“ Editor: gerald Norris / Paperback: 321 pages / Publisher: Boydell Press / Published: 21 Feb 2008 „
When my book loving neighbour decided to downsize, he left me with several boxes of books to read or give away as I saw fit. I am still sorting through them months later, but I am not going to moan because I have got free copies of some fantastic books. I am going to review one of those today - "The Buccanneer Explorer - William Dampiers Voyages". I sometimes struggle to really immerse myself in travel writing, but the title of this book caught my attention immediately..
WHO WAS WILLIAM DAMPIER?
I must confess I was only vaguely aware of the name William Dampier before I read this book. The introduction soon filled me in, and left me keen to read what followed. Briefly, Dampier was born in 1672, and spent some of his youth in the navy. He then sailed to Jamaica to make his fortune, initially working on the plantations there. However, when a hurricane destroyed his business, he took up with the buccanneers who used the island as a base. They targeted the ships of Britain's enemies, robbing them of their valuable cargo. This was presented at first as a act of patriotism, but after some time, Dampier became a full scale pirate. That meant any ship that came within their compass was likely to recieve a visit from Dampier and his crewmates. During his life, William circumnavigated the world three times in stages. This gave him plenty of opportunity to record observations of animals, plants and peoples relatively or completely unknown in Europe. He eventually published these volumes, to hugh acclaim. They are described as the first piece of great travel writing. Despite his background, these books opened the gateway for William to be appointed leader of a government mission of exploration to Australia. That trip did not run smoothly, but William survived and lived long enough to retire wealthy. This is something few of his fellow pirates achieved.
THE BOOK ITSELF
The edition I have is published by Boydell Press as part of a series called "First Person Singular." As you can tell from that, this is an edited account of his voyages, in his own words rather than a biography. I much prefer to read history this way, becuase I think you get more of a feel for the author's character. The editor, Gerald Norris, introduces each part with a short paragraph that fills in the gaps between the entries. This is really useful, because without it, it would be difficult to keep up with William's journey. He changes direction and ships several times, when persuing a likely target, or due to bad weather or shipwreck. There are also footnotes to explain changes to place names or seafaring lingo. I thought these were interesting rather than intrusive, as they are at the bottom of a page and you can skip them if you don't need them.
There are a few contempory pictures within the book, but I did not find them as interesting as I thought they would be. This is because they are black and white, as you would expect, but the contrast is poor. They are too small and dark to allow you to see most of the detail. This isn't the sort of travel book that would grace a coffee table.
DIARY OF A PIRATE?
I suspect the title of the book would attract those who are looking for tales of swashbuckling adventure. They would probably be disappointed. There are descriptions of confrontation with other ships, but many take place away from the pages. Whether this is due to editing, or glossing over certain incidents by the author, I don't know. The majority of the book is a record of meetings with wildlife, tribesman, and settlers. It is full of evocative descriptions of flora and fauna. This makes me feel it is likely to be of interest to those who like natural history. The other people it would appeal to are lovers of history, of which I am one. The narrative is full of unexpected and extraordinary details surrounding the lives of people whose voices we don't hear much in other books. For example, I was fascinated to read a description of how settlers transported a beef carcass home. Dampier says they cut a whole through the middle of the dead beast, and stuck their head through that, wearing the body "like a frock". I suppose that left your hands free! If that detail made you feel squeamish, this book is definitely not for you. I am not usually made to feel sick by anything I read, but William's story about pulling a long worm out from an open wound over several days was vivid enough to do that. Aracnophobes should also steer clear. If you love other animals, some of the writing will make you pause. William rarely introduces an animal without telling you how easy it is to kill, and how good or otherwise the meat tastes. It is apparently possible to knock down 20 iguanas an hour using a club with a bit of pratice! No doubt this would have been life saving information to other explorers coming after him though.
Overall, I found the book interesting and a window into another world. It is easy to make presumptions about people such as Dampier. There is no doubt that he commited acts of brutality in our eyes, but there are also glimpses of another man. One who realised the natives sometimes knew more than he did, and one who would share rations with his ship's dog, even though they were desperately short of food. His observations of nature seem detailed and careful. He prefered to record what he had seen with his own eyes rather than rely on the tales of others. I thought it was interesting to compare some of his writing with that of Charles Darwin 150 years later. They visited some of the same places, and agree in many details.
WOULD I RECOMMEND THE BOOK?
If you are looking for an exciting travel book, this may disappoint because of the descriptions of birds and animals you will have to wade through. Even I had to skip some of these at times. If you love natural history though, and are interested in the history of exploration, this is an interesting book. William Dampier's life often reads like a novel - I have missed out some details of his life above so I won't spoil some of the twists and turns. I feel that I would now like to know more about the man, and I will be looking out for a biography. I would hesitate to buy this book at the cover price of £15.99 as I think this is a lot for a paperback that I would not read again and again. Amazon sell new copies for £15.19, so there isn't much of a saving there either. I think this would be the ideal book to hire from a library if you are lucky enough to find it there. I have donated my copy to my local branch.
[This review also appears on Ciao, under my user name.]