‘I write for my Countrymen’: William Dampier and the birth of a racist trope

Dampier is back in the press. as the archipelago named after him is now the site of the proposed Woodside Energy $16 billion Scarborough gas project. The salty coastline Dampier bumped into in 1688, and returned to in 1699, will be cleaved by an undersea pipeline cutting through whale migration routes and protected Marine Parks renowned for their biodiversity. Scarborough/Pluto will emit 1.3 billion tonnes of carbon over its thirty-year lifetime, significantly larger than Adani’s Carmichael coal-mine. Murujuga Country has become a carbon frontier.

By happenstance protests against the Scarborough pipeline popped up in my feeds as I was looking through William Dampier’s manuscripts, letters and reviews in the British Library in June. The 420-km proposed pipeline seemed to unspool itself through the many editions of his New Voyage Around the World  (1697) and his A Voyage to New Holland, (1703), both published in London by James Knapton. There are certain continuities. Piracy, for one.

On Dampier’s map, the west coast of Australia appears just as a line of ink engraved on the waves. This coast is threatened by Woodside’s Scarborough/Pluto gas development in a restaging of Dampier’s piracy. For within that inked line, on Yaburara country, thousands of petroglyphs have been engraved on the coastal rocks, including a fat-tailed kangaroo, a thylacine and a three-masted ship. Among the Burrup rock art is the earliest known depiction of the human face. Burrup is internationally noted as ‘the most significant rock art place in the world.’

Before the ‘Flying Foam’ massacre of 1868, the Yaburara had marked out country as their own with these engravings, much as Europeans would mark it as their own by engraving maps. Except, one documented a people’s sovereignty by right of occupation; the other documented trespass, abduction and ‘robbery on the high seas’—also known as piracy.


Through hundreds of retellings, the imprints and reprints from Dampier’s publications—the earliest documented British incursion onto Indigenous lands—entrenched ‘truths’ about Aboriginal Australians. It was not until 1709 that all of Dampier’s volumes had appeared and they’re quite a muddle of editions, volumes and parts. He assures his readers, however, that he has been ‘exactly and strictly careful to give on True relations and descriptions.’ In fact these are eye-wateringly derogatory by today’s standards.

New research reveals that they were made up after the fact, or after his actual encounters with First Nation peoples. In addition, a number of the lines that appeared in a much-reprinted passage denigrating ‘New Hollanders’ also recurred in his later descriptions of Timorese, ‘Malayans’ and Papuans. Given Dampier’s was one of the first published accounts of a circumnavigation of the globe, his reuse of these nasty descriptions positions him as the originator of a key racist trope. Through their reiteration in his published accounts, and their many reprints and editions, along with copied passages and countless quotations, Dampier invented the trope by which diverse peoples became interchangeable as racial types. If we trace these reiterations of Dampier’s inscriptions, we can understand how a pirate morphed into an explorer and a man of science. We also see continuities in the treatment of Traditional Owners.


In 1688 when Dampier came ashore at King Sound, northwestern Australia, he was underwhelmed according to his published journal. His infamous passage describing the Bardi and Jawi people reads:

The inhabitants of this country are the miserablest people in the world …, and setting aside their shape they differ little from the brutes. They are tall, straight-bodied and thin, with small long limbs. They have great heads, round foreheads, and great brows … They have great bottle-noses, pretty full lips, and wide mouths … They are long visaged, and are of a very unpleasing aspect, having not one graceful feature in their faces … They have no sort of clothes but a piece of the rind of a tree, tied like a girdle about their waists, and a handful of long grass, or three or four small green boughs full of leaves thrust under their girdle to cover their nakedness.

Careful research by Geraldine Barnes and Adrian Mitchell compared Dampier’s manuscript and his first journal published in 1697. In his manuscript, he said nothing particularly untoward about the Bardi people he spent two months uninvited among, attempting to extract their knowledge of country as well as their labour. They found Dampier’s manuscript underwent significant editing and addendums—probably to rehabilitate his criminal activities as a buccaneer. This wasn’t uncommon—many discrepancies have been found between explorers’ manuscripts and their published journals.

More in keeping with Dampier’s in fact initially favourable attitude towards ‘Natural Inhabitants’, he actually described New Holland ‘Natives’ in his manuscript as a ‘people of good stature but very thin’—he surmises due to their depending solely on the sea ‘without nett or hooke’ (as far as he could see). Yet he also observes stone weirs that sometimes ‘bountyfully’ provided fish which they ‘broyle’.

The reference to ‘brutes’ in Dampier’s published account comes from the four Bardi men he and crew of the Cygnet ‘tooke up’ as they swam between islands. After feeding them, they set them on shore, whence they ran as fast as they could get away. He described the men as disinterested in the Cygnet, staring ‘noe more than a bruite would.’ Talk about ‘alien abduction’ … We can surmise the Bardi men’s gazes were more likely fixed in terror.

In the handwritten manuscript recounting his first voyage, Dampier does not describe ‘New Hollanders’ as ‘poor winking inhabitants’ at all. Yet in the published journal of his return voyage in 1699 they are portrayed as the ‘same blinking people’—also due to pestering flies. Whoever made these addendums, Dampier sanctioned them throughout numerous editions. In the British Library I found he also adopted some of these added phrases to describe Papuans, ‘Malayans’ and Timorese, rendering them all, with New Hollanders, as transposable ‘native’ types.


In the preface to the fifth edition (1703) of his New Voyage Around the World, Dampier explains that he did not use ‘Names of Places, Plants and Fruits, Animals & etc’ that had already been given by ‘Travellers’ and which therefore varied ‘according to their different humours.’ ‘I write for my Countrymen’ he continues ‘and have therefore for the most part used Names as are familiar to our English Seamen, and those of our Colonies abroad.’ It seems the descriptions of the peoples of this New World were no less adaptable to his British readership. Dampier inscribes all First Nations people as interchangeable within the colonial rational of extracting knowledge, bodies, labour and resources.

Dampier describes the Yarubara people of his second 1699 voyage as being disfigured by face paint and having ‘the most unpleasant looks and the worse features of any people I saw, though I have seen a great variety of savages.’ In this encounter, Dampier’s crewman chased a group of Yarubara. When he was speared through the cheek, Dampier shot and wounded a warrior after they’d mocked his initial gun fire over their heads with ‘pooh pooh’. The expedition was low on water and desperately trying to capture a ‘native’ to find out where they sourced theirs.

In the first part to his Voyage to New Holland, Dampier describes the ‘inhabitants’ of then Garret Dennis Isle off the coast of New Guinea, as having ‘great round heads … and great bottle noses.’ The women of mainland New Guinea were without ornament ‘but a bunch of small green Bough, before and behind, stuck under a string which came around their wastes.’ Sound familiar?

Later he shot and killed ‘some’ Papuans when 300-400 men in proas slung rocks at the Roebuck. They ‘paid for their boldness,’ as did others further along. Dampier’s crew had heard people had hogs and goats, but when they were waved off ‘menacingly’, the ‘natives’ ‘felt the smart of our bullets, but none were killed.’

Proceeding along this coast, Dampier continued to fire into trees and forests ‘to strike some terror into the inhabitants who were very numerous … and treacherous.’ He described the ‘inhabitants’ of Timor as likewise ‘dull in everything but treachery and barbarity’. Dampier had hoped to buy a New Guinea ‘Negroe’ slave from the ‘Malayans’ on then ‘Pulo Sabudan,’ but did not have any of the ‘Calicoes’ they sought. He had more bargaining power in purchasing Jeoly, the ‘Painted Prince’ whom Dampier bought from Mindanoe, and sold on to be exhibited in the Blue Boar’s Head Inn in Fleet Street.

Once Dampier attained the standing of a natural philosopher and author through the elision of his pirating activities in his first journal—including seizing a Dutch slave ship in 1683 and sacking a number of Spanish settlements in the Caribbean—his published journal attracted the notice of the Admiralty, who gave him a privateer’s commission. He was also able to attract a handful of patrons willing to furnish his proposal for a new voyage of exploration to New Holland, on which he was appointed captain, with twenty-one guns. This was his first command, at the age of forty-seven.

The British Library also holds unpublished reviews of Dampier’s manuscripts—unattributed and very rare contemporaneous responses to his published journals. One was written after the first edition of 1697, and notes that Dampier

[particularises] in all the Islands Ports coasts rivers townes and places he visited surveyed and Describes, together with the natives, manners, customs, clothing Diet art &c and the natural and artificial products of them.

These are

very numerous [though] curious remarkable and new and neither are to be found in Print. I shall therefore to shorten it, give the names only of the Principal he hath taken notice of in the whole course of this long voyage.

In early print, shortcuts were often taken, such as through tropes and types. This reviewer has Dampier call New Holland a ‘sad country’. In fact, he described it as ‘good clean land’. And it is here in this review, that we find perhaps the very first reiterated description of Aboriginal people as ‘miserablest inhabitants’.

In the second review. Dampier’s descriptions of the ‘inhabitants’ reproduced above are dutifully reinscribed. We’re given a matchless insight into the impression Dampier’s doctored observations made on his readers at the time of publication. Tellingly, this reviewer omits any conflict or violence, but takes pains to include Dampier’s lengthy, derogatory physical descriptions, even as they recur for the Timorese and Papuans.


To give a sense of Dampier’s influence, the 1703 Voyage to New Holland (part 1) I pored over in the British Library bears a stamp over the title page: Jos:Banks. Over eighty years after Dampier’s journal was published, Joseph Banks remarks in his journal that, on first sighting ‘New Hollanders’ on the east coast,

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.

