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Book review: Dampier’s Monkey: The South Seas Voyages of William Dampier by Adrian Mitchell

Posted by Lisa Hill on February 5, 2012

Dampier's Monkey: The South Seas Voyages of William DampierThe publication of Dampier’s Monkey: The South Seas Voyages of William Dampier by Adrian Mitchell is not just of interest to readers keen on Australian history, it’s timely for another reason.

Starting in 2013, Australian teachers will begin teaching the new national Australian Curriculum, and so any primary school teacher under the age of 40 will probably need to learn something about the history of European Exploration. It was, I believe, last taught as a compulsory topic in the 1956 Course of Study when students of my vintage laboriously traced maps into exercise books and with coloured pencils marked the voyages of assorted explorers across the world’s oceans. I found it fascinating because of Miss Baird, who told us tales of high adventure, danger and mayhem while we struggled to keep those dotted lines even and in the right place. I loved Miss Baird. She was young and pretty, and, I now realise, she had taken the trouble to jazz up her lessons by doing some background reading that went beyond the dry facts mandated by the Victorian Department of Education.

The 21st century version of that curriculum for 9 year-olds in their fifth year of schooling looks like this:

The Level 4 curriculum introduces world history and the movement of peoples. Beginning with the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, students examine European exploration and colonisation in Australia and throughout the world up to the early 1800s. Students examine the impact of exploration on other societies, how these societies interacted with newcomers, and how these experiences contributed to their cultural diversity. (ACARA, The Humanities – History)

And the mandated content goes like this:

The journey(s) of AT LEAST ONE world navigator, explorer or trader up to the late eighteenth century, including their contacts with other societies and any impacts. (Content description ACHHK078)

The (non-compulsory) suggested examples are Christopher Columbus, Vasco de Gama, or Ferdinand Magellan – but I hope some teachers choose the politically incorrect buccaneer William Dampier instead. He was the first to circumnavigate the world three times, so he counts as a world explorer, but he’s much more interesting to Aussies because in 1688 (100 years before James Cook’s portentous landing at Botany Bay on the east coast) Dampier in the Cygnet became the first English explorer to make landfall in Australia. And if he wasn’t a pirate, he was perilously close to it…

Alas for Mr Dampier, he landed on what he found to be an unprepossessing north-west coast and didn’t find any opportunities for either plunder or trade. Although he returned in 1699 in the Roebuck for more than his previous cursory inspection, in one of those fascinating ‘what might have been’ moments of history, he dismissed the West Australian coast and its inhabitants as unworthy of further notice. So Cook and his Union Jack got the gig as the explorer who claimed Australia for the British, and Dampier was relegated to comparative obscurity…

But as Adrian Mitchell’s book makes clear, Dampier deserves better. Even though the biographical details are a bit scanty, and Dampier himself rejected any suggestion that he was a rogue, enough is known about him for us to be sure that he was more than a bit disreputable, which – let’s face it – makes him much more interesting for kids to learn about than the respectable Captain Cook!

If teachers do decide to lift Dampier from his relative obscurity, they will find Adrian Mitchell’s Dampier’s Monkey a useful resource for background information. They will discover, for example, the reasons that Dampier didn’t – as he wished to – explore more of the ‘New Holland’ coast. I was enchanted to discover why on his first voyage he didn’t sail south:

Like all buccaneers, Dampier navigated the world’s oceans in the hope of making money, and he was especially keen on finding precious metals, i.e. gold and silver. His New Holland Plan was, clearly, to make his fortune in this new world, and that meant finding gold, preferably gold already dug up by accommodating natives who could be persuaded by one means or another to part with it. This ambition cost him a significant place in the history of Australian exploration, and for a reason I could never have guessed.

Though he occasionally found it handy to use sailors’ superstitions to persuade others to do what he wanted, Dampier was a rational man who made his decisions on the basis of known evidence. He sailed north and not south because he reasoned that ‘the gold and silver which the new continent must surely contain would be in the tropic latitudes, as everywhere else around the world’ (p125). This ‘concept of geology determined by geographic zone’ with ‘echoes of an older, medieval notion of some correlation between warmth and mineral wealth’ (p126) precluded Western Australia’s Kalgoorlie and South Africa’s Johannesburg as well as California and the Klondike in the Northern hemisphere, not to mention the lucrative Victorian goldfields of Ballarat and Bendigo and Bathurst in New South Wales.

(Mind you, if he had sailed south, he’d have had a bit of a hike to find the nuggets lying about in Kalgoorlie because it’s a good six hundred kilometres inland and there’s a good reason for the pipeline that runs alongside the highway all the way from Perth; there’s very little water to be had. Still, he would have found some very desirable real estate all the same.)

