Could there be a direct link between Plasticine, Robinson Crusoe and Old Possum?

Steve Connor may have hit on it for today’s Independent.

Perhaps without realising it, by connecting William Dampier (1651-1715) with the new Aardman film.

Somerset by toilets (anag.)

The answer is East Coker:

In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur, and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.


William Dampier was baptised at East Coker (there’s the link!) on 5th September 1651. He had more than a basic education before William Helyar, his guardian, the sugar-baron and Lord of the Manor of East Coker, sent Dampier off to sea. After a voyage on an East Indiaman and service in the Third Dutch War, Dampier was consigned to Helyar’s Jamaican plantation. There Dampier came to punch-ups (something of a life-trait) with the manager; and upped-and-offed to work in the logwood trade (a source of purple dyes) along the Bay of Campeche, Mexico. This was a business run by the baymen, English privateers made unemployed after the Godolphin Treaty with Spain. And so, by short strides, Dampier joined the marauding buccaneers of Tortuga, raiding the Mosquito Coast and Panama.

The long way home

In 1686 he joined Captain Charles Swan’s The Cygnet. Swan went fruitlessly hunting the treasure of the Manila galleon; but Dampier claimed he was motived to see more of the Pacific. Six thousand miles on short rations later, Dampier had navigated The Cygnet to Guam. Understandably, his account of Guam and the Philippines is then frequently concerned with foods — breadfruit, banana, and plantain.

The Cygnet cruised the South China Sea, before arriving as the first English ship to touch New Holland (Australia). Here Dampier was seriously disappointed by King Sound and the Great Sandy Desert. From there to the Nicobars, where Dampier left Swan’s crew, and amazingly reached Sumatra in an outrigger canoe. Despite a dose of dysentery Dampier then spent eighteen months travelling throughout south-east Asia, across modern Vietnam, the Malaysia, and back to India. He again joined the service of the East India Company (as a gunner in Sumatra) before returning to England as the first circumnavigator in a century, bringing with him “Prince Giolo”, a heavily-tatooed Indonesian (who would later expire of smallpox at Oxford).

Back to the day job

Having lost the income from displaying “Prince Giolo”, Dampier went back to sea as second mate on the Dove. The intention was to trade with the West Indies (with a bit of “salvage” on the side). The operation went awry when neither wages nor a letter-of-marque (a licence for privateering) transpired, and mutiny ensued. One of the ships in the flotilla was seized by the mutineers, and sailed off into piratical history as the Fancy under Captain Every (a.k.a. “Long Ben” Avery). Two years later, Every and his few remaining crew were the richest pirates ever, seriously inconveniencing English relations with the Great Mughal, and carrying large rewards on their heads. Two dozen pirates were captured: six of them brought back to London for trial, a final quaff at the Turk’s Head Inn, and a sad end at Execution Dock (Dampier gave evidence in their defence) — Every and his plunder discreetly disappears from the records.

Dampier had spent that interim working out his commitment on the Dove, but sued for back wages back in London. The Admiralty dismissed the case and accepted the ship’s owners argument that he had supported the mutiny.

Fame at last

Curiously that close shave with piracy made Dampier’s success. In 1697 he published his travelogue as A New Voyage Round the World, followed by an annex and “prequel”, Supplement of the New Voyage in 1699. These were duly translated into Dutch, French, and German.He became a celebrity, frequenting the likes of Hans Sloane, Pepys and Evelyn, and members of the Royal Society, receiving a sine-cure at the Customs House, and appearing as a regular expert witness at Board of Trade enquiries. His portrait by Thomas Murray (see top of this post and the National Portrait Gallery) was taken at this time.

HMS Roebuck

In 1699 Dampier was sent by the Admiralty to survey the “southern continent” as captain of what must count as the earliest officially-sponsored voyage of exploration. Unfortunately, Dampier confined himself to the north-west of Australia (thus missing the commercially-interesting bits) and New Guinea. The Roebuck‘s condition deteriorated and, in August 1701, sank at Ascension Island.

Dampier returned to England (again on an East Indiaman), with his botanical specimens (which still survive at Oxford University) to face a court-martial. Lieutenant George Fisher had berated his captain as a pirate and friend of mutineers. Dampier had been infuriated to the point of caning Fisher and clapping him in irons, and was found by the court to be unfit for command. The reputation of Dampier survived this, and he published A Voyage to New Holland in 1703.

Royal patronage and a failure

At the outbreak of the War of the Spanish Succession, Prince George (a Fellow of the Royal Society) presented Dampier to Queen Anne — both as right. George may have the odd American county of his name; but Charles II’s judgement was “I’ve tried him drunk, and I’ve tried him sober, and there’s nothing to the man.” This seems fairly proven in his judgement of Dampier.

As a consequence of the royal connection, Dampier was given command of a two-ship privateering expedition back in the Pacific, coastal raiding and further pursuit of that legendary Manila galleon. The other ship was Captain Charles Pickering in the Cinque-Ports (which had Alexander Selkirk as its sailing-master: bear this detail in mind).

Not much went aright on the voyage: the galleon went unencountered, the pickings were slight, and desertion and mutiny were rife. Dampier was imprisoned by the Spanish. When he returned to England in 1707 he was berated for all the offences that had characterised his time on the Roebuck, and he was in official bad odour as a bully and coward. He was later prosecuted for fraud by the heir to the ship’s owners.

Woodes Rogers

The merchants of Bristol lavishly financed a scheme of a local man, Woodes Rogers (abt. 1679-1732), who had conveniently married the daughter daughter of Admiral Sir William Whetstone, another Bristolian and the commander-in-chief of the West Indies. Two ships, the Duke and the Duchess were fitted out, and crewed by what Rogers called ‘Tinkers, Taylors, Hay-makers, Pedlers, Fiddlers etc.” The famous William Dampier was engaged as master of the Duke.

Success came early: off Tenerife the Duke took a Spanish cargo of wine and brandy. Rounding the Horn in a spectacular storm meant the Duke headed for shelter at Juan Fernandez. Three days later a party went ashore and were greeted by a man “clothed in goatskins”. This was aforesaid Alexander Selkirk, whom Captain Pickering had marooned there in November 1704. This story first appeared in Rogers’s A Cruising Voyage round the World (1712); and fictionalised by Defoe in Robinson Crusoe (1719).

Rogers succeeded where Dampier had failed. His voyage caused mayhem along the coasts of Peru and Chile, pillaging Guayaquil on the island of Puna and in December 1709 he took a Manila galleon, Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación off Baja California:

… after 16 months at sea, two tiny British frigates under the command of Captain Woodes Rogers had finally caught sight of one of the richest prizes afloat  –  the 500-ton Spanish galleon, the Encarnacion, on her way to Acapulco.

The Encarnacion was loaded down with bejewelled snuffboxes, pearls, rich tapestries and priceless china made for the Queen of Spain, as well as laced ivory fans, embroidered silk gowns, more than 1,000 pairs of silk stockings, chests of musk, tons of rare spices and other plunder valued at more than £1 million on the London market — equivalent to several hundred million pounds today. 

The only English casualty was Rogers himself, whose upper jaw was shot away. The far-larger, and prime target, Begonia was engaged on Christmas Day, 1709, but was too formidable for Roger’s small vessels. All told, Rogers pocketed £14,000 from his voyage, which arrived back at Erith in October 1711.

Dampier’s last days

Dampier’s share of Rogers’ loot would posthumously amount to some £1,500 (even though he himself felt he was entitled to considerably more). While Rogers went on to greater things, Dampier retired to live in St Stephens parish, London, both on his considerable fame as a three-times circumnavigator and on his sine-cure at the Customs House. In Gulliver’s Travels (which owed something to Dampier’s own experiences) Swift thought him an honest man, and a good sailor, but a little too positive in his own opinions.

He died in debt, to the tune of £677 17s. 1d.

Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.


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Filed under Amazon, Australia, crime, Daily Mail, Defoe, fiction, films, History, Literature, London, Naval history, reading, travel

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