Ahoy! Meet the real-life pirate scientist 300 years ahead of Aardman

Steve Connor discovers uncanny parallels between a swashbuckling pioneer and a new animated hero

He was a swashbuckling buccaneer who was the first person to circumnavigate the globe three times during his life as a pirate. He landed on Australia nearly 100 years before it was "discovered" by Captain James Cook and was the first Englishman to describe avocados, bananas, cashew nuts and chopsticks – among many other exotic sightings.

Click HERE to view 'Captain Dampier's extracts: The voyages of discovery' graphic

Although William Dampier, born in 1651, turned out to be a pretty hopeless pirate he was a brilliant observer and natural historian, and his exploits as an amateur scientist have led some to draw parallels with the fictional pirate captain in the latest film by Aardman Animations, of Wallace and Gromit fame.

Aardman's The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, which opened at cinemas this week, tells the story of a blundering pirate who accidentally kidnaps Charles Darwin. Darwin, meanwhile, recognises that the captain's "parrot" is in fact an extinct dodo and persuades him to come to the "Scientist of the Year" competition at the Royal Society in London.

The film's makers came closer than they might have realised to describing a true story. It turns out that there was indeed a pirate scientist, and although he lived nearly 200 years before Darwin he nevertheless had a strong connection with the man whose name in inextricably linked with the theory of evolution.

Darwin's own voyages in the 1830s closely followed those of Dampier at the end of the 17th century. They both travelled to South America, rounded Cape Horn and visited the Galapagos islands before going on to Australia.

Perhaps the strongest parallel between film and real life stems from Dampier's informal connections with distinguished fellows of the Royal Society, such as the diarist Samuel Pepys and the botanist Hans Sloane, who marvelled at his detailed descriptions of far-off places.

Keith Moore, the head librarian at the Royal Society, said: "We know that Darwin had access to Dampier's book. We know that Dampier visited the Galapagos islands, and described them in just the same way as Darwin, and it's the same voyage around the world."

Dampier became a meticulous note taker, describing for instance how to make the avocado more palatable by adding sugar and lime juice – probably the first recipe in English for sweet guacamole.

In addition to describing the mango and the Chinese habit of drinking dishes of tea, Dampier wrote about the giant tortoise or "land turtle" of the Galapagos, saying there were enough on the islands to feed up to 600 men for several months.

Despite many raids on Spanish galleons aboard privateer vessels, Dampier did not seem to have had much success as a pirate, dying in penury in London in 1715 with debts of £677.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

£16575 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity is ava...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Executive

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading and innovative con...

Day In a Page

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue