Wednesday, August 17, 2011

People: Not One of Your Common Surgeons

The life story of naturalist, linguist, anthropologist, author, physician and buccaneer Lionel Wafer reads like a novel. The novel would involve a man similar to O’Brian’s Stephen Maturin put on paper by an author like Dumas or Sabotini. Dr. Wafer lived life to the very fullest, and left a rich history to boot.


Born in Scotland some time in the 1660s, Wafer (or Weaver as it is occasionally spelled) had an ear for languages from an early age. As a child he spoke not only English but Scottish and Irish Gaelic. In 1677 he signed aboard the merchant Great Ann as surgeon’s mate, and it may have been at sea that he learned to doctor.

Great Ann was bound for the Far East which meant that young Lionel experienced places like Java, China and India. He also doubtless learned how to treat a myriad of tropical diseases and common seafaring injuries. When Great Ann returned to England some time in 1679, Wafer could rightly call himself a surgeon.

That same year, Wafer seems to have shipped aboard an unknown vessel bound for the Caribbean as either surgeon’s mate or surgeon proper. According to Philip Gosse in The Pirate’s Who’s Who, Wafer deserted at Port Royal where he hung out his shingle as physician to the local buccaneers. Although Wafer does not mention desertion in his best seller, A New Voyage and Description of the Isthmus of America published in 1699, he does portray himself set up as a doctor in Jamaica when he meets buccaneer captains Lynch and Cook. These two convince Wafer to join them in the ill fated South Sea adventure commanded by captains Sharp and Sawkins. Wafer, eager for Spanish gold, signs on as surgeon.

This debacle, documented by both Basil Ringrose and William Dampier, led to ill feelings among the large group of buccaneers who headed for Panama City. Wafer fell in with the most stringently anti-Sharp faction, a group of men that ended up deserting their ships and setting out to walk through the Darien back to the Atlantic. It must be said that Wafer was probably a very competent physician as most of his fellows survived the miserable trek. The old Panamanian proverb that the Darien jungle can kill you in a thousand different ways certainly held true for this headstrong band, however.

Dr. Wafer came very close to being one of those casualties himself when a fellow mutineer was trying to dry out black powder with extremely bad results. As Wafer describes it:

I was sitting on the ground near one of our men, who was drying of gunpowder in a silver plate; but not managing it as he should, it blew up and scorched my knee to that degree that the bone was left bare, the flesh being torn away, and my thigh burnt for a great way above it.

Wafer managed to bandage himself up with what he had in his knapsack but he had trouble keeping up with his mates, who were eager to move on. As he put it, “… I made hard shift to jog on.” The man who did not manage as he should with the powder died of his far more serious wounds.

Most likely because of his injury, Dr. Wafer fell behind his band. He was taken in by a local native group headed by Chief Lacentra who at first seemed bent on killing him. The Chief’s first wife was ill when Wafer arrived at the village and Wafer managed to lift her fever by expertly bleeding her. Lacentra was so grateful that he spared the doctor’s life. For some months the Chief would not allow Wafer out of his sight, which greatly dismayed the doctor as he wished desperately to press on to the Atlantic and return to Jamaica. Wafer made the best of his virtual captivity, however. He learned the language and customs of his host’s people and documented the local flora and fauna in journals that would later form the basis for his book. Wafer’s expertise would draw him into Scotland’s ill-fated attempt to colonize the Darien late in his life.

After almost eight years in the South Sea and Panama, Wafer made it back to Jamaica through the good graces of privateer William Dampier. By 1688, Wafer had accepted the King’s General Pardon of Pyrates, and begun practicing in Philadelphia. We next hear of him in 1691, when he is back in England. His book was published in 1695 and it is around the time that he was approached by a group of Scottish Lords for information on the Darien and the Isthmus of Panama. It does not appear that Wafer returned to the New World, but maps based on his experiences were used by the Scottish colonists who eventually sailed for what they would call New Caledonia some time in 1698.

Much like his contemporary and fellow physician Alexander Exquemelin, Lionel Wafer became a respected author in his old age. He retired from medicine and moved to a comfortable home in London where, again according to Gosse, he died in 1705.

Header: Copperplate depicting Chief Lacentra and his people from Lionel Wafer’s A New Voyage c 1699

10 comments:

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Not a very long life (by today's standards anyway) but certainly a full one, as you said.

Le Loup said...

Excellent ost, good information. Thank you.
http://woodsrunnersdiary.blogspot.com/

Pauline said...

Timmy: people got an earlier start on full and adventurous lives back then, too.

Le Loup: thankee indeed. Dr. Wafer was certainly an interesting person.

Charles L. Wallace said...

Fascinating, Pauline - thank you :-)

Pauline said...

I think Dr. Wafer's story would make a pretty entertaining movie, myself.

Danielle Thorne said...

Thank you for the awesome post! I found the similarities to Dr Maturin very interesting!

Charles L. Wallace said...

Sure would!

(That is, if they did not bland it down for Hollywood - resulting in a Vanilla Wafer! hahaha ;-)

Pauline said...

Danielle: I did as well, although it seems Dr. Wafer was a far more reluctant naturalist than our dear Stephen.

Wally: good one!

Shipping News said...

The life story of naturalist, linguist, anthropologist, author, physician and buccaneer Lionel Wafer reads like a novel.Anti Piracy

Pauline said...

Not quite sure where that came from but click the link if you are interested in carriers in preventing piracy, presumably in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean.