This earth: a ball, a play-thing. The surface, in this Age—Exploration teetering into Reason—a driving spit of black ink dividing solid and liquid. This America, claimed by Spain, raided by England, inhabited by natives. This beast of Panama, neck stretched, holding to the southern continent by its teeth. These trees, a fleshy mass heaving with monkeys, weighed down with garish, jewel-soaked birds. A red flag tied with ribbons raised high and in its wake, a host of thieves, men all marching and marching still, marching to sack Porto Bello: burglary on a large scale. And in this host, our hero, William Dampier, who steps to one side of the column of men and sits on a rock. He squints up at the sun and Lionel Wafer—his friend and fellow scholar buccaneer—thinks he might be winking. At whom? At God maybe? And why not?
“And why stop here, William?” says Wafer.
“I have a stone in my shoe.”
“A stone?” Wafer laughed. “When you must stop, you get such a look about you, as if stopping itself—the need to stop—were a constant stone in your shoe, your whole life, worrying your foot.”
“There is no need to stop, Lionel. Magellan taught us that.”
“So you would go round and round—“
“And round again.”
“And after that?”
“Sit down somewhat dizzied by the accomplishment.”
Dampier takes off his shoe and returns the offending stone to its land of issue: Darien. He puts the shoe back on, shoulders his weapon, his twenty pounds of powder, his salted beef, his rum. He and Wafer rejoin the march, Dampier having aged in the last five minutes, wisdom adequate to that task, however irrelevant to much of his life.
“What weighs so heavy on you?” asks Wafer.
“On me? This weapon and the person I will use it on when we reach our destination. Why cannot man just travel? Why must one be a priest or soldier, or buccaneer? Why cannot one just board a boat to see what lies after the great remove of ocean?”
“Would you have no profession?”
“Can this really be called a profession?” Dampier thinks. “I march to attack the Spaniards, and after all this”—he gestures around the jungle as if it has sprung up merely to stymie his progression—“I look forward to having enough gold pieces to sign up for a similar venture. Or maybe we could camp awhile and, when the good people of Porto Bello have managed to replenish their coffers, sack them again.”
“Maybe the life of a buccaneer is not for you.”
“It’s not for anyone,” says Dampier, a little laugh, “but I can speak like this and no one disagrees. It is a life without hypocrisy. Is that not worth something? Sacking without conversion. The good people of Porto Bello ought to thank us for dropping in and not insisting on that final humiliation.”
“We leave them as we find them.”
“Although a little less well off, or dead.”
Who is this William Dampier? An orphan. A failed businessman. A seasoned traveler, and still only twenty-three. I would like to say there is a sense of destiny about him, that greatness, like some buzzing halo, stands about his head; that the finger of God extends downward and then, one, two, three, pokes a rubbery staccato upon his stinking hair: this one, this one, this one. And the history writers flock and scribble. But it is not greatness, more a displaced refinement of intellect: a cunning. But strangely packaged. He is popular with other men. He likes to drink, but stays a good bottle of rum behind the others, and after the drunken fisticuffs and rough encounters with rough women, he is still there and not so poorly used—that weary smile and extended arm: he picks you up, cracks a joke at your expense, and then, hands firmly upon your shoulders, pushes you into a more productive hour. He is all right, this William Dampier. I like him well enough.
I hover by his ear, a listener, conjurer, and spy.
Dampier holds forth on a variety of subjects and Wafer fills, like a cup, to overflowing. Dampier, of whom Coleridge will say, “Old Dampier, rough sailor, but a man of exquisite mind,” then sit to pen his mariner’s tale. And Swift—a man not easily impressed—will have his Gulliver claim him, “Cousin Dampier,” kin. Over the buzz and thrum of insects and the incessant, succulent drip of jungle sweat, I hear his laugh: one note, loud, confident, yet not so humored as world-weary.
“My dear Wafer,” says Dampier, “The sea is the great equalizer.”
“Surely war,” says Wafer, “and not the sea?”
“And so it is,” says Dampier, swatting something, this gnat, this thought, against his bare and sweating neck. “The sea, war, hunger, death, love, knowledge.”
“Surely not knowledge. That’s naïve. And even hunger. Hunger must find one to equalize, and there are many people beyond the reach of hunger, although not appetite. And knowledge, William…”
“True, true,” says Dampier, a tight-cornered smile on his face, “what are the many keys that unlock knowledge: reading for one, a challenging companion,” and here Dampier nods at his friend, “and all of these tucked safe in Privilege’s pocket.”
“Right sir, right you are. Perhaps instead of knowledge, we can place the unknown.”
“The unknown,” says Dampier, and he chuckles. “The unknown the great equalizer? The unknown will be mine.”
“As you dispense with it.”
“People want its perimeters—my favorite place to hang my hat.”
Dampier lives to observe and his behavior defines this age.