HMS Roebuck 1690, source Wikipedia Commons

And why on his second voyage in the Roebuck didn’t he explore the eastern coast as he wished to? For the most prosaic of reasons – because of borers in his ship. After the publication of his first book, New Voyage Round the World in 1697 there was a lot of enthusiasm for this second voyage but less so for provisioning it, and the ship he was fobbed off with was deficient in many respects. So having made the first detailed survey of the flora and fauna of Shark Bay, and discovered to his dismay that the local Aborigines had no concept of trade that he could exploit, Dampier had to abandon the rest of his plans because of the incompetence of his ship’s carpenter, and set sail for Timor. Just as well he did, because it wasn’t long before the ship sank, off Ascension Island. Fortunately Dampier was able to salvage his journals and some specimens, and it was his expert navigational records that eventually enabled the wreck of the Roebuck to be located by divers in 2001 and some relics including its bell to be salvaged.)

What I found from Mitchell’s book is that it’s not the bare facts of Dampier’s journey that make him so interesting. You can find those on Wikipedia:

Dampier reached Dirk Hartog Island at the mouth of what he called Shark Bay in Western Australia. He landed and began producing the first known detailed record of Australian flora and fauna. The images are believed to be by his clerk James Brand. Dampier then followed the coast northeast, reaching the Dampier Archipelago and then Lagrange Bay, just south of what is now called Roebuck Bay all the while recording and collecting specimens, including many shells. (The Roebuck Expedition, Wikipedia)

What Mitchell does is to analyse Dampier’s journals and his published books to discover discrepancies between them. Dampier began sailing at a time when a blind eye was turned towards buccaneering; the spoils it brought benefitted cash-strapped kings and it led to the development of all-important trade. But James II issued a proclamation against piracy, and Dampier was hauled before the Board of Trade twice (1697 and 1698) and court-martialled too in 1702. It was his books which saved him and his reputation: while the pirate Captain Kidd was strung up and his body left in chains on display to warn others not to replicate his crimes, Dampier was a guest of Samuel Pepys in 1698 and presented to Queen Anne in 1703.

His journals are the key to this differential treatment: while his style was influenced by The Voyages and Travels of Sir John Mandeville, a book of marvels and monsters based on Mandeville’s supposed travels first circulated between 1357 and 1371, , Dampier’s books documented marvels that he had seen and actually knew about, based on the careful observations in his ship journals. New Voyage Round the World (1697) and its successors Voyages and Discoveries (1699) and the two-part Voyage to New Holland (1703 and 1709) were written to captivate his readers with artful descriptions of massive birds and peculiar animals, but in a rational and coherent way. Dampier was arguably the first of the great travel writers.

Mitchell also includes a very interesting chapter about the words that Dampier introduced into English. He was very keen to report back using the indigenous words for things, and this is how we have the word ‘gong’ and also ‘barbecue’!

So you’d think that Dampier’s journal of the 1681-1691 voyage in the South Seas would have made it into print long before this, but no, it’s in this book by Mitchell that we can see it for the first time, complete with Dampier’s (sometimes sanitising) annotations and written in that eccentric seventeenth century spelling as well. (I’d be tempted to give a short extract to a small group of clever Year 4 students for a fun proof-reading exercise!)

The cover illustration is of Norman Lindsay’s The Landing of Dampier (1925), and there are also some interesting reproductions of maps and engravings from Dampier’s books, including one accompanying his record of sailing through a violent storm to Aceh after being deliberately marooned on Nicobar Island. Dampier and his Companions in their Canoe, overtaken by a dreadfull Storm (1777) which (unlike most of the rest of them) is actually in the National Library of Australia.

Dampier’s Monkey: The South Seas Voyages is a scholarly work and here and there it’s a bit arcane, a bit opaque for a general reader. If you’re trying to find a simple summary of why Dampier matters in the history of Australian exploration then this is not the book for you. But to discover the life and interests of a complex, influential and morally ambiguous man who played an important part in the development of natural science, linguistics and anthropology, it is worth the effort.

Miss Baird would have thought so. She’s actually the only teacher whose name I remember from the patchwork of primary schools I attended across three continents. Her approach has to be worth emulating, I would say.

Cross-posted at ANZLitLovers.

© Lisa Hill

Author: Adrian Mitchell
Title: Dampier’s Monkey: The South Seas Voyages of William Dampier
Publisher: Wakefield 2011
ISBN: 9781862547599
Source: review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Fishpond: Dampier’s Monkey: The South Seas Voyages of William Dampier or direct from Wakefield Press.

One Response to “Book review: Dampier’s Monkey: The South Seas Voyages of William Dampier by Adrian Mitchell”

  1. […] Cross-posted at LisaHillSchoolStuff. […]

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