Lionel Wafer (1640–1705)

While little is known about the early life of explorer, surgeon, buccaneer and privateer Lionel Wafer (1640–1705). L.E. Elliott Joyce's "Lionel Wafer and His Times" fills in some of the detail.

According to one family's tradition, the Wafers may have been of Huguenot descent, with Weaver or Weber as alternative spellings in Wexford, Ireland. ‘Wafer’ would have been spelt ‘Uebber’ in Gaelic,

Wafer's references to his knowledge of Gaelic and references to boyhood in Scotland and Ireland suggest that his father may have been a Scots soldier quartered in Ireland, a member of a family ‘planted’ there by James I or Oliver Cromwell. Alternatively, the family's movement between Scotland and Ireland may be an example of the "constant interchange between Argyle and Ulster". (Joyce, p. xii)

The young Wafer appears as a surgeon's assistant ('loblolly boy') aboard the East India Company’s Anne (a.k.a. Great Anne), which left England in February or March 1677, reached Java) in July, went on to Sumatra to load pepper. A local conflict held the Great Ann in the roads at Jambi for four months, and when the ship returned to Bantam "to take in the rest of our Lading", she sailed for England while Wafer was ashore there. He found a passage home aboard the Bombay Merchant which had left England in March 1677, left Borneo in September 1678, and reached the Downs in March 1679.

The following month, Wafer left for Jamaica as assistant surgeon aboard a vessel commanded by a Captain Buckenham intending to visit his brother, who was employed on the ‘Angels’ sugar estate northwest of Spanish Town. 

It was just as well he did. When the ship arrived in Port Royal Buckenham decided he had enough time before the sugar harvest began to head for Yucatan to load log-wood. Fortunately, Wafer continued on his way to the 'Angels' and worked briefly as a surgeon in Port Royal. 

The onward voyage saw the ship captured by the Spanish and the crew killed or enslaved.

Meanwhile, Wafer's brother provided the capital to allow the young surgeon to set up his own practice in Port Royal, an arrangement that lasted until the buccaneer Edmund Cooke arrived seeking recruits for a privateering expedition led by Bartholomew Sharp.

While Wafer is reticent about his motivation for leaving Jamaica, there is little doubt about Cooke's recruiting requirements. Buccaneering involved fighting, which invariably resulted in wounds and wounds needed treatment. Medical practitioners were a vital component of any band of buccaneers.

As a result, Wafer encountered William Dampier when Cooke and Sharp joined up with John Coxon and Richard Sawkins and their squadron of buccaneers fresh from pillaging Portobello.

Wafer and Dampier disembarked on the main opposite Golden island on 5 April 1680 as part of a force of more than three hundred buccaneers who planned to cross the Isthmus and raid Spanish gold mines and, ultimately, Panama. 

Although the attack on Panama was unsuccessful, in a series of raids Sharpe's buccaneers seized several armed vessels in the Gulf of Panama and settled down to wait for the incoming treasure ship from Peru.

When it failed to arrive, Coxon and around fifty of his supporters defected and made their way back across the Isthmus. Wafer, Dampier and the rest sailed with Sharp in their captured flagship Blessed Trinity, on 6 June, ranging along the coast in search of prizes and plunder. They took Hilo, in Peru, on 28 October, followed by La Serena on 3 December. After spending Christmas in the Juan Fernandez Islands disputes over the leadership. John Watling displaced Sharp as commander, and the party set out to raid Arica, where the attack was repulsed, and the new commander died as a result of a shot in the liver. 

The disunited survivors continued north to Isle de Plata, where, in Dampier's words, the "meaner sort" in the crew wanted to reinstate Sharp as commander, while "the abler and more experienced men" disagreed. As a result, when the party split on 17 April 1681 Sharpe and the majority kept the Blessed Trinity and headed for the Atlantic via Cape Horn.

Wafer, Dampier, and about fifty others set out for the Gulf of San Miguel in three open boats, but while they managed to capture a small bark the next day, when they reached their destination they found the Spanish awaiting their return. After a covert landing near the secluded Cape St. Lorenzo on 1 May, the ship was sunk, and, after recruiting Indian guides, the party set off back across the Isthmus on foot as the wet season set in.

On 5 May. Wafer was sitting near a man drying gunpowder when a spark ignited the pile. The explosion scorched a great deal of Wafer's thigh and his burned his knee and leg badly, exposing the bone. Four days later a slave stole his medicines, instruments, and dressings, gun and money, and Wafer was left unable to treat his wounds.  By 10 May, he could no longer keep up with the others, and, with two others Wafer took leave of Dampier and his colleagues. They were later joined by two men who had dropped behind earlier.

The main party took nearly a fortnight to reach the Caribbean coast, where they found a French privateer at La Sounds Key. After plying their guides with gifts Dampier and his colleagues sailed away with the Frenchmen, in a temporary alliance designed to meet their immediate requirements- the wherewithal to return to La Sounds Key to wait for Wafer and the others. That came when they captured a Spanish lateen-rigged Spanish tartan, at the end of August, when Dampier and his colleagues headed back to wait for Wafer while the rest of the privateers set out to create more mayhem around Cartagena.

