Andru McCracken, Editor
A friend lent me a book about a guy I’d never heard of. Despite him being at the very centre of some of the most treasured stories I know (Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe) I’d never heard of him or his many real and important discoveries … and it reminds me, not a little, of the scrutiny that Sir Richard McBride has been receiving lately.
Have you ever heard about William Dampier? He was a 17th Century explorer who wrote about his insane and very dangerous journeys around the world.
He was footloose and always anxious to travel. A bit of an ass. He always thought he knew better than everyone else and said so (He was often right, but had a hard time convincing others, often at the cost of lives).
Dampier was a keen observer, and whereever he went he had the habit of recording simple and compelling descriptions of what he saw. So simple and so compelling they were useful to others who would come after him.
Once when he met a group of Indigenous people in the South Pacific; he noticed their sleek-looking vessel with outriggers. It looked fast. Dampier asked for a turn, and got the little craft up to about 20 knots. How did he know? He measured. He was observant and interested.
When he met new people of different cultures, instead of heaping epithets on them and calling them devils, he described them to the best of his ability, like you would try and describe a family member.
Dampier made several discoveries that would help sea navigators over the next two centuries, and he mapped out trade winds and currents. He also introduced about 80 words into the English lexicon, words like Advocado, and sea lion. How did he come up with these words? Often he didn’t invent them, he just asked the locals and adapted them to English.
When other adventurers were fighting, spending money or getting drunk in port, Dampier was exploring the town or roaming about the country looking and learning whenever he could. Oftentimes it was in exceptional places, the Galapagos Islands, for example.
150 years later, he would be a hero to Charles Darwin. Dampier’s observations of those islands enticed Darwin there.
You’ve heard of Darwin, but why not his hero Dampier?
Dampier’s travels provided a skeleton for Gulliver’s Travels. You’ve heard of Jonathan Swift (he wrote Gulliver’s Travels), but you haven’t heard of Dampier. Why?
Well, what I’ve read so far seems to indicate that the reason Dampier’s fame didn’t have staying power… was because he was a pirate.
In their book “Pirate of Exquisite Mind,” Diana and Michael Preston, believe it was Dampier’s piracy that kept him back from fame, the same way it dogged him during his life.
I’m not going to make light of Dampier’s piracy. He did it in earnest. He wanted to be rich and was willing to work for it like pirates had to, by maiming and killing sailors and stealing treasure. Call it buccaneering, or make it official and call it privateering. Dampier was definitely a pirate.
But I find it laughable that the Prestons believe it was Dampier’s piracy that has held him back from the history books and caused his name to be lost to generations.
As if Christopher Columbus might have got the boot from history if he had acted badly. Columbus is getting some scrutiny now, but it took 500 years.
I’m no historian, but it is just as likely that Dampier was discarded from history because he was out of sync with his time. Wherever he went, he was interested in learning what people had to teach, their food, the way they interacted, their language, their boats, like the sleek sailing vessel that could go so fast.
After having visiting the Batanes Islands in the northern Philippines, Dampier was impressed and reflected:
“I could never perceive that one man was of greater power than another; but they seemed to be all equal…”
What Dampier saw there, and what Jonathan Swift would echo later, was a radical egalitarianism.
Dampier was observant and, as a result, was deeply interested in Indigenous people; more than once he expressed concerns about colonization.
Bringing it all back to the valley, Sir Richard McBride, BC’s 16th premier and the namesake of fair McBride is receiving some scrutiny for perpetuating white supremacy and for dealing unfairly with Indigenous people (I’m not sure if anyone has brought up his strong anti-suffrage position — he really didn’t believe women should vote), I’m not at all sad that a plaque might hang upon the wall next to his name, letting people know what he’s done.
And if one day a beautiful village in the eastern interior of BC decided it had found its new name, its true name, well I wouldn’t be offended. It’s okay to examine who we hold in esteem and who we venerate. I’d argue it’s something we need to do all the time.