June 2018 Cathy Shelbourne “William Dampier, circumnavigator extraordinaire”

*Cathy is a professional and experienced speaker, and it showed. Her speciality is maritime heroes, and her normal habitat cruise ships. On cruises she always tries to offer a talk that connects in some way to where they are, but, as she had told us beforehand, finding a nautical topic with a connection to Chipping Norton had proved difficult. So she’d offered us a menu of a dozen heroes, on which Chipping Norton Yacht Club officers voted. There was no consensus. Luckily we sailors know about leadership, and that democracy is flawed, so our hero was chosen by decree.

Cathy started by challenging us: how many of us had heard of William Dampier? Is he the most famous historical figure hardly anyone has heard of? Surprisingly few of the public at large have heard of him, despite him being, inter alia:

  • * the first person to circumnavigate 3 times;
  • * the first English travel writer;
  • * the man who introduced us to a great many words now in common use e.g. : avocado, breadfruit, kumquat, typhoon;
  • * the first to reach and explore parts of Australia;
  • * a man whose books were seminal to many famed authors and works.

What makes Dampier (1651 – 1715) stand out most from the other early maritime adventurers/opportunists/pirates/buccaneers were his writings, his knowledge of botany and natural history, and his skills as a draughtsman. (Yes there is a distinction between buccaneers and pirates, which Cathy expounded on, in answer to a question form the floor.)

Dampier’s book A New Voyage Round the World (1697) was highly influential, and indirectly led to both a command in the British Navy and membership of the Royal Society.

Although few of us have read Dampier, his works inspired Nelson and became required Navy reading. Dampier’s rescue of castaway Alexander Selkirk, a former crewmate, probably inspired Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Others influenced by Dampier include James Cook, Charles Darwin, and Alfred Russel Wallace (best known for independently conceiving the theory of evolution through natural selection; jointly published with some of Charles Darwin’s writings in 1858).

Dampier enjoyed such fame that there are dozens of plants, mountains, islands, and straits carrying his name. Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere drew on an incident in which one of Dampier’s crewmen shot an albatross….

Cathy knows her subject inside out, fielded our searching questions with aplomb, and gave us a dose of culture and history that well complemented our more usual fare of modern-day maritime exploits and yarns. A very well received, enjoyable and illuminating talk! Perhaps we should arrange a follow-up meeting on a cruise ship, in the Norwegian fjords or the Caribbean?