Front Matter A Little Old World Early Mariners Is the World Flat Herodotus the Traveller Alexander Explores India Pytheas Finds British Isles Julius Caesar as Explorer Strabo's Geography The Roman Empire and Pliny Ptolemy's Maps Pilgrim Travellers Irish Explorers After Mohammed Vikings Sail Northern Seas Arab Wayfarers Travellers to the East Marco Polo Mediaeval Exploration Ends Mediaeval Maps Prince Henry of Portugal Bartholomew Diaz Christopher Columbus A Great New World Vasco da Gama Reaches India Discovery of Spice Islands Balboa Sees Pacific Ocean Magellan Sails Round World Cortes Conquers Mexico Explorers in South America Cabot Sails to Newfoundland Cartier Explores Canada Search for a Northwest Passage Frobisher Searches for Passage Drake's Famous Voyage Davis Straight Barents Sails to Spitzbergen Hudson Finds His Bay Baffin Finds His Bay Raleigh Searches for El Dorado Champlain and Lake Ontario Discoverers of Australia Tasman Finds Tasmania Dampier Discovers a Straight Behring Finds his Straight Cook Discovers New Zealand Cook's Third Voyage Bruce in Abyssinia Mungo Park and the Niger Vancouver and his Island Mackenzie and his River Parry and Lancaster Sound The Frozen North Franklin's Land Voyage Parry's Polar Voyage The Search for Timbuktu Landers Discover the Niger Ross Discovers North Pole Flinders Names Australia Sturt's Discoveries in Australia Ross in the Antarctic Seas Franklin Discovers Passage David Livingstone Burton and Speke in Africa Livingston Traces Nyassa Expedition to Victoria Nyanza Baker Finds Albert Nyanza Livingstone's Last Journey Through the Dark Continent Nordenskiold's NE Passage The Exploration of Tibet Nansen Reaches Farthest North Peary Reaches the North Pole The Quest for the South Pole Dates of Chief Events

Book of Discovery - M. B. Synge

Dampier Discovers His Strait

It was not long before the great stretch of coast-line carefully charted by Tasman became known to the English, and while the Dutch were yet busy exploring farther, Dampier—the first Englishman to visit the country—had already set foot on its shores.

"We lie entirely at the mercy of the Dutch East India Company's geography for the outline of this part of the coast of New Holland: for it does not appear that the ships of any other nation have ever approached it," says an old history of the period.

Some such information as this became known in South America, in which country the English had long been harassing the Spaniards. It reached the ears of one William Dampier, a Somersetshire man, who had lived a life of romance and adventure with the buccaneers, pillaging and plundering foreign ships in these remote regions of the earth. He had run across the Southern Pacific carrying his life in his hand. He had marched across the isthmus of Panama—one hundred and ten miles in twenty-three days—through deep and swiftly flowing rivers, dense growths of tropical vegetation full of snakes, his only food being the flesh of monkeys. Such was the man who now took part in a privateering cruise under Captain Swan, bound for the East Indies.

On 1st March 1686, Swan and Dampier sailed away from the coast of Mexico on the voyage that led to Dampier's circumnavigation of the globe. For fifty days they sailed without sighting land, and when at last they found themselves off the island of Guam, they had only three days' food left, and the crews were busy plotting to kill Captain Swan and eat him, the other commanders sharing the same fate in turn.

"Ah, Dampier," said Captain Swan, when he and all the men had refreshed themselves with food, "you would have made but a poor meal," for Dampier was as lean as the Captain was "fat and fleshy." Soon, however, fresh trouble arose among the men. Captain Swan lost his life, and Dampier on board the little Cygnet sailed hurriedly for the Spice Islands.

He was now on the Australian parallels, "in the shadow of a world lying dark upon the face of the ocean." It was January 1688 when Dampier sighted the coast of New Holland and anchored in a bay, which they named Cygnet Bay after their ship, somewhere off the northern coast of eastern Australia. Here, while the ship was undergoing repairs, Dampier makes his observations.

"New Holland," he tells us, "is a very large tract of land. It is not yet determined whether it is an island or a main continent, but I am certain that it joins neither to Africa, Asia, or America."

"The inhabitants of this country," he tells us, "are the miserablest people in the world. They have no houses, but lie in the open air without any covering, the earth being their bed and the heaven their canopy. Their food is a small sort of fish, which they catch at low tide, while the old people that are not able to stir abroad by reason of their age and the tender infants wait their return, and what Providence has bestowed on them they presently broil on the coals and eat it in common. They are tall and thin, and of a very unpleasing aspect; their hair is black, short, and curled, like that of the negroes of Guinea."

