Diana & Michael Preston, |
A Pirate of Exquisite Mind
(Walker & Co., 2004; Berkley, 2005)
A remarkable man died in London sometime in 1715 and was buried in an unmarked grave.
This would be of little note were it not for the fact he was one of the greatest explorers of all time, a pioneering navigator, a naturalist, hydrographer, travel writer and -- probably to his disadvantage -- a pirate. His maps were used by James Cook and Horatio Nelson, among others; his work as a naturalist influenced von Humboldt and Darwin, and his writings stirred the imagination of Defoe, Coleridge and Swift. He circumnavigated the world three times and was the first Englishman to explore Australia.
It was William Dampier's lifelong ambition to achieve wealth and fame. Though he found some of the latter before his death he was frustrated at almost every turn in his efforts to accomplish the former and, sadly, died in debt.
Diana and Michael Preston have given the man his due in their biography, A Pirate of Exquisite Mind.
Dampier was a man of his time and, thus, is not without fault in the modern view. But he had more tolerance than many of his contemporaries, despised superstition and saw curiosity about the world around us as among the highest of virtues.
For a man whose writing had (and continues to have) so much influence on so many others, it is surprising that Dampier is largely forgotten, even in his birthplace of East Coker, Somerset. Before this long overdue biography, the Prestons found almost everything known about Dampier came from his published books. None of his original journals have survived.
The Prestons searched out manuscripts in the British Library and moldering papers in various record offices, then went one better than many biographers, actually visiting the many places his path took him around the world.
There are aspects of his life the authors only skimmed over and which I wish they had given more attention. While not quite as readable as Blue Latitudes, the Tony Horwitz book on Cook, I found much to admire in this book.