Chapter 1

Return Out Of The South Seas

by William Dampier Icon

On April 17, 1681, about 10am, we were 12 leagues north-west from the island Plata.

We left Captain Sharp and his group in the ship and embarked into our launch (longboat) and canoes. We aimed for the river of Santa Maria, in the Gulf of St. Michael, about 200 leagues from the isle of Plata.

We were:

  • 44 white men who bore arms
  • 1 Spanish Indian who bore arms
  • 2 Moskito Indians who always bear arms
    • These are much valued by the privateers for striking fish, and turtle or tortoise, and manatee or sea-cow
  • 5 slaves taken caught in the South Seas

Our crafts were:

  • 1 longboat
  • 1 canoe
  • another canoe which had been sawn asunder in the middle in order to have made bumkins, or vessels for carrying water, if we had not separated from our ship.

For 3 days before we parted we sifted so much flower as we could well carry. We rubbed up 20 or 30 pound of chocolate with sugar to sweeten it; these things and a kettle the slaves carried also on their backs after we landed.

And, because there were some who designed to go with us that we knew were not well able to march, we gave out that if any man faltered in the journey overland he must expect to be shot to death; for we knew that the Spaniards would soon be after us, and one man falling into their hands might be the ruin of us all by giving an account of our strength and condition; yet this would not deter them from going with us. We had but little wind when we parted from the ship; but before 12 o’clock the sea-breeze came in strong, which was like to founder us before we got in with the shore; for our security therefore we cut up an old dry hide that we brought with us, and barricaded the launch all round with it to keep the water out.

About 10pm we got in about 7 leagues to windward of Cape Passao under the Line. Then it proved calm. We lay and drove all night, being fatigued the preceding day. The 18th day we had little wind till the afternoon; and then we made sail, standing along the shore to the northward, having the wind at south-south-west and fair weather.

At 7 o’clock we came abreast of Cape Passao and found a small bark at an anchor in a small bay to leeward of the cape, which we took, our own boats being too small to transport us.

We took her just under the Equinoctial Line, she was not only a help to us, but in taking her we were safe from being described: we did not design to have meddled with any when we parted with our consorts, nor to have seen any if we could have helped it. The bark came from Gallo laden with timber, and was bound for Guayaquil.

The 19th day in the morning we came to an anchor about 12 leagues to the southward of Cape San Francisco to put our new bark into a better trim. In 3 or 4 hours time we finished our business, and came to sail again, and steered along the coast with the wind at south-south-west, intending to touch at Gorgona.

Being to the northward of Cape San Francisco we met with very wet weather; but the wind continuing we arrived at Gorgona the 24th day in the morning, before it was light; we were afraid to approach it in the daytime for fear the Spaniards should lie there for us, it being the place where we careened lately, and there they might expect us.

When we came ashore we found the Spaniards had been there to seek after us, by a house they had built, which would entertain 100 men, and by a great cross before the doors.

This was token enough that the Spaniards did expect us this day again; therefore we examined our prisoners if they knew anything of it, who confessed they had heard of a periago (or large canoe) that rowed with 14 oars, which was kept in a river on the Main, and once in 2 or three days came over to Gorgona purposely to see for us; and that having discovered us, she was to make all speed to Panama with the news; where they had three ships ready to send after us.

We lay here all the day, and scrubbed our new bark, that if ever we should be chased we might the better escape: we filled our water and in the evening went from thence, having the wind at south-west a brisk gale.

The 25th day we had much wind and rain, and we lost the canoe that had been cut and was joined together; we would have kept all our canoes to carry us up the river, the bark not being so convenient.

The 27th day we went from thence with a moderate gale of wind at south-west. In the afternoon we had excessive showers of rain.

The 28th day was very wet all the morning; betwixt 10 and 11 it cleared up and we saw two great ships about a league and a half to the westward of us, we being then two leagues from the shore, and about 10 leagues to the southward of point Garrachina. These ships had been cruising between Gorgona and the Gulf 6 months; but whether our prisoners did know it I cannot tell.

We presently furled our sails and rowed in close under the shore, knowing that they were cruisers; for if they had been bound to Panama this wind would have carried them thither; and no ships bound from Panama come on this side of the bay, but keep the north side of the bay till as far as the keys of Quibo to the westward; and then if they are bound to the southward they stand over and may fetch Gallo, or betwixt it and Cape San Francisco.

