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Weather Almanac for September 2005
WILLIAM DAMPIER: THE WEATHER PIRATE
Early discoveries in the understanding of weather were made by men from various other professions: philosophers and clerics, astronomers and chemists, pharmacists and statesmen. One of these men was William Dampier and he was a pirate.
Well, he wasn't one of those black-bearded, blood-thirsty, one-eyed pirates of the movies. He was more likely a 17th-century British privateer, pirates sanctioned by their government to prey upon an enemy country's merchant ships. Sympathetic biographers have said he joined the privateers more as a means of sailing the seas than amassing fortune. For whatever reason Dampier decided to fall in with the buccaneering crowd, he was also an explorer, sea captain, and a highly regarded mapmaker and navigator. His ocean voyages have provided some of the earliest observations of the natural world in far-flung lands including the first accounts of the Australian continent. For me, with an interest in weather, the most interesting among his many reports and insights was the early observation that tropical storms were large whirlwinds.
William Dampier was born in 1652 in East Coker, Somersetshire, England and went to sea by age 16. At twenty-one he joined the Royal Navy, but ill health cut that career short. After a brief stint managing a Jamaican estate, he returned to England where he married. But the sea was in his blood, and he almost immediately returned to sea. Between 1675 and 1678, he sailed with buccaneers along Central America's Spanish Main. (His adventures as a privateer are documented in his books and corroborated by two of Dampier's shipmates in their writings.) Over an eight-year span beginning in 1679, he joined pirates who plundered ships in the South Pacific and Asia.
While sailing the world's waters, Dampier keep detailed journals noting everything he encountered weather, geography, winds, currents, native peoples, exotic plants and animal life. His astute observations as a naturalist pioneered what today we call descriptive botany and zoology, a field further developed by Joseph Banks, Captain James Cook's naturalist the following century. Dampier has been credited as the first to introduce sub-species as both a word and a concept. By observing turtles in the Galapagos and the Caribbean, he identified location-dependent variations within species.
Over the course of the next three decades, Dampier visited all five continents, the first "naturalist" to do so, and was one of the earliest mariners to circumnavigate the globe which he did three times, a voyage documented in his first book A New Voyage Round the World, published in 1697.
Dampier observations on the flora and fauna of the Galapagos Islands provided English readers with their first and most detailed account of those islands. Indeed, the books contained so much useful information that 150 years later, Charles Darwin took Dampier's books aboard the Beagle for reference.
Dampier has been acknowledged as one of the most highly regarded map-makers and navigators of all time. His observations of tides, currents and winds established his reputation as a hydrographer and climatologist. As a ship's officer, Dampier recorded the course, distance, latitude, wind, and weather for each day at sea.
At the turn of the century, England took a strong interest in exploring for Terra Australis Incognita. Dampier's carefully kept journals impressed the British Admiralty of his ability as a sea captain. Based on his reputation, the Admiralty commissioned Dampier to explore the region of the southern Pacific as captain of HMS Roebuck. The mission intended to a survey the eastern coast of New Guinea and New Holland, as Australia was then known. Dampier would make landfall along the land's eastern coast, around 35-40 degree S (about mid-way between Sydney and Melbourne).
To make a long story short, though he made important discoveries and observations of the Australian continent, Dampier was, if fact, not the best of captains, his crew was inexperienced and inclined toward disobedience, and the Roebuck was far from seaworthy particularly on its return to England.
Although William Dampier is often credited with making the first English contact with New Holland in 1688 aboard the English privateer Cygnet, he was actually not the first (that may have been the captain of the London in 1681); however, his expedition was the first to land on the continent and make significant scientific and geographical observations. His two volumes, entitled A Voyage to New Holland and A Continuation of a Voyage to New Holland, first published in 1703 and 1709, respectively, are filled with detailed observations of the flora and fauna of the Australian coastal region.
The return trip, however, proved a disaster. Off the Atlantic island of Ascension, critical planks in the hull gave way and the Roebuck was lost. (In 2001, the wreckage was located in 5m-deep water, 100m off Clarence Bay near the remote island's capital Georgetown.) Amazingly, the crew made it ashore and all survived until they were rescued in 1701. Many of Dampier's papers and specimens were lost with the Roebuck. But on his return, Dampier was court-martialled, not for the loss of the ship but for his treatment of a crew member. He was fined all of his pay and banned from any future command of His Majesty's ships.
Dampier returned to sea, again as a privateer and the pilot aboard the Duke. He completed his third circumnavigation voyage at age 56. William Dampier's sea career ended in the autumn of 1711. Little is known about his last years of life and he died in March 1715, reportedly a pauper. His journals, reconstituted in book form, however, have kept his name in the history books. New Voyage became an "instant" hit and was translated into French and Dutch in 1698 and into German in 1702. Within six years, it had gone through five English editions and has been in print ever since.
