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This story is assembled from contemporaneous first-person accounts. As such, quotations contain some antiquated spellings, grammar, and phrasing.
In the Earth’s extreme southern latitudes, where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans meet, there is a rocky gap of sea between Antarctica and South America known as the Drake Passage. Among 18th century seafarers, this corridor was also known by a more ghoulish nickname: The sailors’ graveyard. In the so-called Age of Exploration, the Drake Passage was the least impractical route for large European ships to travel around South America to access its west coast. The passage hooks far south—almost to the Antarctic Circle—to navigate around Cape Horn on the extreme southern tip of the continent. Sensible sailors avoided the corridor except in the relatively calm summer, yet on 12 April 1741—deep into blustery autumn—the British Royal Navy ship HMS Wager was at full sail in the dead center of the Drake Passage.
Aboard Wager, veteran ship’s gunner John Bulkeley was the officer of the watch, overseeing the ship’s navigation in the midst of a violent storm. The sky was a wet, howling tempest, the sea undulated with mountainous swells. Wager’s timbers creaked and her sails thrashed as the air and ocean conspired to smash the ship to pieces. Bulkeley had seen a lot of storms in his day, but nothing like this. One ocean swell—the largest he had ever witnessed—swept over the ship and briefly submerged Wager and her 160 crew in frigid water, washing Bulkeley across the quarter-deck.
Wager had entered the Drake Passage about a month earlier. She had been accompanied by seven other Royal Navy ships, all part of a secret squadron on a wartime mission heading for Patagonia on the west coast of South America. A principal hazard in sailing westward in the Drake Passage is that the winds and currents are powerful, relentless, and moving in exactly the wrong direction. Temperatures are frosty in autumn at such a southern latitude, and precipitation is nearly constant. In the era of sailing ships, the Drake Passage was a perilous venture even for a robust vessel manned by an intrepid crew in the calm season—a collection of characteristics that utterly failed to describe HMS Wager.
Wager’s speed and maneuverability were compromised due to the loss of a mast in the storm. Her captain was dead, her acting captain was bedridden, and many of the men were deathly ill. Wager had lost contact with the other ships of the squadron, having fallen hopelessly far behind. And her crew’s troubles had only just begun.
Wager was a long way from where she had started life. She was originally built in 1734 for the East India Company to shuttle spices, fabrics, and other exotic goods from the Far East to England, defended by 28 cannons. Although the name “Wager” evokes images of risk-taking and swashbuckling, her namesake was mundane—she was named after Admiral Sir Charles Wager, First Lord of the Admiralty of the British Royal Navy. In 1739, the same navy purchased the lightly-used cargo ship, and refitted Wager into His Majesty’s Ship Wager, a supply and support vessel. She was placed under the command of Captain Dandy Kidd, and this delightfully monikered officer’s first mission as Wager’s captain would be to support Commodore George Anson on a clandestine mission to surprise, harass, and plunder the enemy in the name of King George II.
The enemy in question was the Spanish Empire. Two and a half centuries earlier, Christopher Columbus had stumbled upon the Americas on behalf of Spain, and subsequently Spain established a firm foothold in the so-called “New World.” The Spanish Empire looted vast quantities of silver, spices, sugar, and tobacco, and this flow of wealth attracted the jealous attention of the British monarchy. Spain strictly limited other nations’ business in the New World, nevertheless English privateers often smuggled goods and slaves in the region. In response, the Spanish navy began patrolling these waters, asserting the right to inspect any vessels.
During one such inspection in 1731, a British merchant captain named Robert Jenkins protested the intrusion, and in the ensuing scuffle the Spanish captain’s blade somehow separated Captain Jenkins from his left ear. This civilian injury was far from newsworthy back in Britain—after all, smuggling was a rough business. Eight years later, however, when Great Britain sought a pretext for war, it became politically expedient for British politicians to suffer outrage over this unauthorized amputation. Legend has it that Captain Robert Jenkins himself held aloft the very ear in question at a Parliamentary hearing, as evidence for the grave insult to the crown—though there is no historical proof that this exhibition actually occurred. Ear regardless, the outrage was successfully fabricated, and the resulting years of hostilities would come to be known as “The War of Jenkins’ Ear.”
Commodore Anson’s orders were to capture profitable Spanish possessions on the west coast of South America. The mission was delayed, however, due to a severe shortage of men. The Admiralty acquired some sailors through the controversial institution of the press-gang, where civilians were forced into military service on pain of death. To fill the remaining vacancies, the Admiralty waived their “able-bodied” requirement and drafted 500 men from the “Corps of Invalids,” a stockpile of army veterans who were too old, injured, or otherwise infirm for further army service. Some of these men were barely able to stand unassisted, let alone walk, or handle rigging on a lurching deck. Among those who could walk, many of them did, directly away from the navy ships, before the squadron was even underway.
Of the men that remained, Commodore Anson later wrote:
It is difficult to conceive a more moving scene than the embarkation of these unhappy veterans. They were themselves extremely averse to the service they were engaged in […] to be thus hurried from their repose into a fatiguing employ to which neither the strength of their bodies nor the vigour of their minds were in any way proportioned, and where, without seeing the face of an enemy…they would in all probability uselessly perish.
An additional concern was the general condition of His Majesty’s ships. Years of neglect and corruption had left the king’s navy in poor repair, with rot in ships’ masts and decay in their carpentry. Furthermore, many vessels were haphazard conversions from civilian sources, such as Wager herself. This mix-and-match fleet meant that ships did not have interchangeable parts, making it impossible to carry an adequate supply of spare parts for repairs at sea.
Be that as it may, Commodore Anson was eager to get underway. He was aware that the journey from England to the Drake Passage would require about five months, and he was aware that Cape Horn’s climate offered a short summer window—November through January—where the passage was merely very dangerous rather than suicidal. But he was waylaid by bureaucracy as the Admiralty struggled to acquire sailors, marines, and supplies. To have any hope of reaching the South Sea unscathed, Anson knew that his squadron must depart from England by June’s end—early July at the absolute latest.
The squadron sailed in late September.
By February, as autumn began to settle on the southern hemisphere, Commodore Anson’s secret squadron was bobbing at anchor in St. Julian’s Bay, a natural harbor in modern-day Argentina. This was the last stop for seagoing vessels to repair and resupply before entering the Straits le Maire—the gateway to the dreaded Drake Passage.
The stormy Atlantic crossing had battered the squadron’s vessels, and ships’ carpenters spent the dwindling daylight hours mending masts and repairing riggings. Many of the squadron’s 1,800 or so humans were in similar disrepair—complaining of weakness, exhaustion, sore limbs, loss of teeth, spontaneous bleeding from the skin, and, occasionally, death. These were the unmistakable symptoms of vitamin C deficiency, more commonly known as scurvy. Humans, it turns out, are among the few species on Earth that cannot synthesize vitamin C; but at that time the Royal Navy was unaware of this biological shortcoming, and they had not yet discovered the scurvy-thwarting power of citrus that would eventually earn British sailors the nickname ‘limeys.’ Among the deceased was Captain Dandy Kidd of Wager. According to some depictions of his death, in his final days Captain Kidd uttered an ominous prophesy that the squadron was doomed to “poverty, vermin, famine, death, and destruction”; but this was likely a later embellishment for dramatic effect—retroactive foreshadowing. After some shuffling of officers, Lieutenant David Cheap of the sloop Tryal was promoted to acting captain of Wager.
According to reports from authorities ashore at St. Julian’s Bay, five well-armed Spanish men-of-war had sailed through just a few weeks prior to Anson’s arrival, headed for the Drake Passage. Commodore Anson was keen to overtake his enemy around Cape Horn, so he could gain the tactical initiative. To that end, on 27 February 1741, the squadron pulled anchor and sailed for the Straits le Maire. Anson ordered all ships to round Cape Horn—storms and scurvy be damned—and rendezvous off the island of Nuestra Señora de Socorro west of South America.
As the squadron departed St. Julian’s Bay, the sun was shining pleasantly, and the wind blew in a favorable direction. It appeared to be a beautiful day for sailing. Commodore Anson would later write:
We passed those memorable Streights, ignorant of the dreadful calamities which were then impending, and just ready to break upon us; ignorant that the time drew near, when the squadron would be separated never to unite again, and that this day of our passage was the last chearful day that the greatest part of us would ever live to enjoy.
Commodore Anson’s squadron entered the Drake Passage on 07 March 1741, sailing westward. The latitude of the Drake Passage—approximately 60º south—does not contain any landmasses, leaving a belt of uninterrupted ocean and atmosphere all the way around the planet. The Earth’s rotation drags this band of air and water into a nonstop west-to-east loop, a phenomenon known as the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. The Drake Passage constricts the flow into a relatively narrow space, intensifying the waves like rapids on a river. Sailing westward there means sailing against the current and the wind, which necessitates tacking, a means of making slow headway by setting a course almost perpendicular to the headwind, but with a slight slant in the desired direction. With periodic turns a ship can gradually zig-zag into the wind, like using switchbacks to climb a steep mountainside.
The squadron set out on a southerly zig, but shallow rocks made it too dangerous to zag north. So the crews maintained their south-southwest course, inching westward while rushing southward, bearing into the increasingly frigid Antarctic waters. They would need to turn north eventually—Europeans at that time had not yet discovered Antarctica, but they were aware that sailing too far south at this latitude meant encounters with rocky shoals, icebergs, and lethal cold. Due to the extreme tacking required, Anson expected his squadron to spend about seven weeks rounding Cape Horn.
In the heavy precipitation and turbulent seas, the ships of the squadron scattered, only intermittently visible to one another. Great cold waves inundated the ships’ decks. The hulls groaned and heaved as crewmen did the same. Sudden lurches sent sailors sliding and tumbling, a few of them overboard with no hope of rescue. As often as possible officers used an astronomical instrument called an octant—a precursor to the sextant—to estimate their position, but an accurate calculation at such extreme latitudes would require a clear view of heavenly bodies, a stable platform, and a chronometer more accurate than any that existed at the time. The men were therefore forced to rely mostly on dead reckoning, the process of estimating one’s position based on speed, elapsed time, and previously estimated position. This imprecise method led to compounding errors, and decreasingly reliable positional data.
Aboard Wager, after enduring the miserable weather for weeks, the officers decided it was time to make their turn. They changed course to a long zag north. After travelling north only a short time, they heard cannon fire in the distance—a warning from another ship in the squadron that deadly rocks had been sighted to the north. Evidently the squadron was only about halfway past the cape. Dejected, Wager’s crew turned again, and resumed the journey south. As winter and the Antarctic Circle drew closer, the frost began to bite. The converted cargo ship lacked the proper rigging for sailing into contrary wind, a matter made worse when one of the ship’s secondary masts buckled. Only a fraction of the men were well enough to run the ice-encrusted rigging, the skeleton crew barely managing to maintain a south-southwest trajectory. Captain Cheap himself was bedridden by germ or scurvy. Unbeknownst to the rest of the squadron, their supply ship was falling dangerously far behind.
On 01 May 1741, a little over two months after leaving St. Julian’s Bay, Wager’s officers again estimated that they had made adequate westerly progress. Just a few degrees north of the Antarctic Circle, they changed course to north-northwest. Ship’s gunner John Bulkeley—well-regarded among the crew as the ship’s most capable seaman—assessed the condition of Wager as she staggered roughly northward. As damaged as Wager was, Bulkeley was uncertain whether they could make the prearranged rendezvous with Commodore Anson at Socorro island. Further, the ship’s stores of food and fresh water were running worryingly low. Bulkeley proposed an alternate plan to Captain Cheap: Juan Fernandez island. Juan Fernandez was safer and more accessible, and there the crew could repair and resupply before seeking out the squadron at Socorro. Cheap did not agree, and he ordered his bewildered crew to stay the course in the general direction of Socorro. To forestall the exhaustion of food supplies, the captain instituted rations. To forestall mutinous actions from a hungry, scurvy-ridden crew, the captain ordered his officers to carry pistols.
