Last weekend I watched the NFC Championship between the Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers. The quarterback for the 49ers is a guy named Colin Kaepernick. While I admired Kaepernick’s passing arm and scrambling ability, I was also taken by the ornate tattoos on his arms. Kaepernick, or his tattoo artist, obviously spent a lot of time on this most individual form of pop art. I’m not sure when tattoos became so popular with professional athletes – maybe it started with basketball forward Dennis Rodman – but these days they seem to be the norm instead of the exception. It got me to thinking about tattoos’ association with one of my favorite seafarers: William Dampier.
Dampier was an English buccaneer, explorer, naturalist, and travel writer who lived in the late 1600s and early 1700s. He circumnavigated the world three times, was the first Englishman to set foot on Australia, and he published a series of bestselling travel books that first introduced words like “avocado,” “barbecue,” “chopsticks,” and “posse” into the English language. His discussion of “sub-species” of animals later influenced Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. But tattoo parlors also owe Dampier a debt of gratitude, because he discovered perhaps the first tattooed celebrity: Prince Jeoly, or “the painted prince.”
Dampier met Jeoly on the island of Mindanao in the Phillipines in 1686, during an adventure-filled 12-year buccaneering expedition. He wrote that Jeoly was “painted all down the breast, between his shoulders behind; on his thighs (mostly)” and with a pattern of “broad rings or bracelets” covering his arms and legs. He described the patterns as “very curious” and “full of great variety of lines, flourishes, chequered work.” The tattoo ink was made from the gum of the dammer tree, which was ground to a powder and used as a pigment.
Eventually, Dampier learned that Jeoly hailed from the small island of Miangas. There, the natives all wore heavy gold earrings, bracelets, and anklets. While en route to a neighboring island, Jeoly’s boat was swept to the shores of Mindanao. Natives there stole his gold jewelry and enslaved Jeoly and his mother. They then sold the two of them to an English supercargo. When Dampier met the supercargo, he was so intrigued by the young prince that he purchased Jeoly and his mother. When both became ill, Dampier nursed them “as if they had been my brother and sister” (Jeoly’s mother died soon after).
When Dampier returned to England in 1691, Jeoly was still with him. Despite his supposed fraternal feelings for the prince, Dampier was a white Englishman, and notions of racial equality were in the distant future. So it’s not surprising that he tried to make a few quid by advertising his colorful acquisition. When this failed, he sold Jeoly to other interests for “want of money.”
But even Dampier expressed disdain for the carnival barkers that hawked Jeoly around London like a freak, calling them “rooks” who “carried (him) about to be shown as a sight.” A handbill that survives and is now in the British Library reads “This admirable person is about the age of thirty…extremely modest and civil, neat and cleanly…He will appear publicly every day at his lodgings at the Blue Boar’s Head in Fleet Street.” Jeoly’s new owners eventually published a book about him, to stir up interest in their property. But the book is filled with fantastic concoctions about Jeoly being a king’s son and having a romantic fling with a banished princess. Dampier dismissed the book as mere “stories indeed.”
The sad ending to Prince Jeoly comes as no surprise: less than a year later he contracted smallpox and died while being displayed in the town of Oxford. Dampier went on to publish his groundbreaking books A New Voyage Round the World, Voyages and Descriptions, and A Voyage to New Holland and sail around the world twice more. He died in 1715, his burial place unknown.
(thanks to Diana and Michael Preston’s book A Pirate of Exquisite Mind for information on Prince Jeoly)