Dampier the Weather Observer
During his many voyages, Dampier kept detailed journals of his experiences. In those, he made astute observations of weather conditions, particularly tropical storms, then little known to Europeans.
In August of 1683, a tropical storm caught Dampier's ship in the Atlantic, three days after leaving Virginia. It was
"...a terrible storm which we could not escape: this happened in a few days after we left Virginia; with a south-south-east wind just in our teeth. The storm lasted above a week: it drenched us all like so many drowned rats, and was one of the worst storms I ever was in." (from A New Voyage Round the World, 1697)
When the crew lost control of the ship, it sailed at the mercy of the storm for several days. Apparently (though I have not been able to find his accounts of this) upon taking his navigational fixes following the storm, Dampier realized that, although they believed they had travelled hundreds of miles, they were actually quite close to the position at which they encountered the storm. This led Dampier to speculate that such violent storms were "vast whirlwinds" whose winds blew in a gigantic circle.
June 1687 found Dampier and his companions in the South China Sea. At the end of the month, they were on the island called St. Johns, "lying on the south coast of the province of Quantung or Canton in China." The ship weighed anchor and set out on July 3 with very little wind that night. But a storm was about to break out the following day:
"...about four o'clock in the afternoon, the wind came to the north-east and freshened upon us, and the sky looked very black in that quarter, and the black clouds began to rise apace and moved towards us; having hung all the morning in the horizon....At eleven o'clock we furled our mainsail and ballasted our mizzen; at which time it began to rain, and by twelve o'clock at night it blew exceeding hard and the rain poured down as through a sieve. It thundered and lightened prodigiously, and the sea seemed all of a fire about us; for every sea that broke sparkled like lightning. The violent wind raised the sea presently to a great height, and it ran very short and began to break in on our deck. One sea struck away the rails of our head, and our sheet-anchor, which was stowed with one flook or bending of the iron over the ship's gunwale, and lashed very well down to the side, was violently washed off, and had like to have struck a hole in our bow as it lay beating against it. Then we were forced to put right before the wind to stow our anchor again; which we did with much ado; but afterwards we durst not adventure to bring our ship to the wind again for fear of foundering, for the turning the ship either to or fro from the wind is dangerous in such violent storms." (from A New Voyage Round the World, 1697)
On 4 July 1687 William Dampier entered in his logbook the earliest known European description of a typhoon, which he spelled tuffoon:
"Tuffoons are a sort of violent whirlwinds. Before these whirlwinds come on ... there appears a heavy cloud to the northeast which is very black near the horizon, but toward the upper part is a dull reddish colour. The tempest came with great violence, but after a while, the winds ceased all at once and a calm succeeded. This lasted ... an hour, more or less, then the gales were turned around, blowing with great fury from the southwest." (from A New Voyage Round the World, 1697)
Note that in his description of this storm, as well as his description of a Jamaican hurricane elsewhere, Dampier described the conditions in the storm's eye and the change in winds when coming out of it. He also expresses his belief that hurricanes and typhoons are the same storm type:
"...for my part, I know no difference between a Hurricane among the Carribee Islands in the West Indies and a Tuffoon on the coast of China in the East Indies, but only the name: and I am apt to believe that both words have one signification, which is a violent storm." (from A Discourse of Trade-Winds, Breezes, Storms, Seasons of the Year, Tides, and Currents, 1699)
Some Other Weather Observations
In addition to detailing tropical storms, Dampier's weather notes included observations on the trade winds, thunderstorms, haloes, St Elmo's Fire, and waterspouts. Dampier also provides a fairly detailed, for its time, description of the wind regimes he encountered around the globe during his voyages. The many-paged treatise describing the monsoons and trade winds, land breezes and sea breezes, currents and tides are found in the 1699 supplement to New Voyages entitled Voyages and Descriptions, and bore the imprint Vol. II. It consisted of three parts, the most important for us was the third, A Discourse of Trade-Winds, Breezes, Storms, Seasons of the Year, Tides, and Currents.
General weather observations fill Dampier's books and unusual weather events are described in some detail. He was the first to create a wind map of the world which later became the prototype for maps and globes produced during the 18th Century picturing the trade winds. Herein are a few of his observations.