Thirteen days after Wager’s turn northwest, in the dawn hour, the ship was sailing along the west coast of South America when ship’s carpenter John Cummins thought he caught a glimpse of something unexpected off to the west: Land. But visibility was dreadful, the light was still dim, and his fellow officer Lieutenant Baynes assured him that their first sighting of land on this side of Cape Horn would be to the east—to the west there was nothing but empty ocean for thousands of miles. Later that day, however, ship’s gunner Bulkeley also spotted a rocky shoreline, and it was to the west just as Carpenter Cummins had claimed. Wager was headed straight for it. Evidently during the night the ship had drifted into a large, uncharted bay on South America’s west coast. One of the few able-bodied men turned the wheel hard to starboard, and the others struggled with the crippled rigging throughout the afternoon and evening, working in gale force winds to reorient the sails. Wager began to haltingly twist away from the rocks. Captain Cheap had recovered from his earlier ailment, but in the rush and bluster, the deck pitched and the captain lost his footing, falling hard on the rung of a ladder and dislocating his shoulder.
The effort continued until after sundown. A dense cover of clouds crowded the sky and smothered the moon, hiding the looming shore from view. The men had altered Wager’s course, but it was impossible to know whether they had turned far enough. Gusts of wind agitated the ocean and pushed Wager through the cold darkness. Heavy raindrops pelted the deck. The ship full of ailing conscripts teeter-tottered blindly through writhing seas.
At around 4:30 in the morning, a tremendous thump rattled Wager’s weary bones. She was stuck on a rock. This lasted only a moment before a rolling wave scraped her off again. Captain Cheap ordered Lieutenant Baynes to drop the anchor, but before he complied, Wager’s hull shook from another impact, this one much harder than before. Stacks of heavy items in the cargo holds shifted and collapsed, knocking holes through the hull. Water poured in from the sea. There were wails of protest from hull and crew alike. Wager drifted and bobbed, her rudder broken. Finally, with a shudder, the ship ground to a halt, wedged in a gap between two rocky protrusions.
Midshipman John Byron wrote:
Every person that now could stir was presently upon the quarter-deck; and many even of those were alert upon this occasion, that had not showed their faces upon the deck for above two months before: several poor wretches, who were in the last stage of scurvy, and who could not get out of their hammocks, were immediately drowned.
Once it was clear that their ship was stuck fast and taking on water, Captain Cheap ordered the remaining masts be cut down, lest the wind twist the ship to pieces. There was nothing more to do but wait out the night.
At daybreak, when the rocky shore became visible, Cheap ordered Master’s Mate John Snow to make landfall, reconnoiter, and return at once. His Majesty’s Shipwreck Wager was quite immobilized, but she was equipped with four smaller craft intended for various operations between ships and shore: the flat-bottomed barge for navigating shallow water, the cutter and yawl for small groups, and the longboat for much larger away missions. Snow set off on the barge along with a small crowd of pitiful survivors, but after an hour he had evidently decided to stay ashore, to the great exasperation of the remaining crew. Cheap ordered Lieutenant Baynes to go after him in the yawl, fetch the barge, and personally return with an assessment. Baynes dutifully departed, but neither he nor the barge returned—instead the Lieutenant sent back another crewman in the yawl with vague good news about the conditions on land. Despite Cheap’s injury and his fury at defied orders, the other officers persuaded him to go ashore himself, along with all of the crew who could fit in the available landing craft. Those who could not squeeze in would need to linger on the wreck a little longer.
Ashore, the survivors found rocks, marshes, scattered scraggly shrubs, and little more. But they did discover one hint of civilization: a small man-made hut, the only effective shelter in the observable universe. On that first dreary day Captain Cheap claimed the hut as his own, while most of the other survivors scavenged wood, built a great bonfire, found some wild celery for dinner, and crowded under the few trees large enough to offer a modicum of shelter. By morning, three men had died of exposure.
In the days that followed, the officers organized the retrieval of additional provisions and survivors from the hulk of the Wager. Some of the seamen left behind, having located and appropriated the ship’s cache of liquor, decided to remain aboard the wreck indefinitely. Liberated from their inhibitions, they argued that they were no longer duty-bound to Captain Cheap. After all, the loss of the Wager meant that their pay would be suspended. Three sheets to the wind, the cantankerous holdouts plundered the cabins of the command crew, emerging with weapons in hand, draped in the officers’ special-occasion lace and finery. Ashore, a midshipman named Campbell was ordered to return to the wreck on a supply run, and he later wrote in his journal:
Accordingly I went, but found them all in such Confusion as cannot be imagined by any who were not Eye-witnesses of it. Some were singing Psalms, others fighting, others swearing, and some lay drunk on the Deck.
