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A Pirate of Exquisite Mind: Explorer, Naturalist, and Buccaneer: The Life of William Dampier Hardcover – April 1, 2004

4.5 out of 5 stars 58 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Dampier's adventures and observations ignited the imagination of a generation, but today his name is largely unknown. This exhaustive biography by Diana Preston (Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy; The Boxer Rebellion; etc.) and husband Michael won't make Dampier famous again, but it will give readers a clear understanding of one of the most well-traveled men in history. In the late 1600s, Dampier, an Englishman, circumnavigated the globe three separate times. The authors draw heavily on the books and articles Dampier published about his adventures, and they include the most mundane of details ("The buccaneers sailed on, pausing to bury at sea one of their number, who apparently expired of high fever exacerbated by hiccups brought on by a drinking bout at La Serena"). During his time as a buccaneer, Dampier launched dozens of raids on gold-laden Spanish ships, marched through Panama's jungles and mutinied many times. What distinguished him from an ordinary pirate, as the title indicates, was his sharp eye for observation. He was the first self-made naturalist to visit the Galapagos; his sketches of the region's turtles set the stage for Darwin's future visit. He also drew detailed maps of nearly every place he visited, charts that defined Western Europe's knowledge of the Americas and the South Seas. His theories about how wind patterns affect ocean currents are still used today. Indeed, Dampier's scientific and historical legacy holds up better than his swashbuckling escapades, which, though exciting, hold slightly less novelty. 65 b&w illus., maps.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

William Dampier's name crops ups constantly in tales of adventure, exploration, and piracy (e.g., Diana Souhami's Selkirk's Island, 2001). His ubiquity creates high expectations for Preston and her husband coauthor's full-scale biography. Dampier was well esteemed in the days of Charles Darwin, who consulted Dampier's New Voyage Round the World (1697) while at sea. Darwin was probably less interested in yarns of depredation upon the Spanish Main, however, than in Dampier's precise and sensitive observations of nature, peoples, and geography. We contemporary readers, however, demand dollops of buccaneering, boarding, and the occasional mutiny, narrative elements that Dampier's three circumnavigations of the globe permit the Prestons to deploy. Integrating them with the England-bound events of Dampier's life--which included a marriage, publication and fame, organization of voyages piratical and scientific, and a court-martial--the Prestons make the "self-conceited" Dampier, as an acquaintance described him, every bit as complex and interesting on paper as he was in life. Supported by dozens of contemporary maps and illustrations, the authors credibly contend that Dampier was a pioneer of the travelogue--not bad considering his day job. A superbly rendered popular history in a superpopular genre. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Walker Books; First Edition edition (April 1, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802714250
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802714251
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.3 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (58 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #51,954 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Within these pages is a wealth of compelling information about a fascinating bygone age. William Dampier was a scientist, pioneer and writer whose influence is still being felt today, despite the fact that he is less remembered than many of the other bold thinkers of his time.
Yet what got me the most excited in this book by the Prestons was the in-depth exploration of the pirate world. This book provides riveting insight into a world that previously seemed mythical: the pirates of the Caribbean. The Prestons dramatically show how these swashbuckling societies developed, functioned and crumbled, as well as the economic and political forces that brought about these events.
This is the inspirational story of a man who pushed himself -- striving to go beyond his time's intellectual and geographical limits.
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Format: Hardcover
What an odd man.

You have to wonder, what sort of literate man travels around the world (three times) in the late 17th century, sacking towns, cavorting with pirates, capturing merchant ships and then sits down to maintain a journal of flora, fauna, wind patterns, and social customs?

The Prestons have presented us with a narrative biography of this strange man. A man who seemingly mixed equally with pirates, lord of the Admiralty and kissed the hand of the queen. A celebrated author, accomplished navigator, respected naturalist and active enough to board enemy ships or cut logwood. A little more art in his soul and we would acknowledge him as a renaissance man. As expected the book centers on Dampier's life from about 1674 to 1715 when he died; it covers the three trips around the world and his short periods of life in England while writing his books. The authors add a few digressions to cover associated world events, framing Dampier's life and giving perspective to his actions or troubles.

While I disagree with a couple of the authors' statements on piracy (having read my share on the subject), I found their work to be enjoyable reading and worthy of a prominent place in my reference material on piracy.

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Format: Hardcover
Finally, Diana and Michael Preston have rescued this lonely castaway of history. "A Pirate of Exquisite Mind" is the first thorough, contemporary biography of Dampier. Handsome, enigmatic, controversial in life and a virtual shadow since his death almost 300 years ago, Dampier has until now never been properly accorded the recognition he deserves. But he is a quintessential anti-hero, a man who could write expertly of ocean winds and currents, and who witnessed tortured, dying Spanish prisoners being thrown into those currents.
There have been other biographies of Dampier, but this is the first that discusses his life as an extension of the customs and mores of his time. When Dampier takes the mysterious and elusive "Judith" as his wife, the Prestons devote several paragraphs to discussion of a typical marriage ceremony, as well as the very liberal sexual attitudes of late 17th century London. This liberality extends as well to the buccaneers, many of whom maintained homosexual relationships, in addition to sharing their women. Additionally, the Prestons get inside Dampier's mind, speculating on the motivations that compelled him to do certain "unsavory" things, though which Dampier was understandably reticent to reveal in his books. For instance, when Dampier makes the crucial decision to follow his companions in joining his first buccaneer expedition in 1679, Dampier wrote that since he was "left alone...I was more easily persuaded to go with them too." But the Prestons are keen enough to recognize that "Dampier probably knew in advance whom he would meet at Negril Bay - a favorite buccaneer haunt - even if he did not admit this in his book.
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Format: Hardcover
If you have an interest in the buccaneers, or in the expansion of the British Empire, or in natural history, or seafaring in the days of sail, this is required reading. If you are interested in the world when a voyage could take years and many men never came back, a world where the broadside and the sword were master, this book is for you. It's entertaining, educational, inspirational, and has a sweep seldom found. I wish I could rate the book higher than 5 stars. Dampier I would rate ten.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book was first brought to my attention when it was being discussed on NPR. Diana Preston sounded like she was actually gushing when she talked about William Dampier. After reading this book, one can certainly understand why. While there are many gaps in the historical record - we know virtually nothing about Dampier's personal life, Diana and Michael Preston weave what is known into a highly enjoyable narrative that moves at the speed of an action novel.

William Dampier, a Scot, was a fascinating person. Like so many young unattached men of his time, he naturally turned to the sea as a means of livelihood. Like most sailors, he was a keen observer of the world around him. However, unlike many of his peers, he documented those observations, kept his papers in good order, and published his observations as sort of a half scientific journal/half travel story. He became sort of a folk hero to the large portions of English population who were wealthy enough to own his books, but not to experience the larger world first hand. His keen scientific observations deeply influenced meteorology, biology, and cartography for the next two hundred years. His charts were still in use as late as WWII.

Today, it is difficult for a layperson to be taken seriously by scientific community. Thus a common sailor and buccaneer who is also at the cutting edge of scientific study seems somewhat incredulous to the modern reader. Yet, in this sense, the 16th and 17th century scientific community was a bit more egalitarian then the current one. Yet this is a world where slavery was accepted as a fact of life and basic human dignity, especially for non-whites, was a luxury vice a fundamental right.

Likewise, Dampier himself was a case study in contradictions.
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