Found in the Archives: The Trail of a Naturalist Pirate

On this National Talk Like a Pirate Day we take a look at the 17th century explorer and privateer/pirate William Dampier. The scope of his travels, observations, and writings has influenced us in ways that many never knew.

Book page with drawings of plants. Barbeque. Doughboy. Free trade. Pumple-nose. Smugglers. Cortan. Crockadore. Chopsticks. William Dampier, the 17th century explorer turned privateer/pirate, is credited with introducing these words, and more than 1,000 others, into the English vernacular. He was the first explorer to circumnavigate the globe three times, and created the first detailed record of Australian Flora and Fauna. The notes and drawings included in his journals and published works show his skills as an early ornithologist, meteorologist, botanist, and ichthyologist, and show that he is an excellent example of a naturalist pirate.

I first encountered William Dampier’s name when I was doing electronic record preservation work for the Curatorial Correspondence and Memoranda collection from the Museum of Natural History’s Department of Paleobiology. His was just one name among many fascinating stories included in the Ocean Portal that are worth exploring in their own right. While I never expected to find the story of a pirate among modern day memos, it’s a fitting and influential tale for this Talk Like a Pirate Day.

As it turns out, in 1679 William Dampier set sail for his first trip around the world.  Over the next 12 years, his voyage took him from the English shores to South America, to the Philippines, to New Holland (modern day Australia) and beyond.  Despite being marooned in the Bay of Bengal, his field journals, which he had stored in bamboo tubes sealed with wax, survived the trip and were the foundation for his first book A New Voyage Round the World (1697).

Dampier’s careful documentation of the natural world inspired generations of explorers, writers, and scientists including high profile figures such as Charles Darwin, Jonathan Swift, Edmund Halley, and Captain James Cook. In 1769, Cook himself took to the ship The Endeavour and traveled the globe with the botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander. “The two botanists on the expedition returned with a collection of plant specimens including an estimated 100 new families and 1,000 new species of plants, many of which are currently housed in the U. S. National Herbarium.”

Dried plant speciman.

I visited Biologist Sara Alexander of the National Museum of Natural History and with her help, we were able to look at a specimen gathered by Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander during Cook’s expedition. She explained that while the Mallotus ficifolius pictured here was collected in 1770, the first official name for this specimen wasn’t published until 1873 – nearly 100 years later!

Woman holding dried plant speciman.

Dampier’s impact, whether seen as a scientist or a pirate has clearly been vast.  Even though I stumbled on this particular naturalist pirate in memo, my search to find out more about who he was as a naturalist led me from the collections of the Archives, to the Smithsonian Libraries, to the National Museum of Natural History, and back again.  His work and adventures are a great resource and hundreds of years later, botanist and naturalist are still studying and visiting many of the same places.  It goes to show the importance of preserving specimens and records in every form.

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