The glare did not continue long before it rained again, and kept us from the sight of each other: but if they had seen and chased us we were resolved to run our bark and canoes ashore, and take ourselves to the mountains and travel overland; for we knew that the Indians which lived in these parts never had any commerce with the Spaniards; so we might have had a chance for our lives.

The 29th day at 9 o’clock in the morning we came to an anchor at Point Garrachina, about 7 leagues from the Gulf of St. Michael, which was the place where we first came into the South Seas, and the way by which we designed to return.

Here we lay all the day, and went ashore and dried our clothes, cleaned our guns, dried our ammunition, and fixed ourselves against our enemies, if we should be attacked; for we did expect to find some opposition at landing: we likewise kept a good lookout all the day, for fear of those two ships that we saw the day before.

The 30th day in the morning at 8 o’clock we came into the Gulf of St. Michael’s mouth; for we put from Point Garrachina in the evening, designing to have reached the islands in the gulf before day; that we might the better work our escape from our enemies, if we should find any of them waiting to stop our passage.

About 9 o’clock we came to an anchor a mile without a large island, which lies 4 miles from the mouth of the river; we had other small islands without us, and might have gone up into the river, having a strong tide of flood, but would not adventure farther till we had looked well about us.

We immediately sent a canoe ashore on the island, where we saw (what we always feared) a ship at the mouth of the river, lying close by the shore, and a large tent by it, by which we found it would be a hard task for us to escape them.

When the canoe came aboard with this news some of our men were a little disheartened; but it was no more than I ever expected.

Our care was now to get safe overland, seeing we could not land here according to our desire: therefore before the tide of flood was spent we manned our canoe and rowed again to the island to see if the enemy was yet in motion.

When we came ashore, we dispersed ourselves all over the island to prevent our enemies from seeing us.

We saw a small canoe coming over from the ship and so we ambushed it. It had:

  • 1 white man
  • 2 Indians

They said that their ship had been at the river’s mouth for 6 months, guarding the river, waiting for us. It had:

  • 12 guns
  • 150 seamen and soldiers
    • The soldiers were ashore in their tents

They said that:

  • there were 300 men at the mines, who had all small arms, and would be aboard in 2 tides’ time.
  • there were 2 ships cruising in the bay between this place and Gorgona
    • the biggest had 20 guns and 200 men
    • the other 10 guns and 150 men
  • the Indians on this side the country were our enemies; which was the worse news of all.

However we presently brought these prisoners aboard and got under sail, turning out with the tide of ebb, for it was not convenient to stay longer there.

We intended to land that night or the next day betimes; for we did not question but we should either get a good commerce with the Indians by such toys as we had purposely brought with us, or else force our way through their country in spite of all their opposition.

We did not fear what these Spaniards could do against us in case they should land and come after us. We had a strong southerly wind which blew right in; and, the tide of ebb being far spent, we could not turn out.

I persuaded them to run into the river of Congo, which is a large river about 3 leagues from the island where we lay; which with a southerly wind we could have done. When we were got so high as the tide flows, then we might have landed.

But all the arguments I could use were not of force sufficient to convince them that there was a large river so near us, but they would land somewhere, they neither did know how, where, nor when.

When we had rowed and towed against the wind all night we just got about Cape San Lorenzo in the morning; and sailed about 4 miles farther to the westward, and run into a small creek within two keys, or little islands, and rowed up to the head of the creek, being about a mile up, and there we landed May 1 1681.

We got out all our provision and clothes and then sunk our vessel.

While we were landing and fixing our snap-sacks to march our Moskito Indians struck a plentiful dish of fish, which we immediately dressed, and therewith satisfied our hunger.

The Moskito Indians

They are tall, well made, raw-boned, lusty, strong, and nimble of foot, long-visaged, lank black hair, look stern, hard favoured, and of a dark copper-colour complexion.

They are but a small nation or family, and not 100 men of them in number, inhabiting on the Main on the north side, near Cape Gracias a Dios; between Cape Honduras and Nicaragua.

They are very ingenious at throwing the lance, fishgig, harpoon, or any manner of dart, being bred to it from their infancy; for the children, imitating their parents, never go abroad without a lance in their hands, which they throw at any object, till use has made them masters of the art.