The Trade Winds
"Trade-Winds are such as do blow constantly from one point or quarter of the compass, and the region of the world most peculiar to them is from about 30 d. North to 30 d. South of the Equator. There are divers sorts of these winds; some blowing from the East to West, some from South to North, others from West to East, etc. Some are constant in one Quarter all Year; some blow one half the Year one way, and the other six Months quite contrary, and other blow six Months one way and the shifting only eight or ten Points, continue there six Months more, and then return again to their former stations, as all these shifting Trade-Winds do...." (from A Discourse of Trade-Winds, Breezes, Storms, Seasons of the Year, Tides, and Currents, 1699)
Dampier also linked the trade winds with co-located ocean currents, an observation that would aid the famed HMS Challenger expedition that many believe solidified oceanography as a modern science. In A Discourse he presents probably the first published account to clearly describe the relationship between winds and currents. Dampier wrote:
"Tis generally observed by Seamen, that in all Places where Trade winds blow, the Current is influenced by them, and moves the same way with the Winds; but ‘tis not with a like swiftness in all Places; neither is it always so discernable by us in the wide Ocean, as it is near to some Coast; and yet it is not so discernable neither, very near any Coast, except at Capes and Promontories, that shoot far forth out into the Sea; and about Islands also the Effects of them are felt more or less, as they lye in the way of the Trade-Winds." (from A Discourse of Trade-Winds, Breezes, Storms, Seasons of the Year, Tides, and Currents, 1699)
In most of his writings, Dampier refers to thunderstorms as tornadoes, the more common usage of that term during this period in history and not our current usage. In New Voyage, he acknowledges they are the same: "We had fine weather while we lay here, only some tornadoes, or thundershowers...."
"We had but little wind after we got out, and very hot weather with some fierce tornadoes, commonly rising out of the north-east which brought thunder, lightning, and rain. These did not last long; sometimes not a quarter of an hour, and then the wind would shuffle about to the southward again, and fall flat calm; for these tornadoes commonly come against the wind that is then blowing, as our thunder-clouds are often observed to do in England;...." (from A New Voyage Round the World, 1697)
Corpus Sant or St Elmo's Fire
"After four o'clock the thunder and the rain abated and then we saw a corpus sant at our main-top-mast head, on the very top of the truck of the spindle. This sight rejoiced our men exceedingly; for the height of the storm is commonly over when the corpus sant is seen aloft; but when they are seen lying on the deck it is generally accounted a bad sign."
A Halo about the Sun
"We had then also a very ill presage by a great circle about the sun (five or six times the diameter of it) which seldom appears but storms of wind or much rain ensue. Such circles about the moon are more frequent but of less import. We do commonly take great notice of these that are about the sun, observing if there be any breach in the circle, and in what quarter the breach is; for from thence we commonly find the greatest stress of the wind will come." (from A New Voyage Round the World, 1697)
"These shoals lie in latitude 3 degrees south and about ten leagues from the island Celebes. Being past them the wind died away and we lay becalmed till the afternoon: then we had a hard tornado out of the south-west, and towards the evening we saw two or three spouts.... A spout is a small ragged piece or part of a cloud hanging down about a yard, seemingly from the blackest part thereof. Commonly it hangs down sloping from thence, or sometimes appearing with a small bending, or elbow in the middle. I never saw any hang perpendicularly down. It is small at the lower end, seeming no bigger than one's arm, but still fuller towards the cloud from whence it proceeds."
"About a quarter of an hour after the sun was up there was a squall to the windward of us; when on a sudden one of our men on the forecastle called out that he saw something astern, but could not tell what: I looked out for it and immediately saw a spout beginning to work within a quarter of a mile of us, exactly in the wind. We presently put right before it. It came very swiftly, whirling the water up in a pillar about 6 or 7 yards high. As yet I could not see any pendulous cloud from whence it might come; and was in hopes it would soon lose its force. In 4 or 5 minutes time it came within a cable's length of us and passed away to leeward; and then I saw a long pale stream coming down to the whirling water. This stream was about the bigness of a rainbow: the upper end seemed vastly high, not descending from any dark cloud and therefore the most strange to me; I never having seen the like before. It passed about a mile to leeward of us and then broke. This was but a small spout, not strong nor lasting; yet I perceived much wind in it as it passed by us." (from A Continuation of a Voyage to New Holland, 1729)
A Closing Aside
Finally, Dampier had one associate who gained fame in a different way. Crew member Alexander Selkirk had, by his own wish, been marooned on remote Juan Fernandez Island. Selkirk feared Dampier's ship, the Cinque Ports was not seaworthy and would take his chances for survival alone on the island. With no love for the argumentative Selkirk, Dampier happily obliged him.
In early 1709, four years after being castaway, Selkirk looked to sea and noticed sails on the horizon. It was the English privateer Duke, captained by Woodes Rodgers. Her pilot was none other than William Dampier.
On his return to England, Selkirk collaborated with the essayist Richard Steele to tell the story of Selkirk's adventures for a publication called "The Englishman." Years later, Daniel Defoe would retell Selkirk's adventure in a novel, renaming him Robinson Crusoe.
Note: E-texts of Dampier's books can be found on-line. To access one of these, click on the title.
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