The Wreck of the Wager

18th century gentlemen, professionals and merchants subscribed in large numbers to a monthly publication that claimed (according to the Preface to its volume for 1742) to be "highest in the Esteem of the Learned, Inquisitive and Judicious" in providing reports that were "the most copious Repositories of Domestic  Occurrences" and, in foreign news, "the best Recapitulation of Intelligence". This was The Gentleman's Magazine, then a decade into its long life, and which already had a roll of subscribers many thousands long. Its readers received a highly efficient service, with each new edition being promptly delivered around the country two or three days after the end of the month.  

 So it was in this week in early October, 1742, that gentlemen all round England opened the September number and read the first details of an extraordinary episode that had begun 16 months earlier with a shipwreck off the Chilean coast, and which was to combine elements of Robinson Crusoe, the mutiny on the Bounty and the Antarctic adventures of Ernest Shackleton in 1916. This initial news came in the following letter, written from Barbados by a "Lieutenant" of a naval storeship that had left England two years earlier. She had been part of a squadron of eight vessels under Commodore Anson, tasked with harrying Spanish shipping in the Pacific.  


Having rounded Cape Horn we were separated by a violent Storm from the Commodore and in the Night our ship bilged on the east side of an Island in Lat. 47 Deg.8 Min. S. which we all judged to be the Island of Chiloe. All that were sick between decks were drown'd but the Captain and 31 more of us got safe to the Island, where the Natives brought us Refreshments several Times. The Captain was for seeing if Commodore Anson might not call there and take us in, but the Majority being for going away in the Long-Boat, Dissensions arose, and the Capt. shot one of the most mutinous dead on the Spot. Having afterwards lengthened the Long-Boat by pieces of the Wreck, and stow'd some Provisions in her, the greatest part went aboard leaving the Capt. and some others behind. After having pass'd the Streights of Magellan, meeting with almost insurmountable Difficulties, we arrived safe at Rio de Janeiro; from whence we were brought in his Majesty's ship the Advice to Barbadoes. We saw the 70-gun ship that follow'd the Pearl cast a-shore on a rock.

 Letters from Jamaica relate, that Commodore Anson when he arrived at Fernandez, a Portuguese Settlement, had but 50 Men left, that the Spanish Squadron in Quest of him sailed thence but 3 Days before his Arrival in that weak Condition; that he there procured 200 Hands and sailed for the East Indies with the Centurion and Gloucester only, having 2,000,000 Pieces of Eight on board. The other Ships were left for want of Men.

 (The Gentleman's Magazine Volume XXII September 1742, p. 497)

This already looked a sensational story, but it took four more years for all the extraordinary details to emerge. The Wager had been a merchantman converted as a naval storeship for Anson’s expedition, under the irascible command of Captain David Cheap. As the letter relates, the flotilla was scattered in violent weather and, on 14 May 1741, the Wager went on the rocks close to a desolate and uncharted part of the Chilean coast. Of about 200 men on board – 160 sailors, around 30 marine soldiers and a few civilians – 140 reached a desolate offshore island - far more than the 32 reported in the Gentleman's Magazine letter. Several others had remained on board, plundering the liquor stores and proceeding to get drunk, in which condition many drowned.

 The party ashore improvised a crude camp with whatever items from the wreck they were able to salvage, and kept themslves alive on a diminishing quantity of  stores, supplemented by what seal-meat and seafood they could obtain. There was much squabbling over these rations – not least concerning the wine and rum that had been brought from the ship – and continual pilfering occurred. Despite this pressure the captain wanted to wait for Anson to rescue them, but he was opposed by the majority, who preferred the idea of enlarging and refitting the Wager’s cutter and then attempting to sail back through the Straits of Magellan and into the Atlantic. The “mutineer” shot by Captain Cheap had merely been a drunken and insubordinate midshipman named Cozens, but the much more threatening mutiny was headed by 2nd-in-command Lieutenant Robert Baynes, and the resourceful master gunner John Bulkeley. Under them the dissident majority – 81 men – set sail in the overcrowded cutter, leaving Cheap and 20 other loyalists – who included Midshipman John Byron, later an admiral and grandfather of the poet Lord Byron – to fend for themselves.