The ocean intensified its heaving, so much so that the creaking hulk of the Wager seemed on the verge of disintegration out on the rocks. Officers ashore noted that one of the few remaining holdouts on the wreck—Boatswain John King—was signaling for rescue. However the sea was too heavy for any of the small vessels to cross the water, so King would have to wait. When King realized that no one was coming right away, the indignant boatswain aimed one of Wager’s cannons toward the shore and fired. The whoosh of a passing cannonball ripped the air just above the captain’s hut. King fired a second time, again narrowly missing the captain’s quarters.
Once the weather permitted rescue, when King finally stepped onto land draped in a soggy suit of offers’ lace, Captain Cheap was present to meet him. The captain struck King with a cane, cursing the insubordinate boatswain as a ‘rogue and a villain’. King fell prostrate into the sand as fellow crewmen looked on warily. King saw a cocked pistol in the captain’s other hand, and pulled open the collar of his garish blouse to bare his breast and receive the inevitable. “You deserve to be shot,” the captain said. But he did not do the deed.
Eventually, one hundred and forty survivors made it ashore. In dire need of supplies, whenever weather permitted, the men rowed out to the wreck to pick Wager’s bones under the watchful eyes of officers. Sailors hammered holes into the mostly submerged hull to flood inaccessible spaces. This washed out barrels of provisions, and scores of bloated corpses. Captain Cheap ordered that all recovered supplies be stored in a tent adjacent to his hut, to be set aside for strict rationing. The tent soon housed stacks of barrels containing biscuits, beef, pork, peas, oatmeal, flour, brandy, wine, and rum—as well as black powder and ammunition. The captain enacted strict, meager rations, and asked Lieutenant Hamilton of the marines to post sentries outside the tent to discourage theft. The marines were not under the direct command of the ship’s captain—Lieutenant Hamilton reported to Captain Pemberton of the marines—but the land and sea branches of the military were expected to cooperate.
As winter set in, a sagging encampment of handmade tents gradually fanned out around the captain’s hut, providing slight respite from the incessant rain and snow. Some of the relatively healthy men explored the area around the camp, determining that fate had deposited the Wager’s crew upon a small, uninhabited, marshy island off the western shore of South America. Plant and animal life were scarce due to the hostile conditions. The men dubbed it “Wager Island”. They christened the hill to the north of the encampment “Mount Misery”. Survivors munched on wild celery, and ate small mollusks peeled from the rocks. Regarding the collection of shellfish for days on end, Midshipman Byron wrote:
…this rummaging of the shore was now becoming extremely irksome to those who had any feeling, by the bodies of our drowned people thrown among the rocks, some of which were hideous spectacles. […] A boy, when no other eatables could be found, having picked up the liver of one of the drowned men (whose carcase had been torn to pieces by the force with which the sea drove it among the rocks), was with difficulty withheld from making a meal of it.
Many mornings men awoke to find some among them had died. Survivors shot and devoured the crows that dined on the dead. Some men merely disappeared, presumably to craft rafts and paddle for the mainland. Alcohol was relatively plentiful, so intoxication was common. Robberies of food and liquor from the storage tent occurred often, as the guards were too weary, hungry, and easily bribed to present an effective deterrence. It was in this bleak condition, a week after the loss of their ship, that the marooned Englishmen first made contact with the indigenous people.
The native men—who the Englishmen referred to as “Indians” and “savages”—appeared in the distance in three canoes. In spite of the cold they wore little clothing, Byron describing their garb as “nothing but a bit of some beast’s skin about their waists, and something woven from feathers over the shoulders.” The natives were relatively short in stature, with long black hair, olive skin, and astonishing muscle tone. At first the natives were apprehensive at the sight of the tall, pale, emaciated aliens, but the Europeans piqued their curiosity with offerings of unfamiliar technological wonders such as bales of fine cloth, articles of clothing, and—most peculiar of all—a “looking glass”.
