Andy Parker – A New Voyage

In 1701 William Dampier, Naval hydrographer, explorer and pirate, who grew up near West Coker, watched from the shore of a deserted island as his worm-eaten ship, the Roebuck, sank to its gunnels in a shallow bay.

With tents made from the Roebuck’s sails the crew were marooned for 5 weeks until rescue came, but aside from that this ‘desolate Island Ascension’ remained uninhabited for hundreds of years. Occasionally ships would put sick sailors ashore where they would be left to die of yellow fever or some other contagion. They would endure their final days in isolation – each one burying the remains of their predecessor.  It is rumoured that Dampier buried treasure there too.

I’d not heard of William Dampier or his treasure when my Mum visited Ascension Island. I was interested in the yellow fever graveyardI’d not heard of William Dampier or his treasure when my Mum visited Ascension Island. I was interested in the yellow fever graveyard, and Mum agreed to find it for me. Her friend Stedson Stroud, one of the few residents of the island, drew her a map on a piece of paper. It seemed straightforward enough but the distances were deceptive, and with no water or shelter from the sun Mum returned to the town hours later much the worse for wear. She didn’t find the graveyard and brought me home only the crumpled piece of A4 paper to show for her adventure.

“Success to the Roebuck!” – the word “success” was used on ships’ launching boards as a wish bestowed upon the vessel on its maiden voyage. The sense of hope is as clear as the sense of judgement in things whose success is measured after the event. Dimly glowing above the roof of Dawes Twineworks a sign declares ‘success’, writ large above the salvaged hulk of obsolete industry in a form somewhere between a kitsch 1970’s fireplace and a motel sign from California (or the West Coker Motel). Suburban aspiration and luxurious comfort are a world away from the glowing log dragged from the fire of a pirate’s desolate beach shelter, or the dying fire from the belly of an industrial boiler. Perhaps this is the fading judgement of past glories, or perhaps it is success as a wish for the future. ‘Success to the Twineworks!’

Aside from the lost wreck of an old ship, Dampier’s greatest legacy were his journals recording observations from around the world and published for a wider audience. They told a story of distant people and places, allowing readers to imagine a new world and new possibilities. He didn’t write about what kind of shoes he wore, or what music he liked. His portrait hangs in the National Gallery but it’s just his head and shoulders, and all we can see is what the artist and sitter have sanctioned to show us. I thought he’d like to wear cowboy boots. In 2016, dressed a bit like William Dampier, Naval hydrographer, explorer and pirate, I walked around West Coker, directed by a hand drawn map. As I walked I recorded observations from around the village. I made illustrations of the things I found of interest, the things he found of interest, piecing together an idea of life from what we saw.

The Roebuck was found in 2001. It wasn’t where the researchers thought it would be. Stedson Stroud inadvertently found it near the yellow fever graveyard.