Lionel Wafer fancies himself something of a writer and so Dampier has given him this Darien, this neck: the tough part of the bird. Dampier has no need of it, and, as observed by Wafer, Dampier is a man on the move and will doubtless have some other place to write about: a newer place to bind in vellum and sign his name to. Wafer, being wise enough to recognize Dampier’s superior gifts, has accepted the Panamanian Isthmus with gratitude and acknowledges Dampier’s right to the rest of the world.
When savages start stuffing you with food and keep you by the table, it could be something other than hospitality. Perhaps providence, and not your providence, their providence, for the pigs are all about and small, and this Swan, Captain Swan to be precise, really ought to be more careful. He could feed this village for a month, and, if he keeps eating their food at the current rate, he might have to, for there will be nothing else for them. And if the men keep at the village girls with the same enthusiasm, the population will double, and with villagers significantly larger—whiter too—than those standing about the doorways and animal pens, with hoes, sticks, and other primitive tools: things looking less like farm implements, more like weapons.
“Sir!” says our Dampier, “perhaps you are done with lunch and we might discuss our departure.”
“Lunch? Isn’t it still breakfast? I just sat down,” says Captain Swan.
“You sat down several weeks ago, a fact that has been noticed by the men and, of more concern, our host.”
“The sultan delights in my presence,” says Swan. “And I delight in his.”
“The men are restless and the monotony of the passing days is perhaps only interrupted by your visits to the ship, where you entertain by picking one from the pack to flog.”
“You criticize me,” says Swan. “That’s insubordination.”
“You are a captain who does not sail,” says Dampier. “That’s madness.
“You are a navigator who cannot bear stillness.”
Swan offers Dampier a cushion on the floor beside him, a wooden plate, a stew of chilies, coconut, and chicken. “When we were still escaping the Pacific, all the men were patched with scurvy, blundering around the decks as if already dead yet still in motion. They were threatening to eat us—both of us, the officers! They are a mutinous lot. I know that look. You think you would have made a less attractive meal.”
“True,” says Dampier, “I am as lean as you are lusty and fleshy.”
Swan, as if to prove this point, licks through his fingers. “Through all of that, you had your eyes fixed on the sky, then on the horizon—that shift of ninety degrees held all the interest for you, because we were in motion.”
“A navigator is one who navigates.”
And through what treacherous waters has Dampier navigated? He has already been labeled “pirate” and now must make his way through the straits of his life a criminal, but a necessary one, for who else dares to sail at the edge of knowing? And as he watches a sailor angled over the edge of the ship, line in hand, sounding for depth, our Dampier knows the true danger is not in the coral clawing at the soft wood of the ship’s keel, but the wigged minions back in London—authority! justice!—keeping the benches of court warm with their fleshy arses, the air redolent with the belch and stink of money, meals, and privilege.
Better to stay abroad, even if one’s company is drunks, sodomites, and thieves. Better to keep company with the blank page and the ink scratching on it, the lines, the turn and turn of sheets, the manuscript growing thick as Dampier catches the unknown, slams it onto the page as if he has killed an insect. He writes, “In this Island are many sorts of Beasts, both wild and tame; as Guano’s, Lizard’s, Snakes, &c. I never saw or heard of any Beasts of Prey here, as in many other places.” He writes, “The Winds are easterly one part of the Year, and westerly the other. The easterly Winds begin to blow in October, and it is the middle of November before they are settled.” He writes, “Here are also plenty of Sea Turtle and small Manatee, which are not near so big as those in the West-Indies.” He writes and writes and writes.
Later with Mindanao receding, Swan stranded, and the Spice Islands wafting their magic just over the horizon, Dampier has a moment to contemplate his future. Although it was not his idea to leave Swan behind, he will no doubt be held accountable for it. The British authorities condemn and punish with great enthusiasm: payback against those who dare to spend so much time beyond their reach and imagination. And who is this mad crew anyway? The surgeon has already tried to make off into the wilderness—the jungle filled with Indians and daggers preferable to this lot—but they kidnapped him back. But he was the surgeon. Surely the loss of a navigator will not bother so much.
A Most Outrageous Storm!
The storm came out of nowhere, a blackened margin thickening in the Northeast, and the wind, which had been “whiffling” about from one part of the compass to the other, appeared behind the cloud: zephyrs, cheeks puffed, a curling blue-gray plume of wind extending from their puckered cheeks.
“Sir,” says Dampier to Captain Read, his current master, “we’re in for it.”
“In for what?” says Read, his little round nose twitching anxiously.
Moments later, as Dampier is thrust this way and that, his greasy locks flattened about his shoulders, a horizontal dumping of water first at his right, then left, he feels “it” to be adequately described. He holds firm to the railing to avoid being washed away. In his mind, he composes, committing to memory, “…the Rain poured down as through a Sieve. It thundered and lightned prodigiously, and the Sea seemed all of a Fire about us.” The men are baling anxiously and Captain Read is scampering fore and aft. But something in this evil weather feels vindicating and should one bother to look Dampier’s way (yet no one does, navigating being something of a luxury in the current circumstances) they would see his calm expression, although one eyebrow is merrily raised, his mouth pulled to one side—jaunty! Because he senses with the instinct that overrides reason, a quality of all true navigators, that they are blowing off the edge of the map.
A flat expanse of fine white sand, a fiery sun, and two men—one long and lean, one pudding-short and compact—face off against each other.
“Where are we indeed,” says Dampier.
“You’re the navigator! You tell me!”
“Captain Read, sir, when we were in Manila, did I not say, ‘Here we are in Manila’.”
“And when we reached the coast of China, did I not remark, ‘Why, there’s China, right where we English left her!’”
“And did you not say, ‘Jog us down to Celebes,’ and did I not point the way?”
“Yes but—” and here Captain Read had paused, so had he predicted interruption, but none had come, Dampier having become distracted by a sight over and beyond the captain’s head. “Dampier, you are a most vexing man!”
“Do you have no desire of learning where we are?”
“That interests me!” says Dampier. “Learning where we are is far more provocative than knowing. Indeed, I believe us to be the first Englishmen in this place, although perhaps the Dutch have been here before.”
“So you have a suspicion?”
“I suspect this to be New Holland.”
“What do you know of this New Holland? What is there with which to provision ourselves? Are there natives? Are they friendly?”
“They are not friendly and are most savage.”
“Their Hair is black, short and curl’d, like that of the Negroes; and not long and lank like the common Indians. The Colour of their Skins, both of their Faces and the rest of their Body, is Coal-black, like that of the Negroes of Guinea. They have no sort of Cloaths, but a piece of the Rind of a Tree tied like a Girdle about their Waists, and a handful of long Grass, or three or four small green Boughs full of Leaves, thrust under their Girdle to cover their Nakedness.”
“How come you to know so much of these savages?” says Read, and seeing Dampier’s gaze, which is focused in the offing, somewhat of a distance sighted past his shoulder, Read turns. He is startled to see a group of savages has crept quite close.
The savages are shaking wooden spears, cudgels, some variety of a flattened wooden elbow—most primitive and incapable of harm—yet Read (it must be the spectacle of the unknown) shrinks back in fear.
“Not friendly,” says Dampier. “Most savage.”
Of the Australian aborigines, Dampier informs himself and, therefore, the world, and, therefore, whatever “the world” at that particular time happens to include: certainly not New Holland, which—in addition to being in a state of transition from fantasy to fact—knows all about its inhabitants and requires no informing. He writes, “The Inhabitants of this Country are the miserablest People in the World. The Hodmadods of Monomatapa, though a nasty People, yet for Wealth are Gentlemen to these; who have no Houses, and skin Garments, Sheep, Poultry, and Fruits of the Earth, Ostrich Eggs, &c. as the Hodmadods have: And setting aside their Humane Shape, they differ little from Brutes…They did at first endeavour with their Weapons to frighten us, who lying ashore deterr’d them from one of their Fishing-places—.”
“In the midst of this Distress, I observed them all to run away on a sudden as fast as they could, at which I ventured to leave wondring what it was that could put them into this Fright. But looking on my Left-hand, I saw a Horse walking softly in the Field: which my Persecutors having sooner discovered, was the Cause of their Flight. The Horse started a little when he came near me, but soon recovering himself, looked full in my Face with manifest Tokens of Wonder: He viewed my Hands and Feet, walking round me several times—”.
My mistake! The second of these accounts is, of course, not Dampier, but Swift, for as Dampier discovers, striding about the previously—at least not by the English—unstrodden sand, there are no large animals, certainly nothing capable of bearing a burden such as a horse, intelligent or otherwise.
The natives have turned from hostility to curiosity. After a gift of rice boiled with turtle and manatee, they have seen the English to be, if not friendly, mercantile: requiring something of them that makes their murder unprofitable. What this something might be is difficult to determine. First the crewmen pushed upon the natives an assortment of dirty vestments of the kind that they wore. A few of the native men put these on, to the great amusement of their kinsmen and companions. So clad, these men have turned to the English, who are all in a fussy pantomime involving some barrels of water, which—or so the New Hollanders suppose—need transporting to their ship. This mad display has been going on for the better part of half an hour and is certainly not so entertaining now as it was at its start.
“Ritual?” suggests one native to his friend.
“Really? The presentation seems a bit base for that.” The two men watch as, with embracing, beckoning gestures, Captain Read endeavors to bring them closer to the barrels. “Maybe they are proselytizing.”
“You know what?” suggests his friend.
“I think they mean for us to carry the water for them.”
“Really? How did you come up with that?”
“Look at them.”
Together, the natives look as Read, all agitation, mimes the levitation of a cask. He points vigorously at them, asweat and muscles twitching, all this mimicry taking great effort, possibly more than carrying the water themselves.
“They can’t possibly think that.” The first native smiles in disbelief. “Why would we do it?”
