Superphysics Superphysics
Chapter 1b

The Buccaneers

by William Dampier
13 minutes  • 2586 words

This work is about Captain William Dampier only.

Morgan and the cut-throats who preceded or followed him have found apologists and admirers in plenty. Happily Dampier’s chief claims upon the attention of posterity are based upon adventures of a very different kind from those which rendered buccaneering one of the most infamous pursuits that the wickedness or misery of mankind ever invented.

It is impossible to appreciate the intrepid seamanship of the early navigators without first taking a view of the art of navigation as it was in their time, and understanding the shapes, bulk, and rigs of the vessels in which they cruised in search of plunder or started on long voyages of discovery.

In these days one is so used to the facilities of science for traversing the deep with swiftness and certainty, that it is necessary to bend the mind with some severity of thought to compass the difficulties of the old sailors and honour their triumphs justly.

In the first place, their ships were so unwieldy that it was scarcely possible to get them to beat against the wind, or, to use the old-fashioned term, to “ply.” An example of this will be found in Anson’s Voyage.

It is there recorded that the Centurion’s consort, the Gloucester, was descried on June 21st from the island of Juan Fernandez some eight or ten miles to leeward, beating or reaching into the bay. The weather thickened and she disappeared. Five days afterwards she again hove in sight, and for a whole fortnight she was stretching away first on one, then on the other tack, in vain effort to reach the island; nor was it until July 23rd that she was able to enter the bay, and then only because the wind had shifted, and permitted her to head for her destination with a flowing sheet.

Thus for above a month was this ship striving to get to windward and traverse three leagues on a taut bowline!

The old vessels were cumbrously rigged. At the head of their lower masts they carried huge round tops as big as a ballroom.

Forward their bowsprit was encumbered with massive spritsail and sprit-topsail yards. Their sides were loaded with great channels embellished with enormous dead-eyes for setting up shrouds as thick as hawsers. They seldom exposed canvas above their topsails, though the topgallant-sail had long been introduced, as we know by a passage in Sir Walter Raleigh’s Remains. [2] Their sterns were high and pink-shaped—that is, broad at the water-line and narrowing at the taffrail. They were built with deck upon deck in the after-part, the topmost being called the “topgallant-deck” by the English, and the “poop-royal” by the French and Spaniards; with the consequence that they were dangerously deep-waisted, though with their extraordinary height of side aft they floated, to [Pg 7]the eye, like castles. As if this were not enough, the structure where it was loftiest was crowned with enormous poop-lanthorns of a size to hold “wind enough to last a Dutchman a week!”

Structures thus shaped—the length rarely exceeding three times the beam—and propelled by low-seated canvas, could do little or nothing against head-winds and seas; and as a result the old narrators are repeatedly telling us that they were forced to hull, or try,—in other words, to heave their ship to, often in breezes in which a sailing vessel of to-day would expose a topgallant-sail over a single-reefed topsail. A succession of favourable gales would indeed put life into the clumsy waggons and furnish them with some sort of despatch, but as a rule the passage that is now made in sixty days was hardly completed by the early navigators in a twelvemonth.

Their ships were unsheathed. It is true that Sebastian Cabot caused the ships under the command of Sir Hugh Willoughby to be protected with thin sheets of lead to guard against the worm “which many times pearceth and eateth through the strongest oake”; [3] but I cannot discover that this example was continued, and it is at least certain that the vessels commanded by Dampier and his buccaneering companions breasted the surge with no other coating on their bottoms than pitch and tallow. Hence in all long voyages there was frequent occasion to careen, practicable only by tedious deviation in search of a convenient place, and by wearisome detention, that the hull might be listed over and the accumulation of shells and weed removed.

Another formidable difficulty lay in the scurvy. This is a distemper still with us, but in those days it was incredibly fateful. Few ships from Europe managed to pass the Horn without the loss of half, and often two-thirds, of their crews from this dreadful scourge. The “chirurgeons” could do nothing. There was no remedy but to bring up off some fruitful coast and send the men ashore. Whenever practicable this was done; but often it happened that the ship’s company were dying in fives and tens every day, with the vessel herself a thousand miles out upon the ocean. The old navigators overdid their pickling. The brine they soaked their meat in made it harder and less nourishing than mahogany before they were out of the English Channel. Of all the wonders of the early voyages none surprises me so much as the capacity of the people to subsist upon the victuals shipped for them.

