Bonhams to Sell Last Letter in Private Hands by William Dampier


The last letter in private hands by William Dampier (1651-1715), the pirate, explorer and naturalist who was the first Briton to set foot in Australia, is to be offered for sale at Bonhams Fine Books, Manuscripts, Atlases and Historical Photographs sale in London on 18 March. It is estimated at £60,000-80,000.

Dampier has many claims to fame. He was the first man to sail round the world three times, the first Briton to land on Australian soil and the first person to record its flora and fauna and bring back botanical specimens to Europe. Through the best selling books of his voyages, he introduced new words to English, including avocado, barbecue and chop-sticks. Charles Darwin took his books on HMS Beagle and Captain Cook and Admiral Lord Nelson used his maps and charts. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge praised his ‘exquisite mind’ and the story of his life influenced Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe.

Born in East Coker, Somerset, Dampier was sent by the local squire, Colonel William Helyar, to Jamaica in 1674 to work in the sugar plantations. It was from there that he wrote this letter shortly after his arrival. Dampier had very quickly fallen out with the plantation manager, William Whaley, leading to a fight and his dismissal. The letter to Helyar is full of complaints about the conditions, lack of pay, disappointed hopes and particularly about Whaley, whom he contends treats him like a slave. As he writes, “As soon as he (Whaley) thought he had got me under his lash he thought on nothing but how to abuse me…..I am willing to serve you but not to be a slave.” It is only one of four known letters written in Dampier’s hand and the only one still in private ownership.

Ever restless and bursting with confidence—Whaley described him as ‘a self-conceited young man’—Dampier drew his bow at several ventures before settling in 1679 to the life of a buccaneer. It was on an expedition to attack Spanish possessions in the East Indies that he became the first Briton to set foot in Australia, or New Holland as it was then known, when he landed at modern-day Broome, on the western coast, in 1688. The notes he made during his eight week stay, and others made on his journey back to England, formed the basis of his best selling book, A New Voyage Round the World, published in 1697. On the strength of the book, the Royal Navy gave Dampier command of HMS Roebuck in order to return to Australia and make further observations. He landed in 1699 and collected the first ever botanical samples brought from Australia to Europe, some of which are housed in the Sherardian Herbarium at Oxford University. 

Another book, A Voyage to New Holland, followed and although Dampier was court martialled for assaulting a fellow officer he continued to sail on privateers - effectively pirate ships acting with the sanction of the Crown. He completed a third voyage round the world becoming the only man of his time to have achieved this feat. Dampier died, peacefully, in his bed in London in 1715.

Image courtesy of Bridgeman Art Library.

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