An extraordinary succession of adventures, ordeals, quarrels, maroonings, deaths and separations followed, after which the remnants of the survivors straggled home in dribs and drabs.The mutineers under Baynes and Bulkeley sailed 2000 miles in their small converted cutter through the Straits of Magellan and up the South American coast to Rio Grande – a considerable feat of seamanship, though about half died on the way. After a long and disputaceous interlude, in which they lived as uneasy "guests" in enemy territory, Baynes and Bulkeley split up. Baynes seems to have got away to Lisbon with a group of up to sixteen survivors, and from there to England by summer 1742. However Bulkeley and another group of survivors were taken north to Rio de Janeiro, colony of the more friendly Portuguese. Here they split again, Bulkeley himself with three other men reaching home via Portugal, while the others were picked up in Rio by a Royal Navy ship bound for the West Indies, from where The Gentleman's Magazine's letter was posted.

Meanwhile an even more extravagant tale of survival was unfolding. This concerned three out of a group of eight men who had been accidentally marooned on the coast off Tierra del Fuego during the cutter's perilous voyage north from the Straits of Magellan. Having first been enslaved by native Americans, and then lengthily imprisoned by the Spanish, they were to reach England as late as 1746.

In the same year, having long been given up for dead, Cheap, Byron and two other survivors of the loyalist group also got back, after a further succession of remarkable adventures. They had used a native canoe to move north up the western seabord of South America, eventually reaching Valparaiso. One of them, Alexander Campbell, then fell out with Cheap, converted to Catholicism and completed a coast-to-coast land crossing of south America with a party of Spaniards, arriving after seven weeks at Montevideo. There Campbell was made prisoner, meeting up to his great surprise with the trio of Tierra del Fuegan mutineer-maroons, who were also Spanish prisoners. This foursome was finally shipped across the Atlantic to Spain where Campbell was released separately (having first been whisked to Madrid for interrogation), and reached home, via Portugal, in May 1746.

Meanwhile Captain Cheap, Midshipman Byron and the third survivor of the loyalists had been put aboard a ship in Valparaiso as French prisoners of war, had rounded the Horn in the reverse direction and eventually reached France. They were incarcerated at Brest for several months, then released and shipped home in a Dutch ship by early April 1746. The three mutineer-maroons who had come to Spain with Campbell were also now let go by the Spanish authorities,  arriving in July the same year. They were to be the last returnees from the disaster.

Various estimates of the ultimate number of survivors of The Wager have been bandied about. Everyone accepts that only four of the loyalist group reached England (including Lord Byron's grandfather), but of the mutineers there are significant differences. Wikipedia, in a serious underestimation, states that only six of them reached England, while the website World Archaeology, in its account of the wreck site, doubles the number to 12. A reading of S.W.C. Pack's gripping account of the saga, however, suggests that at least 16, and up to 30, might have got home by one means or another: it seems impossible to be precise, as there is no accurate figure on how many came back with Baynes from Rio Grande, or with the Royal Navy from Rio de Janeiro. What is striking, however, is that all the main players in the drama survived to tell the tale – and that Bulkeley, Byron, Campbell and two others actually did so by writing best selling books.

The Admiralty investigation might easily have followed the punitive pattern later seen with the Bounty. But wiser counsel prevailed when it was realised that a trial of Baynes, Bulkeley and the rest for mutiny might heap more ignominy on the Captain than on his crew. There was also a legal point at issue: to what extent did a Captain's authority continue after the loss of his ship?

The remnant of Anson's task force, first down to two ships, and then only one, had captured much gold before completing its voyage across the Pacific, into the Atlantic and home in May 1744, with now only the flagship Centurion afloat. The voyage made Anson rich and he became a household name a full two years  before publication of all the facts surrounding the Wager’s wreck, for which Anson himself had no personal responsibility.

Who was it that wrote the letter from Barbados printed by The Gentleman's Magazine 270 years ago this week? If it was Lieutenant Baynes, he must have travelled from West Indies to Lisbon, which is where Pack states he shipped to England. This route is highly unlikely given the number of merchantmen and naval escorts who would have offered a direct passage from Barbados. But if it wasn't Baynes, then the correspondent was not a "Lieutenant of the Wager" as the magazine claimed, since Baynes was the only man aboard with that rank. The highest ranking crew members who definitely travelled via Barbados were the sailing master's mate John Jones and the Boatswain John King. It is especially intriguing that the writer might have been King. This man, who had caused trouble from the start, was a loud mouthed and bullying drunkard, apparently with psychotic tendencies.

WPC Pack's The Wager Mutiny was published in London in 1964, and this is where I have obtained most of the information for this post. The entire episode had previously been fictionalised in The Unknown Shore  (1959)  by Patrick O'Brian, later author of the Aubrey-Maturin naval novels.


Posted on October 5th, 2012


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