Dalrymple was a hydrographer, naval commander and administrator. He was educated first by his father, then until he was 14 at the Haddington school, then went to London after his father’s death and in 1752, through the influence of an uncle by marriage, General St Clair, was appointed a writer in the East India Co. He was first posted to Madras and while with the company Dalrymple became interested in the possibilities of trade with the East Indies and China, and went on to negotiate a treaty with the sultan of Sulu and visited Canton; in 1765 he returned to London where he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.
When translating some Spanish documents captured in the Philippines in 1762, Dalrymple found Torres testimony proving a passage south of New Guinea; he now showed Torres’s route of 1606 on a chart in his An Account of the Discoveries Made in The South Pacifick Ocean, Previous to 1764 (London, 1767). In this work he declared his belief in the existence of a great southern continent, extending into low latitudes in the Pacific. In 1768 it was suggested that Dalrymple should lead the expedition being sent to the Pacific to observe the transit of Venus but his insistence that he should command the vessel was contrary to Admiralty regulations.
However, his book provided James Cook with valuable knowledge for his successful navigation of Torres Strait. In his major work, An Historical Collection of the Several Voyages and Discoveries in the South Pacific Ocean (London, 1770), Dalrymple continued to insist that a great southern continent existed. By circumnavigating New Zealand, Cook on his first voyage had imposed severe limitations on this hypothesis, and on his second voyage in 1772-75, he completely disproved it; nevertheless Dalrymple’s writings had done much to maintain official interest in Pacific exploration.
In 1768 the East India Co. had offered Dalrymple management of a new factory it planned at Balambangan in Borneo, in line with the proposals he had earlier put forward and later expressed in A Plan for Extending the Commerce of this Kingdom and of the East-India-Company (London, 1769); but his demands were so extreme that in 1771 the company dismissed him. In 1775 he was again appointed to Madras; after only two years he was recalled. In 1779 he was appointed hydrographer to the company. He carried out valuable work in his prolific publication of charts. He was convinced that trade in this area would be profitable, arguing by analogy with India and China that the indigenous peoples would be found numerous and wealthy;
In 1795 he was appointed hydrographer to the Admiralty, but again his difficult temperament proved his undoing. On 28 May 1808 he was dismissed; as a result, ‘in the opinion of his medical attendants, he died of vexation’ on 19 June.
He made major contributions to marine cartography and his writings on mercantile and public affairs show the breadth of his interests.
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