Wafer, Lionel (d. 1705), surgeon, buccaneer, topographer, and ethnographer, was probably born in Ireland or to an Irish catholic family abroad. In A new voyage & description of the isthmus of America (1699), the work on which his reputation rests, he states:
in my youth I was well acquainted with the Highland or primitive Irish language both as it is spoken in the north of Ireland particularly at the Navan upon the Boyne and about the town of Virgini[a] upon Lough Rammer in the barony of Castle Raghen in the county of Cavan and also in the Highlands of Scotland where I have been up and down in several places (Wafer, 184).
It is known from a genealogical source that a William Wafer lived at Killeglen, near Ratoath, Co. Meath, in the fifteenth century, and from other sources that a Francis Wafer was a catholic proprietor at Gainstown (3 km from Navan), Co. Meath, in the 1640s and 1650s.
Lionel Wafer went to sea ‘very young’ (his words) as an assistant to a ship's surgeon (1677), and sailed in Asian waters. A ‘brother’ living at Port Royal in Jamaica set him up there as a surgeon (1679). Early in 1680 Wafer joined some English buccaneers on an expedition across the Panama isthmus, a territory belonging to Spain and not previously explored by Englishmen; he remained in the region until 1688. On returning to Europe he published, in his New voyage & description, a detailed account of the topography and ethnography of the isthmus, the first in the English language. Of unique importance is his description of the language and system of numbers of the Cuna people of Darien, among whom he had stayed for several months; their numbers he compares with the Irish, giving examples phonetically (e.g. ‘cooig fehth’, ‘a hundred’). Wafer's work went into a revised edition (1704) and was translated into Dutch (1700), French (1706), German (1707), and Spanish (not until 1888). Wafer was in London by 1690 and was in Edinburgh in 1698, involved in the Darien colonisation scheme of the Scottish parliament. According to the Oxford DNB, Lionel Wafer died in London in 1705.