“I think because they have made us the gift of these foul garments.”
“Well they can have them back,” says he, quickly shrugging his shirt from his shoulders.
“They certainly can!” concurs his friend and shakes his foot free from a trouser leg. “These English,” he adds, “they’re worse than the Dutch!”
Later, with New Holland slipping over the horizon, Dampier pens, “We thought to have made these Men to have carry’d [the water] for us, and therefore we gave them some old Cloaths; to one an old pair of Breeches, to another a ragged Shirt But all the signs we could make were to no purpose for they stood like Statues, without motion, but grinned like so many Monkeys, staring one upon another: For these poor Creatures seem not accustomed to carry Burthens.”
Another Most Outrageous Storm!
What small craft is this that floats upon the waves—no founders!—wait, is that it yet again? It is more of a log than a craft and our men are soaked and disoriented, the stars coyly veiled behind thick cloud, a cheeky wind scampering about to play first at the west, and then at the east, and the waves—such waves! The canoe first climbs upward, then plunges down, and Dampier through it all cursing and cursing at first, which is a comfort, but then quiet as he contemplates what might be his final moments: he imagines himself descending to the ocean floor, his hair extending upward like a damp flame, his solemn expression as curious fish stop to watch his progress.
He has done many things in his life that he now regrets. With affecting sorrow Dampier, as an entreaty to his maker, now recalls the wife he deserted. Poor good woman! He shakes his head in shame, but looks upward cautiously—is there any indication that his maker is actually listening? Have his penitence and humility gained him favor? Because these good thoughts are already being replaced by thoughts truer to his nature: Dampier does not regret leaving the woman at all. Indeed, his only regret is marrying her in the first place. What was he thinking? She was not an unattractive person. Did this recommend? In fact, the novelty had been her willingness to marry him. Who chooses a pirate, even one book-learned like Dampier, to be her husband? What flaws does such a woman conceal? The obvious: an evil temper, a love of drink, a passion for indolence. Is his maker still listening? If he knows all, does he not know that she was an insult to her gender? Why did the maker, in all his graciousness, make her in the first place? A cautious look heavenward—could God be watching, a toga-ed giant asprawl on a nimbus couch?—but there is no such thing, just the fearful waves, his friend Hall, who marooned himself along with Dampier—Captain Read having become insufferable—and a few Malays, who—although knowledgeable of this type of boat and region—suffer from a nerve-wracking fatalism that makes it impossible to determine if, firstly, such canoes as this can survive tempests, and, secondly, if land is within their grasp.
“Do you know where we are?” Dampier yells at one of the Malays.
“Still at sea!” the man shouts back.
And Hall, half-dead and stinking like dog, can’t help but laugh. And once he’s laughed, finds it so pleasant an activity that he keeps at it, laughing and laughing, madness being preferable to this drawn-out fear.
For one second, the clouds part, and Dampier sees the stars for the first time in days. He grabs his pocket compass and makes a quick calculation.
Surprise, surprise. He might survive after all.
And Dampier, a look of triumph clear upon his face, reassigns his maker once more to the far back, dimly lit row of his consciousness.
The Bloody Flux!
Surprise, surprise. The battle is not over, his bowels still being at sea regardless of his feet standing on solid land. But he is not standing, rather lying down and as his clouded mind conjures his waking dreams, our hero Dampier is not sure which is more fantastic: his phantasms or that which, as his journal bears him out, he has actually encountered. As surely as Archimedes sat in his tub displacing the water, so does our Dampier displace all knowledge that goes before. He writes and writes and writes and whom does he write against? Pliny! Pliny, who has given us old “umbrella foot” of the Antipodes! Pliny, who believes in the Pegasi of Ethiopia and the three-foot locusts of India! Pliny, who believes that having a naked, menstruating woman walk around an orchard, protects the apples from insects! Pliny whose gift for plausible fictive exposition has stood these last fifteen hundred years and now it is Dampier who must debunk the great Roman.
In his sweating fever he sees the man (Pliny himself!) sit upon his bed.
“Do you know me, Dampier?” he says.
“Yes sir,” says Dampier, “and I know you for a fool!
“That assertion puts you in small company.”
“You say that that Europe is bigger than Asia and twice as big as Africa.”
“My calculations are on the page.”
“Your calculations consist of adding length to breadth!”
There is a moment where the two men blink at each other and Pliny adjusts his toga, which he is sitting on in such a way that it’s tugging at his shoulder.
“How do you know me to be so false?”
“By going. I see with my own two eyes. How come you to so many errors?”
Pliny rubs his eyes. “I have gone nowhere. I wrote what others saw, or what they thought they saw—”
“And by committing to print these falsehoods have perpetuated a millennium of ignorance!”
“Where is the wrongdoing committed? When they saw and saw incorrectly? When I took pen to paper? Or when they read? It does not start with me, Dampier.” Pliny folds his hands in his lap, looking down the length of Dampier’s dysentery ravaged frame. “What makes you so special?”
