Infamous Pirate Was Also One of the World's Most Influential Naturalists

He may have had the look of an academic, but William Dampier had the reputation of a ruthless pirate. Thomas Murray [Public domain]/Wikimedia Commons

When you think of a pirate, you probably imagine a rum-swilling, eyepatch-wearing, parrot-adorned, peg-legged, doubloon-hoarding thief. You probably don't imagine a scholar, writer and renowned explorer-naturalist who Charles Darwin referred to as his friend.

William Dampier defies classification. He's been called the greatest nautical explorer-adventurer in history next to Sir Francis Drake and James Cook. He was the first person to circumnavigate the world three times, contributed invaluably to the development of natural history as we know it, and his writings were the first to include words like "avocado," "barbecue," "breadfruit," "cashew," "catamaran" and "chopsticks." He was also one of the most fearsome marauders of his day, ruthlessly pillaging ships the world over.

Stories of Dampier's swashbuckling adventures make Darwin's trip on the HMS Beagle sound like a pedal-boat ride around a lagoon. And yet, the notorious pirate remains largely forgotten today.

That's about to change, if authors Diana and Michael Preston have any say about it. They've released a biography of the freebooting naturalist titled "A Pirate of Exquisite Mind: Explorer, Naturalist and Buccaneer," which highlights both Dampier's wild adventures on the high seas and his monumental contributions to natural history, reports NPR.

He was good at many things, some of them bad

Back in Dampier's day, being both a pirate and botanist would not have seemed like such a juxtaposition. Discoverers and smugglers of rare and exotic plants and animals could make some serious coin in the 17th century as European fascination for natural history soared. Explorers competed ferociously for their exploits. Plant-collecting, ironically enough, was a life-or-death profession, and few defied the odds quite so ambitiously as William Dampier.

Dampier also walked a fine line (or, perhaps more befitting: a fine plank) when it came to his reputation. As noted, Darwin gave him a nickname, "old Dampier" — as in my pal, my teacher — for the endless citations that he provided. Dampier's notebooks provided some of the richest descriptions of the biological world in his day, and his writings were so well-regarded that he was welcomed to Britain's Royal Society, where he occasionally suppressed his fluency in pirate slang to lecture and hobnob with famous intellectuals.

On the other hand, Dampier's piratical resume was also irrefutable. There's little doubt that he was a cruel and ruthless captain and marauder. He pillaged Spanish frigates in the Americas, hijacked ships across Southeast Asia, and robbed and betrayed mariners throughout Australia and New Guinea. He didn't always get away with it, either. He was once court-martialed, found guilty, and discharged from the Royal Navy for jailing a crewman who he believed disloyal, marooning the innocent man behind.

He was also a heartless survivor — one had to be, in his line of work. One tall tale tells of Dampier facing a mutiny due to low food rations and a starving crew. The famished deckhands were on the verge of resorting to cannibalism, and were intent to punish their commanders first. Dampier, concerned about his place on the menu, quietly remarked that while he was on the "lean" side, the other pirate captain, Charles Swan, was comparatively "lusty and fleshy."

Another story tells of a starving Dampier sneaking into a traditional Vietnamese funeral — for the food. He barely escaped with his life, chased from the village by a mob of angry locals.

In the end, it was his fearsome and ill-begotten reputation as a privateer that made him loathsome to 19th-century Victorians, who systematically wiped him from the history books despite his immense contributions to science.

Whether Dampier enjoys a revival for his accomplishments and daunting adventures remains to be seen, but in a world where Disneyland features pirate rides, Johnny Depp stars in pirate films, and fictional archeologist-thieves like Indiana Jones are cultural icons, Dampier's story is ripe for the offering.