In the meantime, over the course of three weeks, native medicine had healed Wafer's injuries, though the locals' hospitality did not extend to an adequate food supply. Eventually, with the Cuna concerned that the guides they had sent away with the Dampier party had not returned, Wafer and his companions were sent out with more guides to seek them out. An eight-day journey saw them back where they had started from, and, in their absence, those they had been sent out to find had returned, safe, sound and laden with gifts. 

A second item that fell in their favour, to the point where it seemed the Cuna might be unwilling to let Wafer leave, came when he successfully treated the chieftain's wife, who was suffering from fevers and fits. The treatment, from Wafer's knowledge of 'Physick and Phlebotomy', came in a more efficient form of bloodletting.

As a result Wafer was welcome almost everywhere in Indian territory, and the information about the Cuna culture, shamanism and the natural history of the isthmus gathered during a four-month stay appeared in print in his A New Voyage and Description of the Isthmus of America (1699), but it was lucky to have found its way into print at all.

When it became apparent that the Cuna expected Wafer to remain with them and marry into the tribe, he persuaded his hosts that he needed to return to England to bring back hunting dogs

At the Caribbean coast Wafer, dressed (or, perhaps more accurately, undressed) in the Indian manner with body-paint and a nose-ring boarded a French vessel commanded by Captain Yanky that, coincidentally, was carrying Dampier, and some of his former colleagues, but, at first, none of them recognised him.

Following the reunion Wafer and Dampier cruised the Caribbean aboard English and French buccaneer vessels operating out of the famous pirate base on Tortuga. Eventually, ready for rest and recuperation, Dampier took himself to Virginia, a favourite hideaway for former buccaneers,  in July 1682 while Wafer continued making his way around the Caribbean. 

After cruising in the Caribbean with Captain Yanky, Wafer sailed with John Cook in the Revenge to Chesapeake Bay, arriving in April 1683. On 23 August he and Dampier sailed from Virginia for the South Sea under Cook, and later, when off Sierra Leone, they transferred into a prize renamed the Batchelor's Delight.

After four months ashore, the duo rejoined Cook when he sailed from Virginia on 23 August. Off Sierra Leone, they transferred into a prize renamed the Batchelor's Delight. From 19 March 1684 they kept company with the Nicholas, and in May they became the first English crews to visit the Galápagos Islands. In October the Batchelor's Delight (Captain Eaton) joined the Cygnet  (Captain Swan), and both crews collaborated in an assault on Paita on 2 November. News of the imminent arrival of the silver fleet at Panama prompted both vessels to join nearly 1000 French and English buccaneers assembled at the Pearl Islands, in February 1685. Here Wafer participated in an indecisive action against a superior Spanish fleet at the end of May.

The Batchelor's Delight left the Bay of Panama in July 1685, and cruised north to Cocos Island, south to the Galápagos Islands, and south again to Juan Fernandez, where she spent Christmas 1686. In the autumn of 1687, having replenished once more at the Galápagos, the buccaneers rounded the Horn. As the ship sailed northwards towards the Caribbean, Wafer transferred to a vessel bound for Pennsylvania. After a brief stay in Philadelphia, he and two others made for Point Comfort in Virginia where Wafer intended to settle. His stay there, however, was relatively brief. 

On 22 June 1688 Wafer and his companions were crossing the Chesapeake Bay in a small boat when they were arrested by HMS Dumbarton's captain Simon Rowe on suspicion of piracy. Imprisoned in Jamestown, Wafer declared he had been trading in the West Indies for the past seven years and denied the piracy charges. An inventory of what he was carrying at the time of his arrest, included thirty-seven silver plates, silver lace, and three bags of Spanish money containing about 1100 dollars. Despite calls for Wafer to be prosecuted, he was released in September 1689 and was back in England by 1690, after an absence of nearly eleven years. While most of his property was supposed to be restored to him in March 1692, a royal order withheld £300, plus a quarter of the amount still in Jamestown. The forfeited money may have gone towards the cost of building the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Wafer went on to establish himself as the foremost authority on Darien and the Isthmus of Panama, publishing his account of his adventures (A New Voyage and Description of the Isthmus of America). On 2 July 1697, thanks to his friend Dampier's recommendation, Wafer gave evidence before John Locke and the Board of Trade concerning Darien and the proposed Scots' colony. 

Wafer's expert opinion was also sought by the directors of the Darien Company in Edinburgh in the spring of 1698. Wafer travelled to Scotland under an assumed name, hid out in an Edinburgh garret and met the directors, giving advice that almost certainly influenced the siting of the disastrous Scots' colony in 1698. The Company engaged him for further services, and  Wafer set about getting his affairs in order before a voyage to Darien, but a split with the Company meant he failed to embark with the ill-fated colonists.

Instead, he went on to provide the Duke of Leeds with a report on ports along Spanish America's Pacific rim which might be seized if they remained closed to foreign traders. His analysis of the advantages of securing Coquimbo and Valdivia in Chile for English vessels was very similar to a later proposal by Daniel Defoe in July 1711.

Lionel Wafer is best known today as the author of A New Voyage and Description of the Isthmus of America (1699), a work which retains interest for modern anthropologists because of its detailed descriptions of Darien and the Cuna Indians. He died in London in 1705.

Sources: James William Kelly,  Lionel  Wafer (d. 1705); Ronald A. Malt, Lionel Wafer—Surgeon to the Buccaneers; Wikipedia

© Ian Hughes 2017