June 23, 2005

Book Review: A Pirate of Exquisite Mind

I recently completed A Pirate of Exquisite Mind -- Explorer, Naturalist, and Buccaneer:The Life of William Dampier by Diana Preston and Michael Preston. It was a fascinating glimpse into the life of a little-known person who ought to be of great interest.

William Dampier was an English explorer in the seventeenth century, although he seems he got his start as an explorer by being down on his luck financially, signing on to a ship's crew to make some money, and then turning pirate. He wasn't a particularly good pirate, as it turns out; or at least he was an extraordinarily unlucky one. He tried turning timber worker, also, and was unlucky in that after a hurricane wiped out his harvest of timber that he had intended to sell (probably to pirates) so he turned pirate again. Piracy seemed to involve a lot of shore raids and a lot of democracy -- which Dampier thought, probably correctly, was not a really good way to go about it from either a business or a survival perspective.

Perhaps most remarkable of all his adventures was his first circumnavigation of the globe as a pirate and then as a castaway from a pirate ship. Along the way he visited the Galapagos Islands (150 years before Darwin and probably only the second ship of Europeans to ever go there at all). He made detailed scientific observations of the many kinds of animals there, as well as in all of his other destinations, which included most of the Carribean, most of the Central American isthmus (he walked across an untamed, wild, mountainous and jungle-overriden Panama, both ways, to escape detection by Spanish authorities), Australia, Vietnam, South Africa, Brazil, and the Azores Islands. He was probably the first white man to smoke marijuana, which he discovered being used in Indonesia. (Notably, marijuana is indigenous to Central America, so how did it get to Indondesia before it came to Europe or Africa? Likely, Chinese explorers carried it back on one of the treasure fleets between 1421 and 1423.) He sailed with nine other men on an outrigger canoe across what we today call the South China Sea from Australia (which he visited a century before Captain Cook) to Vietnam. Both outriggers were lost during high seas but under Dampier's command they made it to what is today the port of Saigon without losing a man.

He later circumnavigated the world twice once more, once as the captain of a privateering ship and once as its navigator and naturalist (what Star Trek fans would call the "science officer.") He wrote several books describing all of his adventures, which were wildly popular in their day and which were both the model for many novels (including Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels) and used by several scientists and explorers (including Cook and Darwin). Some of his navigational observations, including charting the trade winds and taking deep ocean soundings, are still being used today by modern navies and merchant fleets.

The book was well-written for the most part, and used Dampier's chronological life story as its central structural device, which is typical for a biography. The afterword was quite long and very interesting, and it explored the continuing impact of Dampier's discoveries, publications, and contributions to the English language (including "chopsticks," "stilts," "caress," "cashew," "posse," "avocado" and "barbecue"). The authors clearly fell more than a little bit in love with their subject and at times were not as critical of him as objective biographers ought to be -- the criminal nature of his adventures is acknowledged but glossed over, much like a biographer of Thomas Jefferson would acknowledge but gloss over his ownership of slaves. The descriptions of Dampier's more harrowing adventures are present and the reader can easily imagine the dangers that the man faced, yet the authors' style tends to treat such subjects as academic or historical fact rather than as the exciting brushes with death that these events must have been for Dampier himself. Some, but not all, of the zest is filtered out through the reporting.

I was hoping that the book would be a gazeteer of the world rather than a biography, but it turned out to be a biography with a lot of extra history and facts dangling off the story of Dampier's life. Nevertheless, it was a very interesting read and jam-packed with all sorts of information. The book's promotional website is here and if you are interested in reading it, Amazon and Barnes & Noble both carry it in stock.

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