Piracy, Turtles & Flying Foxes by William Dampier

piracy turtles flying foxesWilliam Dampier (1651-1715) spent the last part of the 17th century travelling around the world three times, by accident.  He was arguably the most unsuccessful pirate to ever live to tell the tale. Dampier first told his tale in A New Voyage Round the World which is considered to be the first great travel book in English.   When he was low on funds, which was often, and home in England, which was not, he wrote several additional books about his exploits as a pirate, adventurer, sometimes anthropologist and naturalist including the first English account of Australia.

His work was very popular and had a strong impact on his contemporaries including Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift.  It still makes for interesting reading today.

The extracts included in Penguins Great Adventure series Piracy, Turtles & Flying Foxes contain many of what must be the juiciest bits.  It’s easy to see why Dampier’s work sold so well in the late 17th century, a time when relatively few people had experience when overseas travel.  Even ordinary things seem strange and wonderful when described for someone who had no idea they existed.

This island also produces Durians and Jacks. The trees that produce the Durians are as big as Apple trees and full of Boughs. The Rind is thick and rough, and the Fruit so large they grow only about the bodies, or on the limbs near the Body, like the Cacao.  The Fruit is about the bigness of a Pumpkin, covered with a thick, green, rough Rind.  When it is ripe, the Rind begins to turn yellow, but it is not fit to eat till it opens at the top.  Then the fruit in the inside is ripe, and sends forth an excellent Scent. When the Rind is opened, the Fruit may be split into four quarters.  Each quarter has several small Cells that enclose a certain quantity of the fruit, according to the bigness of the Cell, for some are larger than others.  The largest o the Fruit may be as big as a Pullet’s Egg. It is as white as Mil, and as sot as Cream and the Taste very delicious to those that are accustomed to them.  But those who have not been used to eating them will dislike them at first because they smell like roasted Onions.

While I’ve always been led to understand that Durians were something awful, Dampier has me thinking about trying them.  He even had me thinking about trying Manatee, which he describes as  white, both the Fat and the Lean, and extraordinarily sweet, wholesome meat. He gives such a detailed account of the physiology and habits of the manatee that I thought he must have been a naturalist as well as a pirate.  Consider him a scholar-pirate.

He is not always good with the native people he encounters.  He’s still early enough in the colonial period to be meeting native populations who have had little exposure to Europeans.  The people he meets in Central America rescued his party of unfortunate travelers more than once.

I must confess the Indians assisted us very much, and I question whether we would have ever got over without their assistance, because they brought us from time to time to their Plantations, where we always got Provision, which otherwise we should have wanted.

While he has little but praise for the native people of Central America he is horrified by the people he finds in Australia

The Inhabitants of this Country are the miserablest People in the World.  The Hodmadods of Monomatapa, though a nasty People, yet for Wealth are Gentlemen to these.  They have no Houses, or skin Garments, Sheep, Poultry, Fruits of the Earth Ostrich Eggs, etc., as the Hodmadods have.  And setting aside their Human Shape, they differ little from Brutes.  They are tall, straight-bodied and thin, with small long Limbs,  The have great Heads, round Foreheads and great Brows.  Their Eyelids are always half closed, to keep the Flies out of their Eyes, they being so troublesome here that no fanning will keep them from coming to one’s Face.  And without the assistance of both Hands to keep them off, they will creep into one’s Nostrils, and Mouth too, if the Lips are not shut very close.  So being thus annoyed with Insects from their Infancy,  they never open their eyes as other People, and therefore cannot see very far unless they hold up their Heads, as if they were looking at something over them.

I’m not going to defend Dampier here though one should probably take into consideration that he was a 17th century English pirate and that he wrote this description at a time when no one was sure if Australia was a continent to itself or if it was connected to something larger.  However, it is easy for me to see why descriptions of encounters like this one must have captured the interest of the reading public back home in England.  Defoe and Swift both probably read him with their 17th century highlighters in-hand.

Dampier is much more sympathetic with his portrayal of the Painted Prince, a slave from the South Pacific who is entrusted to him on his voyage home to England.  The Painted Prince became something of a celebrity once he reached England due to the tattoos which covered most of his body.  Dampier’s relationship with the Painted Prince foreshadows Robinson Crusoe’s relationship with Friday, even the master/slave aspect of both relationships seem clearly linked to me.

Piracy, Turtles and Flying Foxes ends as it began with a series of near death misadventures.  In the opening section Dampier travels on land where he is rescued by native people while in the closing section he travels on the open sea where he is rescued by providence.  Luckily for both him and his readers, he survived to a comfortable retirement spent writing books about his adventures.   Adventures that ended up as volume 5 in Penguins Great Journey’s series.  I’ll be looking for the rest.

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