In Dampier’s time navigation as an art had scarcely made a stride since the days of Columbus and the Portuguese discoverers. The instruments for measuring the sun’s altitude were the astrolabe, the cross or forestaff, and Davis’s backstaff,—engines for mensuration ludicrously primitive, as will be supposed when viewed side by side with the sextant of to-day. The mariner made shift with these contrivances to determine his latitude within a degree or two, but he had no means of ascertaining his longitude. There were no chronometers, there was no portable Greenwich time, no aids whatever towards the solution of what was regarded down to the [Pg 9]days of Maskelyne and the Commissioners of Longitude as the greatest marine problem that ever perplexed the mind. Apparently the old practice was to run down the parallels and then make direct easting or westing for the desired destination. Or they took “a departure,” as it was called, from any point of land, and calculated the meridians by the log. Or, as an alternative, the early navigators employed dead-reckoning, as we still practise it—that is, they found out a vessel’s place on the chart by putting down her rate of sailing as it was to be ascertained at regular intervals by “heaving the log,” and by allowing for leeway and difference of courses. In Captain Thomas James’s Strange and Dangerous Voyage in the years 1631-32 [4] there is included a list of the instruments provided by him for his undertaking to discover the north-west passage into the South Sea. A few of the items will furnish the reader with a tolerable idea of the primitive character of the nautical implements with which the mariner in the days of James, and later yet in the days of Dampier, embarked on his voyages into the remotest parts of the world in quest of new lands or in search of short cuts. James begins the list with “a quadrant of old-seasoned pear-tree wood, artificially made and with all care possible divided with diagonals, even to minutes. It was a four-foot at least (semi-diameter).” Next: “An equilateral triangle of light wood, whose radius was five-foot at least, and divided out of Petiscus’s table of tangents.” “A quadrant of two-foot semi-diameter of light wood and with like care projected.” Then: “Four staves for [Pg 10]taking altitudes and distances in the heavens.” The captain also took with him “a staff of seven-feet long, whose transom was four-foot divided into equal parts by way of diagonals that all the figures in a radius of 10,000 might be taken out actually.” “Another of six-foot near as convenient and in that manner to be used. Mr. Gunter’s cross-staff, three Jacob’s staves projected after a new manner and truly divided after the table of tangents, two of Mr. Davis’s backstaves with like care made and divided.” These were the captain’s instruments for measuring the height of the sun. Other items comprised “six meridian compasses ingeniously made; four needles in square boxes; four special needles (which my good friends Mr. Allen and Mr. Marre gave me) of six inches diameter, and toucht curiously with the best loadstone in England; a loadstone to refresh any of these if occasion were, whose poles were marked for fear of mistaking.” Further, Captain James carried a watch-clock, “a table every-day calculated, correspondent to the latitude according to Mr. Gunter’s directions in his book, the better to keep our time and our compass to judge of our course.” A chestful of mathematical books, the Collections of Purchas and Hackluyt, and “two pair of curious globes.”

Such was the scientific equipment of a man bound on a Polar voyage in the year 1632. It is not to be supposed that such mariners as Dampier and his buccaneering associates went half as well furnished. Indeed their poverty in this direction was so great that one may read here and there of their employing their leisure on shipboard in making quadrants to replace those which were lost or worn out. Their Norie, Raper, [Pg 11]and Nautical Almanac in one was the crude Speculum Nauticum of Wagener, made English by Anthony Ashley in 1588, and universally known by the seamen in those days as Waggoner. [5] Sir Thomas Browne, writing in 1664 to his son Thomas, a naval officer, says, “Waggoner you will not be without, which will teach the particular coasts, depths of roades, and how the land riseth upon the several points of the compass.” It will not be supposed that Waggoner’s instructions were very trustworthy. The art of surveying was scarcely understood; charts even in Dampier’s time were absurdly ill-digested, and portions of the world are barely recognisable in the grotesque tracings. Therefore it happened that the early mariner was forced to depend upon his own judgment and experience to a degree scarce realisable in these days of exact science and matured inventions. He hardly understood what was signified by the variation of the compass, and there was very little outside the Pole Star that was not doubtful. But happily for him there was no obligation of hurry. There was no managing owner to worry him. Prompt despatch was no condition of the charter-party. His was the day of ambling, and he was happy if he could confirm with his lead and log-line the reckonings he arrived at with his forestaff.

