The Bananas Pirate-Botanist 'Our Flag Means Death' Missed Out On
The success of Taika Waititi's Our Flag Means Death has proved that there's an eager audience for shows about unassuming people who decided to drop everything and become pirates in the 17th and 18th century. In that case, Mr. Waititi, may we interest you in the real-life story of science pirate William Dampier, the accomplished botanist who also pillaged and plundered side by side with cannibals?
Dampier is an important historical figure even outside of his pirating: he's cited over a thousand times in the Oxford English Dictionary and was the first to describe hundreds of plants and animals -- Charles Darwin's work on evolution wouldn't have gotten very far without this guy's observations. But how did Dampier get to see all those things? Well ... that's where things get morally complicated. In 1676, after the camp where he was working as a logger/amateur wildlife describer was destroyed by a hurricane, Dampier said "screw it" and joined a pirate crew to see the world. He later said that he did it "more to indulge in my curiosity than to get wealth," but wealth he did get. Or, you know, rob. He commanded at least one Spanish ship captured by his gang and a single privateer expedition netted him a booty of "jewels, silver plate, musk, cinnamon, cloves, silks, damasks and taffetas, and Chinese porcelain." But still, to him, the most important treasure was ... the treasure of knowledge.
Dampier was obsessive about writing down all the weird creatures and plants he saw during his voyages. One scholar imagines Dampier "writing up his journal, describing a bunch of flowers, or a rare fish, in the intervals between looting a wine-shop or sacking a village." Meanwhile, he was sailing side by side with rapscallions who, at one point, plotted to eat him until they randomly ran into an "abundance of breadfruit" in Guam and were like "fine, we'll eat that instead (this time)."
In 1697 Dampier published a book called A New Voyage Around the World, which retold his travels and discoveries while omitting the bloodier parts. The book turned him into a celebrity and he was invited to lead the UK's first scientific expedition of a bizarre land known as New Holland (later "Australia"), but, after a tumultuous return trip that included weeks marooned on an island, he was court-martialled and found guilty of "Hard and cruel usage of the lieutenant" for dumping one of his guys in a jail in Brazil. As a result, he had to give up part of his earnings for the two-year-long trip and was kicked from the Royal Navy, but at least he got another book out of the whole thing.
Dampier ended up circumnavigating the world two more times before his death in 1715 -- a year before Our Flag Means Death's Stede Bonnet joined the pirate life. It's a shame that the show can't add him as a character without compromising its historical accuracy, but if HBO Max ever wants to start a whole -verse of shows based on unlikely pirates, you know where to look for the first spin-off.
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Top image: Wikimedia Commons, HBO