William Dampier: The Unknown Darwin
Written by Samuel Phineas Upham,
Most children in school learn about Darwin’s exploration of Galapagos, and the subsequent theories of evolution that came from those journeys. What most of us don’t learn is that Darwin was neither the first to explore the islands, nor the first to make notations of the animals there. In fact, another man named William Dampier visited the islands before Darwin, and made some interesting discoveries of his own.
Dampier circumnavigated the globe a total of three times. It was his first voyage that led him to Galapagos, but it was early in his career. He was crewman for the privateer John Cooke, who recruited Dampier as a young man in Virginia. Cooke’s expedition collected several vessels as it proceeded on its way to Galapagos and beyond. Dampier, who had an interest in documenting the indigenous species on the island, noted how the birds seemed to survive on their own in that remote location.
He found it intriguing that birds seemed to thrive on each island, yet avoided mixing populations. He also made note of differences in species, namely birds that would have flown on the mainland were grounded in Galapagos. These observations about the natural history of the island would ultimately aid Charles Darwin in his own theorizing. Indeed, Dampier would be the only non-classical source that Darwin would cite in his theory.
Something of a celebrity hero at the time, Dampier makes a few cameos throughout history. We see a humorous reference to him in Gulliver’s Travels as a mariner equal to the main character. We also know that Dampier’s exploits at least partially inspired Daniel Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe.