Rich with incident and novelty, the life of a swashbuckler whose exploits and writings impressed generations of readers, including Darwin and Humboldt, though he’s little remembered today.
Thoroughly dazzled by their subject, the authors aim to redress that injustice. Nonfiction veteran Diana Preston (The Boxer Rebellion, 2000, etc.) and husband Michael convey Dampier’s life in punchy, declarative sentences, strained only by the sheer plentitude of his doings. Most of the material comes from his published works; Dampier pretty much invented the modern travel narrative, fashioning bestsellers borne on “the accessibility of his writing and the exoticism of his experience.” Much of the rest comes from records at the Court of Admiralty; he was also an active buccaneer and a lousy leader of men. Cut of standard English piratical cloth, this rumbustious plunderer of Spanish ships and towns always had an eye skinned for booty or opportunities for ransom. His pioneering qualities and inexhaustible curiosity made him a natural star in an age “when inquiry was fashionable and ingenuity admired.” The Prestons present Dampier as an ambiguous figure, a man who would engage himself in daring and bloody raids, then turn around and write A Discourse of Trade-Winds, Breezes, Storms, Seasons of the Year, Tides, and Currents. He was hungry not just for filthy lucre, which often evaded his grasp, but also for appreciating and appraising the strange lands he visited as he circumnavigated the globe the times. (He visited Australia years before Cook.) No silver or gold? No problem for Dampier, who would take his payment in observations of flamingoes so numerous they looked like “a wall of new brick” (pink, 17th-century brick, that is), or in hunting with the raja of Mindanao, or in savoring the local oysters.
Yeomanly treatment of a man who “wanted desperately to make his fortune but was seduced by the quest for knowledge.” (65 b&w illustrations, 12 maps)