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Dampier's plants

  • Title:
    Dampier's plants
  • Text:

    Plant specimen (Sher-1692), Oxford University Herbaria

    This is a plant specimen collected by William Dampier in Northwest Western Australia in 1699. It is part of a collection of 26 extant Dampier plant specimens in the University of Oxford since 1728, along with associated drawings and descriptions. These are some of the first collections through which Europeans understood and imagined what was then known as New Holland. The specimen is a local plant that resembles rosemary, whose scientific name is Olearia axillaris (Asteraceae).

    Dampier was a pirate turned privateer, navigator and naturalist who circumnavigated the world twice, visiting Western Australia first in 1688 and returning in 1699. In 1688 he landed in his ship the Cygnet near Cape Leveque in the Kimberley, describing Aboriginal people he observed. On that voyage he subsequently purchased in Malacca a Sumatran prince named Jeoly, who he takes to England in 1691 and sells the following year. Dampier’s book A New Voyage Round the World (1697) was a best seller that was sold in several languages and inspired later Enlightenment naturalists and navigators including Cook, Banks, Darwin and Philip Parker King as well as authors, for example of Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe.

    Dampier was commissioned by the British government to return to Australia in 1699 in the HMS Roebuck to map parts of the coast. He landed at several places along the West Australian coast, first at Dirk Hartog Island where he collected his first plant specimens. He next explored islands in what he named the ‘Rosemary Islands’ (today the Dampier Archipelago) after the specimen that resembled European rosemary. Unlike later explorers he did not meet any local Yaburara people who lived throughout the archipelago. On his return voyage the Roebuck sank near Ascension Island however some collections including the preserved plants were retrieved from the vessel and he returned with them to England in 1701.

    Dampier’s fame had already attracted the collector Hans Sloane, who had in 1697 commissioned Dampier’s portrait for his museum of global natural and cultural collections, which formed the basis for the British Museum. However, there were competitors to Sloane. Dampier initially gave the collections to naturalist, geologist and physician John Woodward (1665-1728), Professor of Physic at Gresham College London, who had published in 1696 Brief instructions for making observations in all parts of the world: as also for collecting, preserving and sending over natural things – perhaps guiding Dampier’s collecting practices. The collections provided the earliest published illustrations and descriptions of Australian plants. Dampier included images of these plans in his A Voyage to New Holland, &c. in the Year, 1699 (1703). Naturalist John Ray (1627-1705) included nine of Dampier’s Australian plants in the Appendix of his Historia Plantarum (1704), giving them Latin names. Queen Mary’s Botanist and Gardener Leonard Plukenet (1641-1706) described seven of the plants in Amaltheum Botanicum (1705).

    Woodward provided Dampier’s collection to William Sherard (1659-1728), who had a substantial herbarium, possible in exchange for fossils from Asia. Sherard in turn bequeathed his herbarium to the University of Oxford on his death in 1728 and founded the Sherardian Chair of Botany. The specimens have remained in Oxford where they have been renamed over the centuries, reflecting shifts in botanical classification. The plants are the only Dampier collections known to survive.

    In Australia Dampier is now considered the first naturalist to deliberately voyage to Australia and a significant point in the development of natural history in the enlightenment. He is renowned for describing Aboriginal people as 'the miserablest People in the World', a phrase that would resound through the centuries. Dampier was observing that compared to other people he had observed in his voyages that these Aboriginal people had ‘no Houses and skin Garments, Sheep, Poultry and Fruits of the Earth’. The significance of these collections in Western Australia’s history has been increasingly acknowledged and valued, and his name is found in several plants species, towns and geographical locations.

    Word Count: 643

  • Collected Entities:
    Olearia axillaris Sher-1692
  • People:
    Dampier William
  • Author:
    Alistair Paterson
  • Publish?:
  • Dampier, W. New voyage Round the World, Etc. London: J. Knapton; 1927 (1697).

    Delbourgo, J. Collecting the World: Hans Sloane and the Origins of the British Museum. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press; 2017

    George, A. S. William Dampier in New Holland: Australia's First Natural Historian. Hawthorn, Vic.: Bloomings Books; 1999.

    Marner, S. Investigating the history of the botanical collections made by William Dampier in 1699 from ‘New Holland’. Studies in Western Australian History; 2019, forthcoming

    Shipman, J. C. William Dampier, Seaman, Scientist. Lawrence: University of Kansas Libraries; 1962.

  • Suggested citation: Alistair Paterson, Dampier's plants, in Collecting the West: "99 Collections That Made Western Australia", 2020. (

    Collecting the West is an Australian Research Council funded project: LP160100078