William Dampier’s A Voyage to New Holland

William Dampier is credited as the first Englishman to travel to Australia, the continent also known as New Holland in the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries, and the first man to have travelled around the world three times. Dampier’s mysterious character has been the subject of much debate among historians and biographers who are confronted with the buccaneer’s at once adventurous and scientific spirit. Thus, Dampier’s narratives are laden with detailed descriptions and accounts of his voyages and provide the reader with a wealth of information about other parts of the world. The seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries were animated by the spirit of discovery and invention. Dampier’s inquisitive mind and his propensity for exotic landscapes and adventures prompted him to travel and describe everything he saw. What is thus interesting about Dampier’s narratives is the way in which the writer situates himself with regard to the exotic places he investigates to the slightest detail.

Notably, Dampier does not focus on his adventures as a pirate and hardly even mentions any events or occurrences. Rather, his narrative is filled with the insatiate perception of the traveler who absorbs every novel detail of the places and beings he encounters in his ramblings. The narrator thus documents his descriptions with maps and drawings of places, plants or exotic animals. Dampier is fascinated with every bit of the world that surrounds him and wants to achieve a faithful description of everything he sees. Therefore, he structures his work with the precision of a natural scientist, organizing the elements of his narrative so as to comprise every detail separately, beginning with the landscape, then moving on to the inhabitants, their trades and their architecture and then registering the wildlife and the weather of a specific place. The story is written in the form of a journal which is at once a personal account of the travels and a scientific document. Moreover, the narrative has a special flavor because it is marked by the author’s picturesque language and his inventive, figurative style of writing. Dampier is passionate almost to obsession about the exotic places and islands he discovers and therefore the instruments he uses for depiction are extremely important as the only means for conveying his wonder and fascination. For a common mariner or even for a pirate, the modulations of the landscape and the curiosities of the land would have only been of the slightest importance. For Dampier however, the world that stretches before him is a world of curiosities and wonders. This is well translated into the narrative structure and the figurative language he uses in his accounts.

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First of all, A Voyage to New Holland uses the narrative technique of the traveler’s journal. The journal comprises both personal elements which detail the dates of his arrivals and departures from a certain place and the main events there, as well as the observation the narrator makes as a natural scientist. This technique already kindles the imagination of the reader who can follow the traveler gradually through the new lands. Dampier begins his narrative with an account of the departure from England, thus intensifying the anticipation of the reader. Then, the narrative is well structured into chapters and their subdivisions, each furnished with a descriptive title which offers a glimpse at what will follow. Although the narrator focuses on the scientific descriptions and organization of what he encounters, there is also plenty of room for curiosities. Geraldine Barnes actually describes Dampier’s narratives as well-packed “cabinets of curiosities”: “As inventories of creation, moreover, both A New Voyage and A Voyage to New Holland can themselves be read as narrative cabinets of curiosities.”(Barnes, 2006, p. 38) In the context of a time where information about the rest of the world was very scarce, the narratives are indeed treasures of knowledge which light up other corners of the world. As Dampier is the first known Englishman to have travelled to Australia, his details are all the more precious and enticing for the reader. The author thus focuses on providing his audience with a picture of this world of otherness, in which everything is different from the homely environment they are used to.

In order to achieve his task, Dampier proceeds with an orderly narrative which is however spiced up with details of everything that is curious or exotic. For this reason, the narrator dwells considerably on every detail that might help giving a vivid image of the new worlds he sees. Thus, every islands and towns that he passes are exhaustively depicted. The first chapter is dedicated mostly to the Canary and Cape Verde’s Islands. The narrator takes the audience farther and farther away from the homeland, carefully describing each step of his journey. The profusion of detail leaves the reader with much more than a vague impression of the lands. For instance, the first port, that of Santa Cruz arises as an orderly town of about two hundred houses, each two stories high and covered with a tile roof. Importantly, at this first stop, the voyager remarks the signs of the English invasion: “Many of the inhabitants that are now living remember that action in which the English battered the town, and did it much damage; and the marks of the shot still remain in the fort walls.”(Dampier, 3) There follow as detailed accounts of the town of Laguna, Tenerife and then the Island of Mayo. One of the most interesting accounts Dampier gives is that of the salt pond in the Cape Verde islands and the comparisons he makes with that of Salt Tortuga. Thus, one of the particularities of his narratives is the fact that there is also an inherent comparison in his descriptive accounts, either with the natural environment at home or with something similar he has found in other places he has traveled to. In this case, Dampier describes the salt pond situated on the west side of the island and which is also the place where the English trade. The pond and the process of the formation of salt heaps are minutely described. Moreover, the author observes that the pond of Mayo differs from those in the West Indies in the conditions needed for the formation of salt: “[…] but the reason also of this difference between the salt ponds of Mayo and those of the West Indies why these should kern in the wet season, and the former in the dry season, I shall leave to philosophers.”(Dampier, 2001, p. 12) Dampier thus betrays his fascination with the curiosities of nature, by comparing the two natural phenomena which differ from one part of the world to another. With the precision of a natural scientist, the author describes the salt pond in great detail, emphasizing the particularity of this phenomenon. The narrator focuses therefore on difference and the way he perceives the great variety of nature.