Midshipman Byron wrote:
It was some time before we could prevail upon them to lay aside their fears and approach us; which at length they were induced to do by the signs of friendship we made them, and by shewing some bale-goods, which they accepted, and suffered themselves to be conducted to the captain, who made them, likewise, some presents. They were strangely affected with the novelty thereof; but chiefly when shewn the looking-glass, in which the beholder could not conceive it to be his own face that was represented, but that of some other behind it, which he therefore went round to the back of the glass to find out.
Communicating via gestures, the natives agreed to trade for some food—a small stockpile of mollusks. They returned some time later offering three sheep, which the Englishmen eagerly accepted for future meals. The natives also offered two dogs, which the Englishmen immediately roasted and ate. Groups of indigenous people stayed on the island from time to time, eventually establishing a small settlement with their own clutch of seal-skin wigwams housing dozens of men, women, and children. The men hunted while the women embarked on lengthy dives into the ocean for “sea-eggs” (probably sea urchins). But these families did not stay long—the castaways had not seen any women in months, and based on the resulting unwanted attention, the indigenous people opted to evacuate before the English seamen became a problem.
The quality of the weather continued to deteriorate. About 100 men still survived. Midshipman Byron wrote of one desperate incident:
I built a little hut just big enough for myself and a poor Indian dog I found in the woods, who could shift for himself along shore at low water by getting limpets. This creature grew so fond of me and faithful that he would suffer nobody to come near the hut without biting them. […] One day when I was at home in my hut with my Indian dog, a party came to my door and told me their necessities were such, that they must eat the creature or starve. Though their plea was urgent, I could not help using some arguments to endeavour to dissuade them from killing him, as his faithful services and fondness deserved it at my hands. But without weighing any arguments they took him away by force and killed him; upon which, thinking that I had at least as good a right to a share as the rest, I sat down with them and partook of their repast. Three weeks after that I was glad to make a meal of his paws and skin, which, upon recollecting the spot where they had killed him, I found thrown aside and rotten.
Amid the chronic starvation and intoxication, with no evidence of imminent deliverance or plan of action, murmurs of desertion and mutiny occasionally escalated into action. Along with individual desertions, ten sailors elected to band together and strike out on their own. Not content to merely disappear, they quietly placed a half barrel of explosive black powder just outside the captain’s hut. As Cheap sat inside, unaware of the treachery, they poured out a line of powder to the keg to act as a fuse. Before they lit the powder, however, one among them lost his nerve, and the ten fled without violence.
Some days later, in a heavy rain on 10 June 1741, Captain Cheap was in his hut conversing with Lieutenant Hamilton of the marines, when the men heard a pistol shot from outside, and shouting voices. Lieutenant Hamilton dashed outside shouting “Mutiny!”
The captain stepped out into the cold downpour, cocked pistol in hand. “Where is the villain?” he shouted, whereupon he spotted a midshipman named Cozens lurching toward him, with, as one onlooker put it, “the face and gesture of a mere fury”. Midshipman Cozens was well known to Captain Cheap—in the days since the crew had become marooned on Wager Island, Mr. Cozens had been disciplined several times: for drunkenness, abusive language, an exchange of blows with the ship’s surgeon, and implications of mutiny. Without another word, the captain raised his pistol, and Captain Cheap shot Midshipman Cozens directly in the face.
Cozens fell to the ground with an expression of shock and bewilderment, blood gushing from a wound under his right eye. Once some onlookers regained their wits, several men picked him up and rushed him to the sick tent as others whispered among themselves. Captain Cheap went back inside. Lieutenant Hamilton summoned the naval officers to the captain’s hut, and there the captain greeted them with his pistol in hand.
“Sir,” Midshipman Byron said to the captain, “You see we are disarmed.”
The Captain dropped his pistol ceremoniously. “I see you are, and have only sent for you to let you all know I am still your Commander,” he said. “So let every man go to his tent.” The officers did as ordered.