Prejudices build, specifically through the reiterations of print. Dampier’s graphic descriptions fed a kind of colonial myopia that not even the refracting telescopes on the Cook voyages could see beyond.

When it comes to the writings of ‘explorers’, their comings and goings retrace, reprint and requote. To give just a few examples, the entire ‘miserablest inhabitants’ passage was reprinted in the rather premature 1787 History of New Holland. It reappeared in an 1854 Dictionary, under ‘Races of Men in Australia’. Then in 1857 the Sydney magazine Empire extracted it from a public lecture in which it was cited. The speaker, JH Palmer, was at least a little more circumspect. and likened Dampier’s description to a sketch in Punch as ‘by no means a fair portraiture.’ Palmer was the first and only author to challenge Dampier before 1952!

The passage had also found its way into Albert Calvert’s 1893 Discovery of Australia. In fact, at last count, it had been reprinted fifteen times in Australian newspapers between 1890 and 1948, as well as in Walkabout, the widely read travel magazine, in 1947. There were also numerous recirculations in the British newspapers I perused in June.

Dampier was not only circulated within histories and dictionaries؅—he became part of the literary canon. Jonathan Swift’s 1726 description of the Yahoos in Gulliver’s Travels is said to be based upon Dampier’s observations of ‘New Hollanders’. Swift borrowed Dampier’s map for his ‘country of the Houyhnhnms’. Snippets of Dampier’s phrases slid off pen nibs, were arrayed by typesetters, and printed ad nauseum, like some cultural contagion. Through these print reinscriptions, he set off a pandemic of racism.


Tracing through these inscriptions and belle lettres the veneer of gentlemanly ethnography peels off to reveal the piracy behind these earliest incursions onto First Nation lands. We are reminded that colonisation was initially brought by sea. As I mentioned, piracy is defined as ‘robbery on the high seas’. While carousing through Aboriginal waters and shorelines, Dampier was scoping for resources he might extract from the original ‘inhabitants’ and since they were interchangeable with all natives, their assets, land and labour were compatible with colonial extraction everywhere he traversed these high seas.

We might think of Woodside’s gas pipeline on the Dampier archipelago as marking a line of continuity through the seas of the Mardudhunera and Nguluma Traditional Owners. And the rationale for taking these resources was first inscribed by Dampier in his description of 1697 and 1703. When derogatory lines recirculate through reprints hundreds of times, they cannot be dismissed as just skewed first-contact misunderstandings that were subsequently updated in the interests of accuracy. For there were other forces at play, stretching and warping these printed lines into curlicues of convenient lies. These passages entrenched inaccuracies that justified violence, dispossession, family fragmentation, forced labour and ongoing discrimination against Aboriginal Australians. They reframed activities akin to piracy as exploration. They need to be called out—even if centuries down the line.

Tracing European impressions and lineages uncovers a store of fraudulence and forgery and reveals certain lines of continuity from Dampier’s piracy to Woodside’s present-day pipeline—from scoping for resources to exploratory digging and extracting the assets of the dispossessed. But we have little means to understand the ambition and advance of colonial incursion, and its historical continuities, without an inventive and forensic reading of these inscriptions. The lines inscribed on pewter, vellum, paper, on rocks and bodies (cicatrise & tattoo), in songlines, through constellations, on maps and under seabeds—they all chart journeys, emplace nations, and claim sovereignty.

The country of the Mardudhunera and Nguluma Traditional Owners is being pirated yet again, in this latest round of extraction by Woodside. The Burrup rock art inscriptions aren’t seen as claims to country nor as historically maintaining a presence on country. Approvals to construct the pipeline were granted in April, and NAB is financing aspects of the project. We may have ‘missed the bus’ to the protest to the Burrup Hub in November last year, but we can still subscribe to their newsletter (here) and thereby inscribe our support for their bid for world heritage listing.

Protestors around the world are taking up the cause. Greenpeace installed a giant whale tail outside the headquarters of RWE gas and in July, and projected an image from Ningaloo reef of a mother humpback whale and her calf onto the smock stack of their power plant in Lingen. They have also blocked the shipment of pipes. Surely, we can find ways to overwrite the imprints of piracy on this carbon frontier that Woodside wages before rising seas caused by the emissions from the gasfields it plunders there wash away the engravings of the Burrup rock art that inscribe this Country as sovereign.

Liz Conor

Liz Conor is an Associate Professor in History at La Trobe University and an ARC Future Fellow and Chief Investigator on the Graphic Encounters: Prints of Indigenous Australians project. She is the author of Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women (UWAP, 2016) and The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s (Indiana University Press, 2004). She is former editor of the Aboriginal History Journal, a commentator across many media platforms, and co-founder (with Deborah Hart) of the Climate Guardians.

More by Liz Conor ›

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