“I observe and then I write it down!”
“Yes. You are the first to do this, the very first.”
“William,” comes a weak voice. It’s Hall, who is suffering down the other end of the long hut. “If you must speak, speak quieter, for your madness is keeping me from rest.”
Madness? For of course Pliny is not there and has been displaced not by reason and observation, but rather air—still air with a mosquito circling lazily through it.
This fort is rotting to pieces and the governor of this place, soft too, in the head, his mental constitution undermined by heat. Or is it drink? Or is it both? Our naturalist friend has found himself the unnatural job of “gunner.” He is a good shot, as are most pirates who make it to their thirties, but after five months spent gunning and writing with the only entertainment being the occasional surprise attack from the Malays—whom he guns—and the petty tyranny of the Governor—of whom Dampier writes, “I saw so much Ignorance in him, with respect to his charge being much fitter to be a Book-keeper than Governour of a Fort…I soon grew weary of him, not thinking my self very safe, indeed under a Man whose Humours were so brutish and barbarous.”
So “pop” goes the gun. And then reload. And then “pop.” Who is he shooting? Well, the Malays are not mounting a surprise attack and the gun is angled toward the sea. “Pop.” Reload. “Pop.” This would be a much better moment if he were at sea, shooting into the land, better yet, onboard a ship, “In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water,” although safely harbored in modern literature, “incomprehensible, firing into a continent.” At least this futility would symbolize something, for these islands in some way do comprise a dark continent, not the dark continent, but dark nonetheless. Dampier’s shooting into the water is futility that symbolizes futility, which cancels out the symbolism making it just what it is: meaningless shooting. And at whom is he shooting at anyway?
Is it the Dutch? But the English are no longer at war with the Dutch. We’re all friends now, except the Malays, who, from a cluster of village huts at safe remove from the fort, announce with a vehement politeness, “We’re victims.” And right they are!
Dampier looks up from his porthole and wipes his hands on the rough cloth of his shirt. “No longer at war with the Dutch? Then what am I doing here!”
You’re wasting your time, friend. How long has it been since you were home? It must be twelve years. You left with the scrappy whiskers of youth about your upper lip and now look! All the stubble of manhood casts a dark shadow about your jaw and some of this is grey. You left to find your fortune—
“I left to leave,” says Dampier and he packs his journal and his papers carefully. But he does miss England. “What was there in London?”
What is there now?
In the corner of the room there is a movement and I see that Dampier is not alone.
“Come Jeoly. We are leaving. That must please you a little, my prince.”
From the darkened shadow a slight figure steps. He is young, maybe twelve years old, and tattooed from head to foot in brilliant swirls, coiled vines, marvelous birds. He blinks, and from the pattern of his skin the two dark eyes stare out, unmistakably natural, sad. His mother, despite Dampier’s best efforts to nurse her, has died of a fever and he has been Jeoly’s only caretaker. Jeoly too has been sick. He nearly died along with his mother, first of fever, then of grief.
“Where are we going?” asks the prince.
“To London! London is a great city with buildings and people and things that you have never seen before.”
“It is very cold in London,” says the prince, “and I am sure I will not like the food.”
From the deck of the ship Prince Jeoly watches the islands of his youth disappearing into memory. And Dampier? He is hidden below decks as his departure has become more of an escape. The governor withdrew permission allowing him to leave and Dampier dropped from a porthole of the fort with only his journal and a few other papers on him. His books—valuable—and furniture—expensive—left along with the fort and governor and whatever has occasioned their presence on godforsaken Bencouli to be reclaimed by the jungle, to return to anonymity and irrelevance—irrelevance, that is, except to its original inhabitants who didn’t like the English there in the first place.
Dampier cares for Jeoly—this is clear in his writing—and should not surprise since the English have always done well by their pets. He brings his prince with him up the winding, stinking alleys, directs him around the steaming piles of horseshit, and waste-filled gutters, stamps his boot angrily to shoo the rats so that the two can pass across the threshold of the alehouse, in through a wave of heated tobacco and stale-ale stink, along the dark hallway with its cobwebbed beams and grunting patrons. With sweating whores. Through to a quieter dining area, a place closer to the fire.
The boy’s eyes are all agog with filth and spectacle, yet still he notes Dampier’s reticent behavior.
Our pirate sits upon a bench opposite the prince, who, as predicted, finds his stew of beef-gristle (has it gone off?) not much to his liking. The prince peers into his bowl, his face returned to him, distorted in the congealing gravy. In this, his mother would have found an omen.
“Eat,” says Dampier with some gentleness. “Look how big we English grow from such food.”
“And look how far you go to find better.”
Dampier smiles, but there is little to cheer him of late. He finds his finances wanting, the clink of coin on coin too pronounced when not muffled by the substantial presence of others. He makes a tidy stack of currency upon the table. He swings a boot over the bench to straddle it so that he is not looking at his little prince.
