In the long annals of the Royal Navy, there have been many triumphs and disasters. The story of HMS Wager, wrecked off the coast of Patagonian Chile in 1741, must be one of the most sensational and dramatic catastrophes of them all.
Surprisingly, history has never given it much attention. Compared to the mutiny on the Bounty, for example [the 1789 rebellion against the captain of a ship that had been sent to the Pacific Ocean to acquire breadfruit plants and transport them to British possessions in the West Indies], it is practically unknown. But it exceeds the Bounty story in its violence of human relationships, its supreme record of human endurance against almost overwhelming hardships, and its lasting outcome.
Britain was at war with Spain. Commodore Anson and a small squadron battled round the infamously stormy Cape Horn into the Pacific to take the war to the Spanish possessions in the South Seas. But his ships were damaged and separated, and the dreaded scurvy took a grim toll on the health of the ships’ companies. There were no accurate charts of the west coast of South America, and a valid marine chronometer had not yet been invented, so navigation was largely a matter of guesswork.
What heappened to the HMS Wager?
One of the squadron, HMS Wager, was driven by vicious hurricane-force winds onto an uninhabited island, now called Wager Island, off a desolate coast. Many of the sick were drowned at this point, but about 140 men struggled ashore, to find practically nothing to subsist on. They began to die from starvation, exhaustion and hypothermia. Discipline started to break down in these miserable conditions, with at least one murder, much pilfering of scanty supplies, disaffection and mutinous murmurings. The intention of the captain, David Cheap, so far as anyone knew it, was to go north in boats to rejoin Anson, but almost everyone else believed that going south was their only chance of survival.
The longboat was sawn in half and lengthened with timber from the wreck and from the forest – a considerable technical feat. The captain then thought one of his officers was a mutineer and shot him dead. This markedly increased disaffection, and mutiny eventually broke out into the open, led by the austere Gunner Bulkeley and one of the Marine officers. They arrested the captain, tied him up, and forcibly deprived him of his command.
Gunner Bulkeley then set off in the lengthened longboat and one other boat with 81 men, leaving behind the captain and a small party. They headed south for the Straits of Magellan, with a sextant but no chart. They suffered extreme hunger, and many died of it. Despite incredible difficulties and dangers, they got through the straits. Eight men were sent ashore to collect water in Argentine Patagonia, but were then stranded and abandoned.
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Finally, the remaining 29 survivors arrived at Rio Grande in Brazil, after an epic journey of 2,500 nautical miles in an open boat through the world’s most hostile waters – perhaps the greatest castaway voyage ever known. They were hospitably received by an incredulous Portuguese governor and population. By various routes they returned to England, but to a doubtful future.
Did any of the abandoned men survive?
Back in Argentine Patagonia the eight castaways – twice cast away – made ingenious efforts to subsist, and tried to reach Buenos Aires. Four of them were murdered by Indians, and the remainder taken captive and enslaved. They were forced to go on a 1,000-mile journey to meet the Indian chief, but when he realised they were not Spaniards he treated them fairly humanely, and gave them each a captured Spanish slave-wife to breed from.
They were eventually ransomed by the official English slave-agent in Buenos Aires, except for one seaman who was black and with whom the Indians would not part. They were then confined as prisoners of war aboard the Spanish ship Asia, which after long delays set off for Spain.
En route to Spain there was a dramatic and bloody attempt by 12 Indian slaves to take over the ship, which was very nearly successful. Having arrived in Spain, the Wager men were imprisoned again, and finally reached England five-and-a-half years after departing.
Meanwhile, back on Wager Island, the captain was making plans to go north. The 17 remaining survivors crammed into two very small boats in order to attempt the perilous crossing of the Golfo de Peñas, the well-named Bay of Sorrows. But they suffered from fearful hunger, cold and lack of clothing, and foul weather defeated them again and again. One of the two boats was overturned and lost, and one man drowned.
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There was now no room for all in the remaining boat, so four gallant Marines were left ashore. In absolute desperation the rest returned to Wager Island as a familiar place to die in. At this point six men deserted and made away with the only remaining boat, never to be heard of again. This left five seriously ill officers stranded and utterly destitute.
Astonishingly, an Indian appeared who indicated he was prepared to conduct them northwards in canoes. Two officers were then lost, and the remaining three, which included Captain Cheap and Midshipman Byron, at their last gasp, were brought to Chiloé by none-too-friendly Indians – a nightmare journey of 250 miles in canoes, which at times had to be lugged over the land.
They had no option but to surrender to the Spanish, and were taken to Santiago. After several years and many further adventures they were returned to England under a prisoner of war exchange, and landed at Dover. Midshipman Byron, the grandfather of the poet, rode through the turnpikes to London, and with some difficulty found his sister in Soho Square – she had believed him to be dead for five years.
What happened to the mutineers?
The mutineers were never brought to trial; perhaps there was thought to be an uncomfortable whiff of justification for their actions. But Anson, now an admiral on the Admiralty Board, learned the lessons of the Wager disaster, and put in place measures to enforce discipline after ships were wrecked. He also brought embarked marine forces under the captain’s command – a move that led directly to the formation of the Royal Marines, an elite part of the naval service to this day.
Over the next 20 years the Spanish authorities conducted several salvage operations to recover items, particularly much-needed cannon, from the wreck of the Wager. This extended Santiago’s interest and control for the first time far to the south of Chile, and influenced the drawing of the present national boundary.
Even there the extraordinary Wager story does not end, because in 2006 an expedition by John Blashford-Snell’s Scientific Exploration Society had the great success of finding the remains of the ship on Wager Island. My book, The Wager Disaster, features an exclusive report of this discovery, written by the chief diver, Major Chris Holt. The site is now being studied by Chilean maritime archaeologists.
Rear Admiral CH Layman, CB, DSO, LVO, spent many years in the Royal Navy, during which he commanded five ships, including HMS Argonaut during the Falklands War, and later the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible. He has operated in Chilean waters where HMS Wager was wrecked. He is also the author of The Wager Disaster: Mayhem, Mutiny and Murder in the South Seas (Uniform Press, January 2015)