It is proper to remember all these conditions of the sea-vocation in reviewing the life of William Dampier.

The habit of self-reliance makes the character of the [Pg 12]sea-worthies of his age admirable, and it qualified them for their great undertakings and achievements.

They were helped with nothing from science that can be mentioned with gravity. The ocean was to them as blank as it looks to the landsman’s eye, and it was their business to find out the roads to the wonders and mysteries which lay hidden leagues down behind its familiar shining line.

If a sailor nowadays is at fault he can seek and find the hints and assurances he desires in twenty directions. He has Admiralty charts of incomparable accuracy. He has a deep-sea lead with which he can feel the ground whilst his ship moves through the water at fourteen knots an hour.

He has instruments for indicating the angle to which his vessel rolls, and for showing him instantly her trim as she sits upon the water.

He has a dial that registers on deck, under his eye, the number of miles his ship has made since any hour he chooses to time her from.

His chronometer may be accepted as among the most perfect examples of human skill. Dampier and such as he wanted all these adjuncts to their calling.

But it cannot be disputed that they were the better sailors for the very poverty of their equipment in this way. It forced upon them faith in nothing but their own observation, so that there never was a race of sailors who kept their eyes wider open and examined more closely those points which have long since slided into the dull prosaics of the deep. No one can follow them without wonder and admiration.

We find them in crafts of forty, twenty, even ten tons—boats half-decked and undecked—exploring the frozen silence of the North Pole, beating to the westward against the fierce surge of the Horn, seeking [Pg 13]land amidst the vast desolation of the southern ocean, and making new history for their country upon the coast of North America and in the waters of the Mozambique. Their lion-hearts carry them all over the world, and they have nothing to help them but the lead-line over the side and a quadrant big enough to serve as a gallows.

Nor was the ocean quite as it is now. In Dampier’s time it was still gloomy with mysteries, and there lingered many a dark and terrifying superstition, whose origin was to be traced to those early Portuguese and Spanish sailors who chanted a litany when they saw St. Elmo’s Fire glittering at the masthead, and exorcised the demon of the waterspout by elevating their swords in the form of crosses. The mermaid still rose in the tranquil blue waters alongside, and with impassioned eyes and white and wooing arms courted the startled seaman to share her coral pavilion at the bottom of the sea. The enchanted island, steeped in the purple splendour of a radiance that owed nothing of its glory to the heavens, was yet to be discovered by seeking.

The darkness of the storm was thronged with gigantic shadowy shapes of fleeting spirits. Amid the tranquillity of the midnight calm, dim fiery figures of undeterminable proportions floated in the black profound, and voices as of human creatures could be heard out of the hush on the deep syllabling the names of the listening and affrighted crew. It is true that the Jack of Dampier’s time was not so amazingly superstitious as we find him in the pages of Purchas and Hackluyt. He was not quite so young-eyed as the ancient mariner of the Elizabethan and preceding ages.

Nevertheless he was still exceedingly credulous, and he never embarked [Pg 14]on a voyage into distant parts without a mind prepared for marvels of many sorts. Also let us remember the shadowiness of the globe whose oceans he was to navigate, the vagueness of countries now as well known to us as our own island home. Australia was rising upon the gaze of the world like a new moon, the greater part of whose disk lies in black shadow. Islands which now have their newspapers and their hotels were uncharted, were less real than the white shoulders of clouds dipping upon the sea-line. Of countries whose coast had been sighted, but whose interiors were unknown, wild guesses at the wonders within resulted in hair-stirring imaginations. These and more than there is room to name are conditions of the early mariner’s vocational life, which we must take care to bear in mind as we accompany him in his adventures, or certainly we shall fail to compass the full significance of his magnificent resolution, his incomparable spirit, and his admirable intrepidity.

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