Along with details of such natural phenomena, come the social and economical particularities of the lives of the inhabitants. Thus, the daily work of the men in that area revolves around the salt trade. Another picturesque and extremely detailed account is that of the frape-boats that the English use to load and carry the salt with. Again, the entire mechanism of these boats is described for the satisfaction of the reader, and, moreover, with the purpose of spreading the information about this particular, useful techniques to other parts of the world. A new comparison is therefore made with the West Indies, as the author declares that he has not been able to see any of these boats there. The language of these passages is extremely evocative and packed with details and comparisons that help convey an accurate image of the place. Thus, the figure of style that the author most often uses is the comparison, which enables him to portray the things he observes with graphical precision.

Both the actual drawings and maps that accompany the narrative and the language of the narrative are equally graphical in their descriptions. The natural life is also described with extreme accuracy. Thus, the cotton of Mayo is in itself particular and exotic. Without being very useful because of its strange quality, the cotton is described minutely, as a curiosity in itself. This again stands as a proof that the narrator has the ingenious mind of a scientist rather than that of a mere pirate who would be interested in businesses or adventures, rather than in the life of nature. Dampier describes the cotton and his small experiment with it, relating the way in which the cods burst letting the cotton inside them fly out: “[…] the cod would burst and the cotton fly out forcibly at a very little hole, just as the pulp out of a roasting apple, till all has been out of the cod.”(Dampier, 2001, p. 15) Again, the author relates the things he observes here with a similar species of cotton he has seen at Timor. What is interesting about his narrative and what makes it come to life is precisely the way in which the writer describes nature as extremely variegated and exotic. The narrative is a comprehensive bulk of natural curiosities and particularities, all of which are seen from the point of view of an Englishman who is constantly confronted with novelty and the outlandish. In the absence of the advanced communication options of today, knowledge of other parts of the world was to be gotten from direct experience or from a detailed and accurate account given by a traveler. This is why Dampier’s narrative is all the more enticing, as it describes his voyage as a first-hand experience of otherness and of the exotic. The fact that the narrator constantly compares what he observes with other places and with his homeland, enhances the reader’s ability to perceive the landscapes and the occurrences he describes. Although the descriptions are well -organized and scientific, the language is vivid enough to make it interesting for any reader. A pirate, an adventurer, and a naturalist at the same time, Dampier engages the imagination of the readers with his captivating descriptions. Moreover, the descriptions maintain their progressive, narrative structure, which enable an active and not only a passive perception. The observations are registered as a narration, as the eye moves from one place to another and from one detail to the next.

Thus, Dampier’s narrative is a remarkable traveler’s journal which is at once fraught with information and captivating. The descriptions are in fact stories of the places and phenomena the author observes, translating the variety of creation and life on earth.

Works Cited:

Bach, J. “Dampier, William (1651 – 1715)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, Melbourne University Press, 1966, pp 277-278.

Barnes, Geraldine. “Curiosity, wonder, and William Dampier’s Painted Prince.” Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies 6.1 (Spring-Summer 2006): 31(20).

“Dampier, William.” The Columbia Encyclopedia. The Columbia University Press, 2000.

Lamb, Jonathan, Vanessa Smith and Nicholas Thomas. Exploration and Exchange: A South Seas Anthology 1680-1900 . Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Neil, Anna. British Discovery Literature and the Rise of Global Commerce. New York: Palgrave, 2002.

Preston, Diana and Michael. A Pirate of Exquisite Mind: Explorer, Naturalist and Buccaneer: The Life of William Dampier. New York: Walker Publishing Company, 2004.

Smith, Andy. “A first glimpse of Australia.” Geographical 78.10 (Oct 2006): 90(1).



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