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Preface B

Stage 1

by William Dampier Icon
10 minutes  • 1975 words
Table of contents

Dampier set out on the memorable adventures recorded in the present volume in an early month of 1679, embarking as a passenger in the Loyal Merchant of London, Captain Knapman. On arrival in Jamaica in April he spent the remainder of the year there. Having bought a small estate in Dorsetshire, he was near returning home to complete the purchase when Mr. Hobby invited him to join in a trading voyage to the Moskito shore, and he “sent the writing of my new purchase” to England by the hands of friends. As fate would have it Mr. Hobby put into Negril Bay at the west end of Jamaica, where a squadron of buccaneers was assembled under Captains John Coxon, Sawkins, Bartholomew Sharp, and other worthies. The temptation which led many an honest man to the buccaneering life could not be resisted. “Mr. Hobby’s men all left him to go with them upon an expedition they had contrived, leaving not one with him beside myself.”

After three or four days Dampier went too, and no more is heard of Mr. Hobby.


I allow myself at this point, following Shandean precedent, to interpose a digression on buccaneering. Under this polite West Indian synonym for piracy, the profession was at the zenith of its prosperity when Dampier joined in: it had acquired indeed some measure of respectability. Some knowledge of its history in the West Indies, and of the current state of public opinion in regard to it, is needed for understanding how a man of Dampier’s character, and many like him, came to be associated with it, untroubled by more than occasional twinges of conscience.

Earlier in the century the hunters of Hispaniola were waging a not unrighteous warfare against Spanish tyranny. From the boucans, frames or hurdles, on which their meat was roasted, they got the name of buccaneers. They obtained the assistance of French and English adventurers, and the war was extended to the sea. With the accession of more and more reckless spirits from Europe whose only object was booty, the local justification was lost, and the buccaneers, whose exploits are told by Esquemeling, Dampier and Burney, and ever since followed with zest and sympathy by boys young and old (including Charles Kingsley) were for the most part pirates.*

(Footnote. Some had commissions of various import from French or English authorities. Thus Captain Swan had one from the Duke of York, neither to give offence to the Spaniards nor to receive any affront from them. With this Swan, under plea of such an affront, “thought he had a lawful commission of his own to right himself.” Dampier had not seen the French commissions, but heard that they were “to fish, fowl, and hunt,” and were nominally confined to Hispaniola: the French, nevertheless, “make them a pretence for a general ravage in any part of America, by sea or land.” (See below.) Captain Cook succeeded to one of these by right of seizing the French Captain Tristian’s bark! Most of the buccaneers, however, did not trouble about commissions. In his threatening letter to the president of Panama, Captain Sawkins promised to visit that city when his force was ready, declaring, in language fine enough to glorify a better cause, that he would “bring our commissions on the muzzles of our guns, at which time he should read them as plain as the flame of gunpowder could make them” (Ringrose, History of the Buccaneers Part 4 Chapter 8).) The glamour which surrounds the buccaneers can be partly accounted for. Their enterprises have seemed to be a continuation of those of Hawkins and Drake, the national heroes of the preceding century, and thus worthy of a measure of their praise.

(Footnote. “The exploits of Drake and Raleigh were imitated, upon a smaller scale indeed, but with equally desperate valour, by small bands of pirates, gathered from all nations, but chiefly French and English.” Sir W. Scott Rokeby, Canto 1 Note D). The scale was in fact much larger.) True, the enemy in both cases was Spain, and in Dampier’s time, despite the friendly policy of James I and Charles I, Spain was still regarded as the national foe. Spanish cruelties to the natives and to honest traders whom they imprisoned rankled in the hearts of Englishmen. There was, however, no national or religious enthusiasm behind the buccaneers, whose operations had a different origin and were instigated solely by motives of plunder. Mr. Andrew Lang’s description of the buccaneers as “the most hideously ruthless miscreants that ever disgraced the earth and the sea” is true enough of the leaders of the preceding decades, such as L’Olonnois (French) Bartholomew Portuquez, Roche Braziliano (Dutch) and we may add Henry Morgan (Welsh). Even these villains had their several accounts for settlement with the Spaniards. L’Olonnois had been kidnapped and sold as a slave; Morgan, too, had been sold as a slave; Esquemeling, their historian, had been beaten, tortured and nearly starved to death. The captains whom Dampier served were of a more humane stamp. The change may be seen by a comparison of the original Esquemeling with the supplement of Ringrose and with the stories of Dampier and the others of his time. Though engaged in a lawless war the later captains conducted it more according to the existing laws of war, and they treated their Spanish enemies with respect and occasional chivalry. As for the men comprising the crews they were of no worse class than those who manned the ships of war or merchantmen of the time. They were simply children of fortune, some of good behaviour, some vicious and drunken, a few provided with education,** many with none, like the mixed companies who some 60 or 70 years ago crowded to the goldfields of Australia and California.

(*Footnote. Essays in Little and Preface to Esquemeling’s History of the Buccaneers Broadway Translations 1893.) (**Footnote. Ringrose, who was one of these, tells us of another, Richard Gopson, who died on the return journey across the Isthmus. He had been apprentice to a druggist in London but “was an ingenious man and a good scholar, and had with him a Greek Testament which he frequently read, and would translate ex tempore into English to such of the company as were disposed to hear him.”) As the enterprises of the buccaneers were lawless, so were the relations of the captains and crews. Readers of this volume will note the fitful allegiance of the captains to the commander-in-chief, and of the crews to the captains. Dissensions led to frequent mutinies and desertions: these however seem to have been treated as no more abnormal than changes of the weather. They were settled without violence, and in most cases amicably, the men following the captains they liked best.

The troubles of Spanish America are rightly traced to the Bull of the Borgia pope who divided the Spanish and Portuguese claims of conquest by lines of longitude, and to the exclusive commercial policy based on that award. The filibustering of the Elizabethan seamen was England’s protest against the preposterous claim founded on a papal decree, not sanctioned by more than sparse settlements on the vast coasts of two continents. As Sir Charles Lucas says, the Spaniards “claimed rather than possessed, and did little either in conquest or settlement.”*

(Footnote. Historical Geography of the British Colonies West Indies page 296.) England’s protest brought forth the Spanish Armada; its destruction, however, did not produce a settlement of the international situation in America. More than 80 years later the operations of the buccaneers, insulting to Spain and cruelly destructive of Spanish life and property, impossible as they were for the English government to defend, led to the conclusion of the treaty of 1670. It was a one-sided agreement which protected for England little more than Jamaica, while for Spain the whole of her settlements on both sides of America were to be immune. Exemplifying the foolish ideas of the time in regard to commercial policy it proposed to secure not mutual but exclusive trade. It provided that the subjects of the confederates “shall abstain and forbear to sail and trade in the ports and havens which have fortifications, castles, magazines, or warehouses, and in all places whatever possessed by the other party in the West Indies.” The governors of Jamaica did what they could, without sufficient power to their elbows, to carry the treaty into effect. Some buccaneers were punished, but when Dampier, nine years later, came on the scene, the game was more popular than ever and attracted many hundreds of adventurers from both England and France. At this time the French were more occupied with gaining a footing in Hispaniola, and thus most of the sea work “on the account,” such was the euphemism, was done by the English.

(Footnote. Nulli melius piraticum exercant quam Angli, says Scaliger.) Trading between nations is a natural propensity, and an exclusive trade agreement was one certain to be resented and disregarded. The Spaniards on their side did little to ease the situation. Englishmen and Frenchmen when they fell into their power were put to death or imprisoned with barbarous severities.** They did not on all occasions feel bound to keep their word with heretics. Their oppressive treatment of the natives led many tribes to give active or covert assistance to the intruders. Although at times, as we shall see, they fought with their old valour, in most cases they lived in a state of terror, vacated their towns at the first assault, and were held in contempt by the English freebooters.

(Footnote. Sir Henry Morgan does, however, in 1680 (Cal SP America and West Indies) mention the arrival at Port Royal of a “good English merchantman” which had been trading with the Spaniards on the Main. She reported a friendly reception of herself, but great desolation of the maritime towns through the frequent sacking of the privateers.) (Footnote. See despatch of sir Thomas Lynch 26 July 1683 in Cal SP America and West Indies.) Public opinion at home was not seriously adverse to the buccaneers. Morgan, the most notorious professor of the craft, after being alternately commissioned and prosecuted as a privateer, was knighted and appointed lieutenant-governor of Jamaica. Some of Dampier’s associates, prosecuted on their return to England on charges of piracy, were acquitted or liberated after short imprisonment. At this time, when larceny of a sheep or ass was punishable with death, the penalty of piracy, under the statute 28 Henry VIII c 15, unless accompanied by murder, was only fine and imprisonment. James II had proclaimed a pardon for buccaneers, and the open confession of piracy in Ringrose’s and Dampier’s narratives created little or no danger of prosecution: there was evidently no fear even of adverse public criticism. In Dampier’s case his book opened for him the door of employment under government.

(*Footnote. The New Englanders heartily supported buccaneering and throve on it. On 25 August 1684 Governor Cranfield records the arrival at Boston of a French privateer of 35 guns. When she was sighted the Bostonians sent a messenger and a pilot to convoy her into port in defiance of the King’s Proclamation, which they tore down. He adds that the pirates were likely to leave the greatest part of their booty behind them (amounting to 700 pounds a man) as they had bought up most of the choice goods in Boston. Cal SP America and West Indies. Much further evidence is supplied by the official correspondence.) (**Footnote. Under the date 20 May 1680 the Council of Jamaica wrote to the commissioners of trade and plantations of the “detestable depredations of some of our nation (who pass for inhabitants of Jamaica) under colour of French commissions,” referring to them as “ravenous vermin.” They suggested that piracy should be punished as felony without benefit of clergy.)

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