At different times in the late 17th Century William Dampier was both a Pirate (freelance criminal) and a Privateer (sponsored and semi-legal robber). His exploits in both guises were dangerous, eventful and ultimately less well rewarded than perhaps they deserved. Their telling makes for a rollicking yarn which - in Diana and Michael Preston's absorbing book - never glamourises an existence that often entailed extreme hardship. Yet the buccaneering alone would scarcely justify remembering Dampier three centuries later.
The truth is that this remarkable man was an acute observer and recorder of the world at large, its inhabitants, flora and fauna, without parallel in his own time and for many years thereafter. Three times he circumnavigated the globe, preceding Captain Cook in landing upon Australia. His first journey, shortly after his marriage, took him away for twelve years. Everywhere he went, Dampier looked, tested, tasted, made drawings and kept notes. His were the first descriptions in English of penguins, of zebras, of avocados,and many more. His theories of the interaction of winds and currents were similarly the first of their kind, their accuracy a source of knowledge for later generations. His published accounts of his travels were best-sellers.
Honoured in his lifetime by the great and the good of The Royal Society, drawn on by Daniel Defoe as a source for Robinson Crusoe, mirrored by Jonathan Swift in Gulliver's Travels, Dampier's reputation inexplicably fell into disregard during the 19th Century. In restoring it with scholarly research and in eminently readable style, the Prestons have done William Dampier the justice an exquisite mind deserves.