Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Pirate Surgeon in Panama

  It was in the evening when we came to an anchor, and the next morning we fired two guns for the Indians that lived on the Main to come aboard; for by this time we concluded we should hear from our five men that we left in the heart of the country among the Indians, this being about the latter end of August, and it was the beginning of May when we parted from them. According to our expectations the Indians came aboard and brought our friends with them: Mr. Wafer wore a clout about him, and was painted like an Indian; and he was some time aboard before I knew him.
- William Dampier, A New Voyage Round the World, (London: 1697)

I spent some time doing research in London this summer, and one of the things I was struck by was the large number of manuscripts written by late seventeenth century buccaneers. One is accustomed to thinking of buccaneers and pirates as illiterate sorts, and to a large degree they were -- but ships captains, surgeons and pilots were often exceptions to this rule, and they produced  some of the most fascinating travel narratives I've ever come across. I posted about one of them several months ago - today I want to share a few images and quotes from another that I'm currently working on: Lionel Wafer's A New Voyage and Description of the Isthmus of Darien (1699, London).
Wafer (1640-1705) sketches out a brief autobiography in the early pages of this book, in which we learn that he served as a surgeon's apprentice on board a number of British trading vessels as a youth, ultimately braving the hazardous voyage to the Indian Ocean on an East India Company merchant ship.  He next (1677) sought his fortunes on the island of Jamaica, at that time a relatively recent possession of the British crown which was beginning to gain a reputation as a place where working class Britons could make their fortune - largely via the savage exploitation of enslaved African sugar plantation laborers. Wafer seems to have worked as a surgeon for a time on the island, but he appears to have yearned for a more glamorous line of work (if that is the correct word), as he enlisted with a pirate expedition in 1679.
A map of the Darien peninsula (modern day Panama) compiled in part from Lionel Wafer's data, and printed to publicize the Darien Scheme (1699).
Wafer's travel narrative increases in pace at this point, since it was a year later, in 1680, that he enlisted with the famed pirate Bartholomew Sharp on a voyage to the South Seas (i.e. the rich Pacific ports of Spanish America) and became close friends with the fascinating buccaneer/naturalist William Dampier. It was in the isthmus of Darien, the land now known as Panama, that Wafer's troubles began. As Dampier related in the manuscript version of the book quoted at the heading of this post, one day in the jungle
our chirurgeon came to a sad disaster[.] [While] drying his powder a carelesse man passed by with his pipe lighted and sett fire to his powder which scalded his knee and reduced him to that condition that he was not able to march[,] wherefore wee allowed him a slave to carry his things being all of us much dissatisfied at the accident.
After a few days painful march, it was decided that Wafer should stay behind with the local Indians and wait for a rescue ship. One did not arrive for over two years, and in the meantime Wafer became fluent in the local indigenous dialect and made some acute observations about central American Indian medical, religious and political practices. In one episode, for instance, he witnessed a medicinal 'bleeding' of the chief's wife, as illustrated below:
In Wafer's manuscript account of the incident, which I had the opportunity to consult at the British Library in London, he portrays himself as a heroic 'civilized' physician who was able to convince the Indian medical practitioners that the European style of bleeding was far superior:
It soe happened that the day after our arrival at the Kings Pallace one of his Queens being indisposed was to be lett blood which their Drs. thus performe[:] The Patient is seated on a Stone in the River and the Doctors with a small bow shoot their arrowes into the naked body of the Patient from head to foote shooting their arrowes as fast as they can not missing any part[.] [B]ut the arrows are gaged soe that they penetrate noe further then wee generally thrust our Lancetts and if they hitt a veine which is fulle of winde and blood spurt out a little they will leape and skip about shewing many antick gestures in triumph of soe great a piece of Arte. I was by and perceiving their Ignorance told the King that if he pleased I would shew him a better way without putting the Patient to Soe much torments[.] ["]Lett me See[,"] Saith he and at his Comand I bound up her Arme with a piece of Barke and with my Lancett breached a veine...
Its rare to find such a detailed account of early modern Indian practices, and despite Wafer's apparent Eurocentrism on this occasion, he is actually a rather fascinating example of a European who appears to have freely adopted the trappings of indigenous American culture. Although he skirts around the fact in his own writings, Dampier's account makes clear that when Wafer was finally 'rescued,' he was found "painted like an Indian" (complete with large nose ring) and, as Dampier puts it, "he was some time aboard before I knew him." This lack of recognition is a striking and revealing detail, since Dampier and Wafer seem to have been extremely close friends.

Here are two other details of the remarkable images from Wafer's book. I encourage you to click to see an enlarged version, as they are highly detailed images (which I present courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library's wonderful Archive of Early American Images):



I know of no decent books on Lionel Wafer, but Anna Neil has written a great essay on William Dampier (which coins the excellent term "Buccaneer Ethnography") that touches on Wafer's story as well. A free online edition of Wafer's New Voyage is available as well. For those searching for a more in-depth scholarly treatment of British buccaneers in central America, I highly recommend Ignacio Gallup-Diaz's The Door of the Seas and the Key to the Universe: Indian Politics and Imperial Rivalry in Darien, 1640-1750.

3 comments:

  1. A more "lucrative" line of work, perhaps?

    God, I love pirates.

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  2. I have just discovered this fascinating blog. Thanks.

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  3. You don't really mention the Darien Venture here. Simon Schama credits (well, blames) Wafer's descriptions as the main motivation for the venture, which essentially forced Scotland into an uneasy alliance with England. "Lionel Wafer's stories of long-haired Indians living a life of luxury in a land of milk and honey had given the company's founders an unrealistic vision of what lay ahead. The cargo manifests of the first expedition list thousands of combs and mirrors, which they expected to sell to the Indians, along with boxes of wigs and other useless items which the colonists expected to use in their new life." The mission was a total failure and bankrupted Scotland.

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