In the meantime, upon learning of Cozens’s injury, the surgeon recused himself from treating the wound, citing his recent fisticuffs with the midshipman. The surgeon’s assistant dressed the wound and extracted the ball on his own without complication. It appeared that Cozens would be scarred, but he would live. Some crewmates asked permission to move Cozens from the open-air sick tent—which was just a wet canvas stretched over some bushes—to a crew tent for recovery. “No,” Captain Cheap responded, “the scoundrel shan’t be gratified.”
Eyewitness accounts would later indicate that Midshipman Cozens had not fired the shot that had led Cheap and Hamilton to suspect that insurrection was afoot. Instead, the shot was from the pistol of the ship’s purser, Thomas Harvey, who had fired at Cozens after an angry confrontation regarding the handling of rations. Mr. Cozens was only spared from that shooting because John Young, the ship’s cooper, had deflected Harvey’s pistol just before he fired. Cozens was guilty of being cold, hungry, nearly murdered, and quite possibly drunk—but he had not done anything amounting to mutiny. Nonetheless, by the captain’s order, he lay on the freezing floor of the sick tent for days on end. After languishing there for two weeks, Midshipman Cozens died.
Ship’s Cooper John Young wrote:
His shipmates buried him with all the decent formality their situation would then admit of. There were no tears shed at the funeral, for those distil but rarely from the eyes of sailors, but several resentful speeches dropped from envenomed tongues, and the obsequies were solemnised with volleys of scandal. It was among other like things said, that though the deceased was a conceited busy fellow, and would be always meddling, that was not a sufficient reason for killing him; that he had never appeared in arms on any occasion since they came ashore; and that to shoot a man through the head on a mere surmise, without any inquisition or process of law at all, was something worse than manslaughter…
Meanwhile, salvage efforts aboard Wager had extracted a new treasure: the longboat. It was large enough that the men had to partially disassemble Wager’s gunwale in order to get to it. The longboat was the highest capacity of the ship’s array of supporting craft, an open vessel approximately 37 feet (11.3 meters) long. The longboat was only suitable for moderate jaunts, however Carpenter John Cummins had devised a plan to expand and upgrade the longboat into a schooner, a dual-masted sailboat more suited for journeys on the open ocean. He had managed to recover most of his tools from the wreck, and he could scavenge construction materials from Wager. Amid gusty winds and intermittent hail, Carpenter Cummins and his team overturned the boat onto stands, sawed its hull in half crosswise, and began sandwiching a new section in its center, lengthening the hull to nearly 50 feet (15.2 meters). It would take months to complete a seaworthy upgrade, but the carpenter projected that the final product would be able to support up to 80 closely-packed souls.
Captain Cheap was eager for the carpenter to complete the schooner, he intended to lead his crew to the north, where somehow he would catch up with Commodore Anson and rejoin the ongoing fight. To his thinking, it would be insubordination to attempt anything less. Ship’s gunner John Bulkeley found this idea preposterous—the schooner would be a fragile vessel, and she would not have any offensive capabilities. Sailing north would risk a brush with a patrolling Spanish man-of-war, which would mean certain death for some, and imprisonment and torture for the rest. Bulkeley had designs on sailing south instead, back from whence they came, using the schooner as a lifeboat to reach Portuguese-controlled Brazil, then on to England. To his thinking, it would be suicide to attempt anything more.
On 04 August 1741, nearly three months after Wager wrecked on the rocks, Carpenter Cummins took a break from his boat-building to join Gunner Bulkeley on a visit to the Captain’s hut. Bulkeley had a document which he had been quietly showing to others around the camp. He read its contents aloud to the captain:
We whose Names are under-mentioned, do, upon mature Consideration, as we have met with so happy a Deliverance, think it is the best, surest, and most safe Way, for the Preservation of the Body of the People on the Spot, to proceed through the Streights of Magellan for England.
A list of signatures indicated broad support for Bulkeley’s south-for-England plan, the letter having been signed by a majority of the naval officers, as well Captain Pemberton of the marines, two of his Lieutenants, and a large number of seamen.
