How explorer and pirate William Dampier’s comments on Aboriginal people in 1697 set the tone for future sentiment
PHOTO William Dampier (Thomas Murray, c1697) shortly after he published A New Voyage Around the World. SUPPLIED: NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY
While William Dampier is lauded as the first Englishman to set foot in Australia, he published a popular book with a derogatory description of Aboriginal people that would influence the foundations of our nation.
“The inhabitants of this country are the miserabilist people in the world,” Dampier wrote in his 1697 book A New Voyage Around The World.
In describing how the Aboriginal people he met could not be induced to collect water for his ship, he said they instead “grinned like so many monkeys staring one upon another”.
Dampier’s first book shot him to fame and elevated his status from a pirate, likely to be jailed or hanged, to the commander of subsequent Royal Navy voyages of global exploration.
A New Voyage Around The World described his circumnavigation as a privateer, attacking mostly Spanish ships and colonies for personal profit, while making questionable claims to be an emissary for England at war with Spain.
But he also made detailed descriptions of the people and places he visited, including two months spent in north-west Australia in 1688.
It was there, in what by today’s standards is a strikingly beautiful shallow bay with white sandy beaches, that English eyes first took in an Australian vista.
The location on the northern part of what is now known as the Dampier Peninsula, north of Broome, has been home to the Bardi people for tens of thousands of years, and it was Bardi people who Dampier described with such derision in his subsequent book.
“Setting aside their human shape, they differ but little from brutes,” Dampier surmised.
PHOTO Karrakatta Bay near the northern tip of the Dampier Peninsula where the explorer was the first Englishman to set foot on Australia. ABC KIMBERLEY: BEN COLLINS
Dampier needs to be better understood
The description of miserable people, blighted by heat and flies, were words which maritime archaeologist Michael McCarthy says echoed through history.
PHOTO Archaeologist Dr Michael McCarthy says Dampier’s derogatory words were influenced by his publisher. ABC NEWS
“Interestingly with respect to Cook and Banks on the other side, you see the effect Dampier had, and those words had,” Dr McCarthy said.
James Cook and naturalist Joseph Banks came more than 80 years after Dampier, but Dr McCarthy points out that Dampier’s words framed their first view of Aboriginal people.
While surveying the east coast in what we now call New South Wales, Banks wrote:
“Five people who appeared through our glasses to be enormously black, so far did the prejudices which we had built on Dampier’s account influence us, that we fancied we could see their colour when we could scarce distinguish whether or not they are men.”
Former director of the National Museum of Australia and the Western Australian Museum, Dawn Casey, said Dampier’s racism and the influence his words had on the perspectives of Cook and Banks set the tone for the colonisation of Australia.
PHOTO Dr Dawn Casey says the words of Dampier shaped attitudes, laws and actions she deals with in her role as deputy CEO of the National Aboriginal and Community Controlled Health Service. ABC NEWS: KIM LESTER
“With Dampier, Joseph Banks, Captain James Cook and those governors that came after them who employed academics and anthropologists, have certainly, no doubt, set the tone and the blueprint for Aboriginal Australia,” Dr Casey said.
“The lack of recognition earlier on in the piece — that Aboriginal people owned this country and have been here for a long period of time — certainly led to the law of terra nullius.”
Dr Casey said that Dampier was the first of many English explorers to judge Aboriginal people for the perception of failing to meet European measures of sophistication.
“Here were these people who didn’t farm land like others, they wandered around the country, they didn’t have the same ownership of the land as one would have in England, for instance,” she said.
The other side of history
PHOTO Bardi elder Peter Hunter says Dampier failed to appreciate the laws of traditional culture and the skill with which Bardi people lived off the land and sea. ABC KIMBERLEY: BEN COLLINS
Bardi elder Peter Hunter said the story of Dampier’s visit to Australia was told to him by his grandfather, an oral history passed down the generations for 330 years.
But the only detail to the story is where the landing took place.
“I didn’t hear much of him, other than he landed in Karrakatta Bay,” Mr Hunter said.
He is perplexed as to how the Englishman found so little of value after spending nearly two months camped in the area.
“Bardi people are very strict in following their laws and generally look after each other and have a lot of respect among themselves,” he said.
“We can catch fish without a fishing line using poison roots that drug the fish and know where to find the waterholes in a lot of places.”
Tyrone Garstone is both a Bardi man and the acting CEO of the Kimberley Land Council, the Aboriginal organisation established to redress the legacy of Aboriginal dispossession and devastation.
He is in no doubt that Dampier set the tone that has shaped Australian Indigenous history.
“I couldn’t agree more, not only from what William Dampier wrote, but from other explorers who came from Australia that are of a similar tone,” Mr Garstone said.
PHOTO Tyrone Garstone, the acting CEO of the Kimberley Land Council, says Dampier’s tone persists but a new history is starting to be unearthed. ABC KIMBERLEY: BEN COLLINS
He pointed to the work of Bruce Pascoe and his book Dark Emu in finding the sophistication of Indigenous culture and land management overlooked by many early European descriptions of Indigenous people.
“He’s gone back and used the journals of the early explorers and had a different lens over it, having a look at it from an Aboriginal perspective,” Mr Garstone said.
“And what we’re starting to see is the unearthing of a new history, a new story to show that Aboriginal people aren’t these hapless hunter gatherers.”
Bad timing and book sales
There is some evidence that Dampier’s private descriptions of Aboriginal people were more respectful than his published work.
Dr McCarthy said Dampier’s journals show he initially described Aboriginal people with some admiration, and the derogatory words were written later under the influence of his publisher to reflect popular attitudes and improve book sales.
“Dampier’s book and Dampier’s journal are two different things in many respects,” Dr McCarthy said.
He pointed to a passage in Dampier’s journal:
“They are people of good stature but are very thin and lean, I judge for want of food.
“They build their weirs of stone across the bay, they search those weirs for what the sea has left behind.”
Dr McCarthy argues that Dampier had an innate respect for people and cultures foreign to him which drove his fascination and record keeping.
But when he returned to England with tales of an exotic world, a publisher saw the opportunity for a bestseller — if it better reflected popular attitudes.
“A publisher named James Knapton had only just published a journal about buccaneers and he sees in Dampier’s work a bestseller,” Dr McCarthy said.
“But he looks at society’s attitudes at the time, he looks at what people want to hear, and he changes, it seems, the words that Dampier gives.”
But Dr McCarthy and Dr Casey agree that Dampier should still be judged by the description published under his name.
“He published a popular side of what he saw as this country and the inhabitants of it,” Dr Casey said.
“You can’t totally absolve Dampier from that because he allowed that to happen.”
The words of Dampier shaped attitudes, laws and actions that Dr Casey said led to some of the issues she deals with in her role as deputy CEO of the National Aboriginal and Community Controlled Health Services.
“The way Aboriginal people have been treated since the arrival of Western civilisation has impacted all the way through to what we find today in terms of health issues, and particularly chronic diseases,” she said.
But despite that legacy, Dr Casey said Dampier deserved better recognition for his contributions to Australia and world history, both good and bad.
“Of course he should be recognised and his journals that Dr McCarthy has identified should be published much more widely for people to understand the whole person,” she said.
“Australians need to know much more about William Dampier.”
PHOTO A map from Dampier’s book A New Voyage Around the World shows the route he took to become the first Englishman to set foot on Australia in 1688.