Then they learn to put by a lance, arrow, or dart: the manner is thus. Two boys stand at a small distance, and dart a blunt stick at one another; each of them holding a small stick in his right hand, with which he strikes away that which was darted at him. As they grow in years they become more dexterous and courageous, and then they will stand a fair mark to anyone that will shoot arrows at them; which they will put by with a very small stick, no bigger than the rod of a fowling-piece; and when they are grown to be men they will guard themselves from arrows, though they come very thick at them, provided two do not happen to come at once. They have extraordinary good eyes, and will descry a sail at sea farther, and see anything better, than we. Their chiefest employment in their own country is to strike fish, turtle, or manatee, the manner of which I describe in Chapter 3.

For this they are esteemed and coveted by all privateers; for one or two of them in a ship will maintain 100 men: so that when we careen our ships we choose commonly such places where there is plenty of turtle or manatee for these Moskito men to strike: and it is very rare to find privateers destitute of one or more of them when the commander or most of the men are English.

But they do not love the French, and the Spaniards they hate mortally. When they come among privateers, they get the use of guns, and prove very good marksmen: they behave themselves very bold in fight, and never seem to flinch nor hang back; for they think that the white men with whom they are know better than they do when it is best to fight, and, let the disadvantage of their party be never so great, they will never yield nor give back while any of their party stand.

I could never perceive any religion nor any ceremonies or superstitious observations among them, being ready to imitate us in whatsoever they saw us do at any time. Only they seem to fear the devil, whom they call Wallesaw; and they say he often appears to some among them, whom our men commonly call their priest, when they desire to speak with him on urgent business; but the rest know not anything of him, nor how he appears, otherwise than as these priests tell them. Yet they all say they must not anger him, for then he will beat them, and that sometimes he carries away these their priests. Thus much I have heard from some of them who speak good English.

They marry only 1 wife, with whom they live till death separates them.

At their first coming together the man makes a very small plantation, for there is land enough, and they may choose what spot they please. They delight to settle near the sea, or by some river, for the sake of striking fish, their beloved employment.

For within land there are other Indians, with whom they are always at war. After the man has cleared a spot of land, and has planted it, he seldom minds it afterwards, but leaves the managing of it to his wife, and he goes out a-striking. Sometimes he seeks only for fish, at other times for turtle, or manatee, and whatever he gets he brings home to his wife, and never stirs out to seek for more till it is all eaten. When hunger begins to bite he either takes his canoe and seeks for more game at sea or walks out into the woods and hunts about for peccary, warree, each a sort of wild hogs or deer; and seldom returns empty-handed, nor seeks for any more so long as any of it lasts.

Their plantations are so small that they cannot subsist with what they produce: for their largest plantations have not above 20 or 30 plantain-trees, a bed of yams and potatoes, a bush of Indian pepper, and a small spot of pineapples; which last fruit as a main thing they delight in; for with these they make a sort of drink which our men call pine-drink, much esteemed by those Moskitos, and to which they invite each other to be merry, providing fish and flesh also. Whoever of them makes of this liquor treats his neighbours, making a little canoe full at a time, and so enough to make them all drunk; and it is seldom that such feasts are made but the party that makes them has some design either to be revenged for some injury done him, or to debate of such differences as have happened between him and his neighbours, and to examine into the truth of such matters.

Yet before they are warmed with drink they never speak one word of their grievances: and the women, who commonly know their husband’s designs, prevent them from doing any injury to each other by hiding their lances, harpoons, bows and arrows, or any other weapon that they have.

The Moskitos are in general very civil and kind to the English, of whom they receive a great deal of respect, both when they are aboard their ships, and also ashore, either in Jamaica, or elsewhere, whither they often come with the seamen. We always humour them, letting them go any whither as they will, and return to their country in any vessel bound that way, if they please. They will have the management of themselves in their striking, and will go in their own little canoe, which our men could not go in without danger of oversetting: nor will they then let any white man come in their canoe, but will go a-striking in it just as they please: all which we allow them.

For should we cross them, though they should see shoals of fish, or turtle, or the like, they will purposely strike their harpoons and turtle-irons aside, or so glance them as to kill nothing. They have no form of government among them, but acknowledge the King of England for their sovereign. They learn our language, and take the governor of Jamaica to be one of the greatest princes in the world.

While they are among the English they wear good clothes, and take delight to go neat and tight; but when they return again to their own country they put by all their clothes, and go after their own country fashion, wearing only a small piece of linen tied about their waists, hanging down to their knees.


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