the bold navigator of those days.

The Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld.), 1 July 1934, p. 29

[Editor: Corrected “feaures” to “features”.]

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