William Dampier was a Somerset man, born in the village of East Coker in the middle of the seventeenth century. His memorial brass, in the medieval parish church of St Michael, speaks of a life driven by a profound curiosity about the natural world. Unstated, but implicit in the brief list of his remarkable achievements, is the sustained courage essential for any exploration of the ocean at a time when wind was the only power, when the determination of longitude was problematic and many coastal seas were uncharted:
TO THE MEMORY OF WILLIAM DAMPIER BUCCANEER EXPLORER HYDROGRAPHER and sometime Captain of the Ship Roebuck in the Royal Navy of King William the Third. Thrice he circumnavigated the Globe and first of all Englishmen explored and described the coast of Australia. An exact observer of all things in Earth, Sea and Air he recorded the knowledge won by years of danger and hardship in Books of Voyages and a Discourse of Winds, Tides and Currents which Nelson bade his midshipmen to study and Humboldt praised for Scientific worth.
Surely here was a man of whom the people of East Coker could be justly proud, a heroic figure to add lustre and interest to an otherwise obscure corner of England? Strangely though, Dampier’s memorial was not erected until 1907, and even then, its appearance in the ancient church was not welcomed by all of the worshippers.
Hmm, I have been by his house many times. I knew he was a major figure in England’s nautical past, but didn’t realize he was this notable a figure. And he is no longer the only reason to make a pilgrimage to St Michael’s church: T. S. Eliot is interred in the wall there.