BOOKS: Gold, blood and bananas

THE DEVIL'S MARINER: William Dampier, Pirate and Explorer by Anton Gill, Michael Joseph pounds 20
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William Dampier is remembered as the author of A New Voyage Round the World (1697), one of the first travel books in English, as one of the earliest explorers of the Pacific and a member of the crew that recovered the marooned Alexander Selkirk (who provided Defoe with the original of Robinson Crusoe). His writings find an echo in works by several better known writers: Swift (who acknowledges the debt), as well as Defoe (who doesn't), Smollett, Scott and Coleridge (who considered him a man of "exquisite" mind). He was born at East Coker in Somerset, in 1651, and received some schooling before going to sea at the age of 18. His first long voyage was to Newfoundland where, it appears, he took a dislike to the cold; from then on, he sailed in warmer climates and, though his writings reveal little, he was undoubtedly in some sense or other a pirate on the Spanish Main.

It sounds a romantic life, but it was certainly nothing of the kind, except in one respect: it offered a sort of wild freedom. Anton Gill's absorbing account of Dampier's career emphasises his scientific curiosity and his restless nature, but he must have been motivated as much by a powerful intolerance of the constraints imposed by normal social life: when he did find himself in a position of command, in his more respectable later life, he was not a success. But the freedom of the privateer, pirate or buccaneer was bought at a daunting price. Life on board ship between raids lacked almost every comfort that we would consider essential: the word "brutish" is the one that most often recurs in Gill's description of it.

Dampier is reticent about his personal experiences: he strains to give accurate descriptions of such novelties as the zebra or the banana, which have little interest for the modern reader except in conveying the impressions of a European seeing these marvels for the first time. What would interest us - details of everyday life, stories of battles, records of Dampier's own emotions - are almost entirely absent. From time to time, Gill regrets the fact that we can only speculate about, for example, his feelings about his way of life or his sexuality (he was married, but spent most of his time at sea, away from his wife; for all we know, he may have been homosexual).

We do have a good likeness of him: he is the only pirate to have been the subject of an authentic portrait, which now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. Gill says he looks self-conscious, while to me his expression suggests surliness: the fact is, we know nothing about his character. But the lack of information allows the biographer to embark on frequent excursions ("I hope it is worth making a small digression about the remarkable Henry Every"), and he has no need to apologise for them.

We learn about buccaneers, who were originally men employed in curing meat, which they sold as provisions for ships in the Caribbean: the word comes from the French boucaner, to cure by smoking. They did their own butchering and never changed their clothes, which were caked with dried blood. "Privateers" were pirates tolerated by England and other countries eager to challenge the Spanish hegemony in the Americas, but they could easily degenerate into mere pirates, seizing any vessel. The crews lived in a form of democracy, choosing their own captains and replacing them if need be. They were apparently driven by the desire for gain, but the fortunes that they made were quickly squandered; and, on the whole, theirs was a world without gods or laws. What discipline there was, was enforced by outlandish punishments: keelhauling, marooning, eating cockroaches (but seldom, apparently, walking the plank). Pirates gave and expected no quarter and could be unbelievably savage in their treatment of prisoners: a woman might be repeatedly raped, before being thrown overboard, and one particularly cruel man used to disembowel his prisoners and nail their guts to a tree, then torment them with burning logs. For a sadist, there might have been some compensations in a life on the Spanish Main.

Yet, even in these appalling conditions, not everyone conformed to type. One pirate eventually became Archbishop of York, another was constantly studying his Greek New Testament. Dampier himself is an exceptional and surprising figure to find in the midst of such violence and savagery, a scientific observer of distinction, driven by obscure motives across a world more mysterious than we can now imagine. Gill's well-researched biography is a tribute to an unusual figure, a vivid evocation of the explorer's life and a reflection, ultimately, on the elusiveness of the past.