“It is a neat stack, William,” says Jeoly. “Too neat. You mean to sell me.”
“No,” says Dampier, “No, no.” But his eyes roam the ceiling because he cannot decide which is kindness: truth or subterfuge.
“Sell me now,” says the prince, “for I will not survive much longer.”
“Are you not well, my prince?”
Jeoly shrugs. “Is this how you English treat your princes? I know I am a slave. And that makes me smarter than you, William.”
“You think yourself free.”
One afternoon, when the weather is fine and the dampness not so noticeable, Dampier is walking back from his printer (Yes, printer!) to his room when he thinks to have a celebratory beer. An alehouse presents itself and within it Dampier presents himself, and soon, within his long, tapering fingers, a beer presents itself. As he’s licking the foam from his lip, he looks up from his drink and sees a poster displayed upon the ale house wall: The Painted Prince! Dampier takes his cold drink in thoughtful gulps.
“Sir,” says Dampier to the publican, “that painted prince is dead.”
And, wiping the surface filth into filthy circles with a blackened rag, the publican nods, which he thinks generous enough to such a comment.
The second circumnavigation was to be his undoing, but only because its inception had been Dampier’s glory, Captain Dampier now, in command of the Roebuck. The Roebuck’s charge was to menace French ships and collect information. Dampier was pleased to have finally escaped being a pirate, although even he—who knew through qualification (which helped with the Royal Navy) and suffering (which appealed to his sense of justice) that he had earned it—felt the whole thing to be somewhat ironic. When the charge of piracy was leveled against him upon his return—destroying whatever reputation he had managed to cobble together on that first long voyage— he could not have been surprised.
Captain Dampier is busy writing yet he raises his head to answer this charge.
“What is the difference between a pirate captain and one of the Royal English Navy?” he says. “Two things: the pirate menaces everyone, not just those enemies of the crown, and the pirate publishes as buccaneer, not scholar. Although perhaps the running of the ship is more democratic in the former.”
Surely you mean the latter: the Royal Navy.
“I certainly don’t,” says Dampier, and he lays down his pen to spend some time with this and me and my lack of understanding. “The pirate defines justice through equality: what’s good for him is good for me. The Crown defines justice through adherence: if this is not done, it will be punished. So you decide. Choose as you like. I don’t care.”
That’s sour grapes, Dampier, because of your court martial. I know all about Fisher.
“Fisher? Has history bothered with him?”
I’m afraid so, even though “Cousin Dampier” left him from his works—mentioning only in passing “the refractoriness of some under me”—any mention of Fisher. But Lieutenant Fisher, Dampier’s second in command, was his undoing.
“Do you find me so undone?” says Dampier, and he looks offended.
But let’s return to a time when Fisher was still on board the ship, before Dampier deposited him in a Portuguese prison in Bahia. Dampier had little control in choosing his crew and he knew that many sailors were pirates and vice versa—in truth piracy versus sailoring was factored in degrees; the factions beloved of simple-minded people like Fisher had no business on board a ship. Fisher disliked being second in command in general, and in particular to a known buccaneer. These things he let be known and he is on record these long years since as having called Dampier everything from an “Old Dog” to a “dissembling, cheating rogue.” And Dampier is on record for beating him about with his walking stick—as ridiculous then as it would be now—and, in response to Fisher’s angry threats, responding that he did not care, “a farthing for what your Lordships [can] do to [me].”
Dampier desired to be a captain not to rule over men, but in order not to be ruled, there being no way to avoid both these situations without returning to piracy. Being a pirate interfered with his career as a writer and explorer. What he really liked to do was maps—maps of things never done before: obvious things, such as certain stretches of the west Australian coastline; inventive things, such as the winds, which had certain noteworthy characteristics, and tides, which operated with some regularity. And all of these were of value to the mariner. And who before had thought to map the wind?
The trade winds blow at an acute angle on any coast and Dampier is wondering how best to communicate the specifics of this situation when there is an aggressive pounding on his door. Dampier is silent, hoping that the person might leave, but of course whoever it is knows him to be in his cabin: this is a ship, where else could he be? After a second series of thumps, Dampier responds with a weary, “Enter.”
And Fisher enters. “I must report a breach in authority.”
“Really?” says Dampier. But he doesn’t look up from his papers. “Is that all?”
“The nature of the breach,” says Fisher.
And Dampier is not sure how to respond because this is not a question. He finally says, “Yes?” because it is clear that Fisher has no intention of leaving until he has communicated the details of the transgression. Dampier watches Fisher speak, his mouth and jaws in rapid exercise, the hands over here, then over there, a righteous angry flush about the cheeks, the fists at the sides, then in conscious, punctuating gestures in the air in front. A fleck of spittle catches the light. And then another. Could that be sweat collecting at the man’s temples? Why has Dampier never noticed just how short Fisher is—diminutive—a fact underscored by the tall boots? He looks like a uniformed mouse. And then Dampier realizes that Fisher has fallen silent without his noticing.
