Lionel Wafer

Birth: 1660


Lionel Wafer (1660?–1705?) was a surgeon, buccaneer, and voyager, describes himself as still 'very young' when, in 1677, he shipped as servant of the surgeon of the Great Anne of London, Captain Zachary Browne, bound for the East Indies. In the Great Anne he visited Java, Sumatra, and Malacca, and at Bantam was on shore when his ship sailed for England. He got a passage home, and arrived in England in 1679. He then entered, again as surgeon's servant, on board another ship bound to the West Indies, but deserted her at Jamaica, where he had a brother employed on the plantation of Sir Thomas Modyford.

At Port Royal he practiced as a surgeon for a few months, but meeting with Cook and Lynch, two noted buccaneers, he went with them for a cruise on the Spanish main. At the Bastimentos he first met with William Dampier [q. v.], and, in his own words, 'having mustered our forces at Golden Island and landed on the isthmus, we marched overland and took Santa Maria, and made those excursions into the south seas which Mr. [Basil] Ringrose relates in the "History of the Buccaneers."'

After going as far south as Juan Fernandez and returning to Drake's Island, the buccaneers quarrelled among themselves and divided, one party, with which was Wafer, 'choosing rather to return in boats to the isthmus and go back again a toilsome journey over land, than stay under a captain in whom we experienced neither courage nor conduct.'

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In the course of this journey across the isthmus, on 5 May 1681, Wafer was sitting on the ground near a man who was drying some gunpowder on a silver plate, and carelessly allowed it to get overheated. The powder exploded and 'scorched Wafer's knee to that degree that the bone was left bare, the flesh being torn away and the thigh burnt for a great way above it.' For a few days he 'made hard shift to jog on' and keep company with the party; but when the negro who was carrying his medicines and dressings ran away, the pain became so great that, 'being not able to trudge it further through rivers and woods,' he remained behind 'among the Darien Indians.'

With these Indians he stayed for several months, bleeding them, physicking them, and held in high esteem. He was eventually brought down to the north coast, and taken on board an English sloop at Le Sound's Key, manned by his old friends. His account is curious. 'I sat awhile,' he says, 'cringing upon my hams among the Indians, after their fashion, painted as they were, and all naked but only about the waist, and with my nose-piece hanging over my mouth. … 'Twas the better part of an hour before one of the crew, looking more narrowly upon me, cried out "Here's our doctor," and immediately they all congratulated my arrival among them.

I did what I could presently to wash off my paint, but 'twas near a month before I could get tolerably rid of it … and when it did come off, 'twas usually with the peeling off of skin and all.' He was with Dampier in this sloop for some months in the West Indies. He again joined Dampier in Virginia, and in August 1683 sailed with Cook for Africa and the Pacific [see Davis, Edward, or (as Wafer calls him) Nathaniel; an evident confusion between Ned and Nat]. After Cook's death, Wafer remained in the ship under Davis, was with him the whole of the voyage, returned with him to the West Indies, accepted the king's pardon, and went to Virginia. Returning to England in 1691, he settled in London, and is said to have died there about 1705.

Wafer published in 1699 'A New Voyage and Description of the Isthmus of America, giving an Account of the Author's Abode there … the Indian inhabitants, their features, complexion … their manners, customs, employments, marriages, feasts, hunting, computation, language, &c.' (London, 8vo, dedicated to Henry Sidney, earl of Romney, with four plates); and though the work scarcely carries out this detailed prospectus, it is still an extremely interesting and valuable account of the people while they retained their primitive and savage freedom.

In 1704 he published a second edition, with a dedication to the Duke of Marlborough, and a strong appeal to the government to make a settlement on the isthmus, whereby—among other advantages—'a free passage by land from the Atlantic to the South Sea might easily be effected, which would be of the greatest consequence to the East India trade.' The work was translated into Dutch upon its appearance, and into French by De Montirat in 1706. It was reprinted in the 'Collection of Voyages' of 1729.


[Wafer's New Voyage; Dampier's New Voyage round the World.]

Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900 by John Knox Laughton, Volume 58. pg 427-428.

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