This Englishman's first description of the Australian natives cannot fail to be interesting. "After we had been here a little while, we clothed some of the men, designing to have some service from them for it; for we found some wells of water here, and intended to carry two or three barrels of it aboard. But it being somewhat troublesome to carry to the canoes, we thought to have made these men to have carry'd it for us, and therefore we gave them some clothes; to one an old pair of breeches, to another a ragged shirt, to a third a jacket that was scarce worth owning. We put them on, thinking that this finery would have brought them to work heartily for us; and our water being filled in small, long barrels, about six gallons in each, we brought these our new servants to the wells and put a barrel on each of their shoulders. But they stood like statues, without motion, but grinn'd like so many monkeys staring one upon another. So we were forced to carry the water ourselves."

They had soon had enough of the new country, weighed anchor, and steered away to the north. Dampier returned to England even a poorer man than he had left it twelve years before. After countless adventures and hairbreadth escapes, after having sailed entirely round the world, he brought back with him nothing but one unhappy black man, "Prince Jeoly," whom he had bought for sixty dollars. He had hoped to recoup himself by showing the poor native with his rings and bracelets and painted skin, but he was in such need of money on landing that he gladly sold the poor black man on his arrival in the Thames.

But Dampier had made himself a name as a successful traveller, and in 1699 he was appointed by the King, William III., to command the Roebuck, two hundred and ninety tons, with a crew of fifty men and provisions for twenty months. Leaving England in the middle of January 1699, he sighted the west coast of New Holland toward the end of July, and anchored in a bay they called Sharks Bay, not far from the rocks where the Batavia  was wrecked with Captain Pelsart in 1629. He gives us a graphic picture of this place, with its sweet-scented trees, its shrubs gay as the rainbow with blossoms and berries, its many-coloured vegetation, its fragrant air and delicious soil. The men caught sharks and devoured them with relish, which speaks of scarce provisions. Inside one of the sharks (eleven feet long) they found a hippopotamus. "The flesh of it was divided among my men," says the Captain, "and they took care that no waste should be made of it, but thought it, as things stood, good entertainment."

[Illustration] from Book of Discovery by M. B. Synge


As it had been with Pelsart, so now with Dampier, fresh water was the difficulty, and they sailed north-east in search of it. They fell in with a group of small rocky islands still known as Dampier's Archipelago, one island of which they named Rosemary Island, because "there grow here two or three sorts of shrubs, one just like rosemary." Once again he comes across natives—"very much the same blinking creatures, also abundance of the same kind of flesh-flies teasing them, with the same black skins and hair frizzled." Indeed, he writes as though the whole country of New Holland was a savage and worthless land inhabited by dreadful monsters.

"If it were not," he writes, "for that sort of pleasure which results from the discovery even of the barrenest spot upon the globe, this coast of New Holland would not have charmed me much." His first sight of the kangaroo—now the emblem of Australia—is interesting. He describes it as "a sort of raccoon, different from that of the West Indies, chiefly as to the legs, for these have very short fore-legs, but go jumping upon them as the others do, and like them are very good meat." This must have been the small kangaroo, for the large kind was not found till later by Captain Cook in New South Wales.

But Dampier and his mates could not find fresh water, and soon wearied of the coast of New Holland; an outbreak of scurvy, too, decided them to sail away in search of fresh foods. Dampier had spent five weeks cruising off the coast; he had sailed along some nine hundred miles of the Australian shore without making any startling discoveries. A few months later the Roebuck  stood off the coast of New Guinea, "a high and mountainous country, green and beautiful with tropical vegetation, and dark with forests and groves of tall and stately trees." Innumerable dusky-faced natives peeped at the ship from behind the rocks, but they were not friendly, and this they showed by climbing the cocoanut trees and throwing down cocoanuts at the English, with passionate signs to them to depart. But with plenty of fresh water, this was unlikely, and the crews rowed ashore, killed and salted a good load of wild hogs, while the savages still peeped at them from afar.

[Illustration] from Book of Discovery by M. B. Synge


Thus then they sailed on, thinking they were still coasting New Guinea. So doing, they arrived at the straits which still bear the name of the explorer, and discovered a little island which he called New Britain. He had now been over fifteen months at sea and the Roebuck  was only provisioned for twenty months, so Dampier, who never had the true spirit of the explorer in him, left his discoveries and turned homewards. The ship was rotten, and it took three months to repair her at Batavia before proceeding farther. With pumps going night and day, they made their way to the Cape of Good Hope; but off the island of Ascension the Roebuck  went down, carrying with her many of Dampier's books and papers. But though many of the papers were lost, the "Learned and Faithful Dampier" as he is called, the "Prince of Voyagers," has left us accounts of his adventures unequalled in those strenuous ocean-going days for their picturesque and graphic details.