“So what you’re saying,” says Dampier, “is that you wished to issue beer and the purser refused?”
“Of course that’s what I’ve been saying.”
“And this is important?”
There is a moment where Dampier sincerely hopes Fisher has seen the light, but he suspects this to be unjustified optimism and is right.
“You are a captain and as such must maintain authority.”
“Yes, but not an abstract authority, an authority to maintain order. And I fail to see the necessity of serving men beer.”
“The breach is not in the men being deprived of beer, but in the purser refusing my order.”
“This is a breach of authority that represents a breach of authority but also maintains order. Perhaps the men are better off without the beer.”
“Then you must order that in order to have me not order the purser who still must obey the order.”
“Then I do just that.”
“But sir, that cannot be done.”
“Because my order has already been disobeyed!”
“I don’t have time for this,” says Dampier. “Go away, and that’s an order.”
It is hard to blame Dampier for having Fisher locked up in a Brazilian prison, but surely he saw his reputation would suffer. The judges found Dampier’s treatment of Fisher to be extreme, his defense of fearing mutiny without justification. They fined Dampier all the proceeds from his journey and said he was unfit to command any of Her Majesty’s ships.
“Is this Fisher business of interest to anyone?” says Dampier. “And who are you? Why bother to write my tale when others of far more prominence have done it justice—justice that has stood the test of time? What do you think you can bring to my equation when Swift has brought pen to it already? What bastard do you hope to birth from humping the margins of Defoe?”
I know of Swift, and Humboldt, and Coleridge, but what of Defoe?
“I dropped Alexander Selkirk off on my second journey and picked him up on my third. So perhaps one cannot credit me with the story of the maroon, but for putting a start and end to it, that is surely me. And since the book is what is important, then that is surely me, since the story needed a beginning and an end, Selkirk just supplying the middle: his demand to be left on the desert isle, his regret as the ship sailed off, his ability to survive until I rescued him. But let me tell you one thing: Selkirk did not survive because he was a noble soul, but rather because he was a most stubborn, ill-tempered, fiery, blighted soul and nothing could kill him. But were it not for me, who bothered to pass by and bring him on board, who deposited him in London, where he soon returned to drink and fisticuffs and syphilitic women, his story would have died among the goats and turnips and sea lions of islands.”
I feel compelled to tell you that Dampier did indeed make it a third time around the globe as sailing master to privateer Woodes Rogers on the Duke. Had he survived his arrival, he would have achieved the prosperity that he pursued all his life. But he died a drunk, which is a shame considering he had spent so much of his life amongst alcoholics without affliction; consider his drunkenness a choice. As he grabbed the bottle, he thought, “Why the hell not? What is there to be sober for?” And haven’t we all felt that way?
So let’s not bother with his final months characterized by a chill misery. Let’s leave out the Thames, her clippers and slavers and sloops bobbing tantalizingly, paused before they journey off into history, literature, art, and politics. Let’s leave the gin drinkers, and poxed lovers, and dimwitted royals, and crooked merchants, the shit-slicked London streets, and tubercular whores, and set Dampier back at sea, where he was always more comfortable anyway.
I would love to ask him what he thinks, but I doubt he would respond kindly to me, so instead I send in a man of the cloth—a missionary of sorts—who perhaps has been working among savages somewhere, (although it might be too early for this) and is headed home to rejoin his wife. We are already in deep night and the only light in the captain’s cabin is a flickering lamp that intermittently flares illumining the corners of the ceiling, but most often burns from below, lighting up Dampier’s drooping features as if he were the subject of a painting by Joseph Wright of Darby. And the missionary, sitting back in his chair in shadow leans forward only to speak, his face revealed as he does, then lost again as he sits back, leaving Dampier to appear alone while he speaks, as he declaims into, no, against the dark—a beacon to vanquish abysmal ignorance.
Dampier, who feels the end of his life approaching and, as a man of no faith, senses the futility of the future.
Dampier, who has been taught that he is the only one to be trusted—he and his own eyes—and that brotherhood, companionship, and trust are but self-perpetuating myths or worse, luxuries: things valuable only to those in power, who others dare not cross, or savages and those living in abject poverty, who have nothing to lose.
Speak, Dampier! Speak, while I can still hear you, before I lose you to history.
Dampier clears his throat. Although it is clear that he is hobbled—tongue, thought and senses—by drink, he still has a few useful words to share. What are you thinking, Dampier? What keeps you now in motion?
“It is my fate to trust only the stars, those bitter shards sunk deep in night’s abysmal, gawping bog. The stars keep me in motion. A navigator is one who navigates. But my life is lived in knots and naughts—a speedy tangle of days amounting to nothing. Am I taking this voyage, or is it taking me? Am I drinking this bottle, or is it drinking me?”
I tap my man of the cloth on the shoulder, for it is his turn to speak, and I would feel bad if Dampier were declaiming to nothing but the stinking, still air of his cabin.
“But life is not so void of meaning,” says he, who may or may not be a missionary, startled to attention.
“Don’t talk to me of God, for I will smash this bottle against your head and give you visions.”
“But what of—” and here the chaplain stops, for he means to speak of love, but seeing Dampier’s dissipated state, the very air around his head corrupted by proximity, the bitterly curled lip hoping for a vindicating violence, he substitutes the less contentious, “family.”
The chaplain proposes, “Perhaps a wife.” Although seeing Dampier’s countenance, the thought of someone cleaved to that, cleaving to that, even clinging, even a louse, seems impossible, absurd. But what relation to one so stiff in solitude would not offend? Maybe he should have proposed an uncle. “Perhaps an uncle,” seems less personal, although incapable of offering solace or hope, and how ridiculous is this? But rather than make him laugh, Dampier—his eyes bloodshot and drooping, the pouches beneath them weighted with a low-burning, unrelieved, and general grief—chills his bones giving him an assertive, skeletal awareness.
“Perhaps a wife,” repeats Dampier, not bitterly, but lightly and without anger.
He had been listening. “So were you never married?” asks our man of the cloth.
“Certainly not. Never. And I know Never, for I did stand there once, and so situated, understood its borders. Never! I know her hectares marked off by my fences. For I am wed to her. She is my wife!”
The chaplain sips nervously at his brandy, and watches Dampier’s head droop, and droop, and then, with a hollow thunk against the table’s rough wood, he falls to sleep. Carefully the chaplain places his half-full glass against the table, and, rising from his chair, contemplates the distance to the door. For surely this is madness. Madness, yes, for drink has never been so complicated.
Our brilliant buccaneer and naturalist has, in the grip of drink, wandered off the page. If you wish to see him, there is a painting hanging in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Beneath the painting is the inscription, “Pirate and hydrographer” and maybe it’s the smell wafting up from this that has set the dour expression upon his face. Dampier is uncomfortable, of course, to have been so stuck—to him no less an ordeal than the “painted ship upon a painted ocean,” words that he also inspired.
Since our friend Dampier spent his final days in London, we can presume him to be buried in a damp square of ground, his bare bones laid out in proximity to the bones of others, an uncaring population passing by above as equally uncaring moles and worms pass through: an end befitting a buccaneer whose brilliant writing and adventurous soul fed the brilliance of others with this result: he is outshone by his fictionalized self, without even benefit of being the author of that which threw him into shadow. Ultimately, the fact that Dampier was so intriguing during his life has left him buried in time, tossed out with the historical detritus: Gulliver and Crusoe and The Ancient Mariner sit in the center of the page, and Dampier—the foundation of it all—peers, lips pursed, from the margins.
“You fool,” says Dampier from his grave, his jaws working admirably without the aid of muscles, his bad teeth bare for all to see, the skull like any other since—whatever Dampier might have thought before—death is the real equalizer. He says, “I am not a character, but a writer. A writer happy to be such, not desperate like you, who for a reason unknown to me, has felt the need to put herself in her own story. My book is still on the shelf of every library. I do not need to be hero, only author. Gulliver is welcome to command whatever tale he wishes and does not impugn my work, nor steal my thunder. Shut up, just shut up. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
All right, Dampier, I can take such criticism. But nothing shuts me up. And I am not happy with this end: London, graveyard, presumed Christian burial. We can do better.
We’re on a lonely stretch of coastline and I think it must be the western coast of Australia because it’s very hot and very dry and alien to most, but familiar to me, who has seen it. A stiff wind is blowing on the shore. We’re floating bird-like along in the air, but we throw no shadow. There’s a point of interest on the beach, but the sand seems uninterrupted, so initially we’re not sure why we focus on this place. Then, yielding to the force of wind, we see the sand sift away to reveal a skeleton, bleached by sun, buffed clean of any meat or tendon, elegant, and alone. And this is you, Dampier. We draw close and pause at our fallen buccaneer, our mood reverent, our steps careful. We fall to our knees: how much of our understanding do we owe to this man? (Are you happy now? Is this better?) Oh, Dampier, great explorer, naturalist, to have you still with us, “man of exquisite mind!” But what is that sound? I hear a strange singing. We bring ourselves closer, almost touching the vaulted hall of your ribs. It’s the wind singing through you, the very wind of which you wrote, that shifting, impossible, power upon which your life depended, that unpredictable force of which you presumed to make understanding-—the wind has loosed itself about you, making of your skeleton a mouth. But what is it saying? What could it say? Ah. Now it speaks clearly and I make out at first one word, then more, then a flood as it plays upon your bones:
“…we left Captain Sharp and those who were willing to go with him in the Ship, and imbarked into our Lanch and Canoas, designing for the River of Santa Maria…”
And it’s your story Dampier, the whole thing, put down exactly as you wanted it.
Sabina Murray is the author of the novels Forgery, A Carnivore’s Inquiry, and Slow Burn.