The Straits of Magellan mentioned in Bulkeley’s note was (and is) a jagged series of waterways across the southern end of South America, a route first discovered by Europeans when Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan survived navigating the straits in 1520. It offered a shorter and more sheltered southern route than the Drake Passage, but it presented its own catalog of hazards: Narrow channels, unpredictable currents, and strong winds. But Bulkeley was a seasoned sailor, and he was confident that the modified longboat would fare better against the capricious Straits of Magellan than it would against the outright murderous temperament of the cape.
Captain Cheap did not immediately respond to the makeshift comment card. The tense discussion around north versus south dragged into the following days. The officers gradually concluded that the captain had not been swayed from his plan to sail the longboat north to seek out the squadron. Captain Cheap even fantasized aloud that they might intercept and confiscate an enemy ship along the way, in order to gain offensive capabilities. “We have always obeyed you,” Bulkeley said to the captain, speaking for himself and the other officers of Wager, “and will continue to support your authority as long as it is for the common welfare.”
Initially, most of the sick and starving sailors and marines supported Gunner Bulkeley’s plan to sail south. Perhaps along the way they might find more invigorating belly-timber than the seaweed-and-flour paste that had become a staple of last resort. Perhaps a few of them might actually survive. But as the days wore on, favor began to drift toward Captain Cheap’s plan for a bold northern offensive. Upon investigating these inexplicable changes of hearts, Bulkeley discovered that Purser Harvey—the officer in charge of allocating food and supplies—was handing out substantial extra rations of rum and brandy to any man who would side with the captain. Bulkeley was outraged by these “rebels,” as he called them, and their betrayal of his own, more respectable rebellion. A deep fissure formed between the two factions. Bulkeley resolved to change the captain’s mind, and secure Cheap’s support for the plan to sail south, which would put the increasingly tense controversy to rest. In the midst of this turbulence, in what would be rightly criticized as ham-handed metaphor in a work of fiction, the very Earth shook. Carpenter Cummins summed it up in his journal: “This day felt four great Earthquakes, three of which were very terrible.”
On Friday, 28 August 1741, the officers of the former HMS Wager gathered in Captain Cheap’s hut for a meeting. Each man carried a firearm. Partway through this meeting, Gunner Bulkeley produced a new document and read it aloud to the captain:
Whereas upon a General Consultation, it has been agreed to go from this Place through the Streights of Magellan, for the Coast of Brazil, in our Way for England: We do, notwithstanding, find the People separating into Parties, which must consequently end in the Destruction of the whole Body; and as also there have been great robberies committed on the Stores, and every Thing is now at a Stand; therefore, to prevent all future Frauds and Animosities, we are unanimously agreed to proceed as above-mentioned.
Bulkeley then asked the captain to sign the document to cement his support for the southbound plan. Bulkeley’s copy of this paper was but one of several; he had produced copies for all of the officers to carry. This new note and its duplicates had been produced at the suggestion of Lieutenant Baynes, who had theretofore been loyal to the captain. Baynes had also suggested, should the captain refuse to sign the note, that the officers arrest the captain for the murder of Mr. Cozens. But despite his earlier audacity, Baynes sat silent as Bulkeley read the note. Captain Cheap seethed, refusing to sign, or even to respond. Regarding Baynes’s silence, Bulkeley would later write, “We thought the Lieutenant a Gentleman of resolution; but the Words and Actions of People do not always concur.”
The naval officers—with the exception of the captain and Lieutenant Baynes—burst from Cheap’s hut and crossed camp directly to Captain Pemberton of the marines. They asked for Pemberton’s allegiance in their plan to remove Captain Cheap from command. Captain Pemberton, before a crowd of onlookers, responded that he would stand by them with his life. Three cheers went up in the crowd, along with shouts of “For England!”
Captain Cheap threw open the flap of his hut and demanded an explanation for the riotous noise. When he was made to understand that the officers intended to remove him from command, he shouted to the crowd, “Who is he that will take the command from me?” Then, to Lieutenant Baynes, “Is it you, sir?”
Baynes blanched. “No sir.”
The throng of starving castaways smelled mutiny. There arose considerable shouting and disorder. Some men charged their muskets, and some began to make demands regarding distribution of provisions. Amid the uproar the captain tossed his pistol aside melodramatically, and shouted over the din, “What are your grievances? In the name of God I am willing to put them right, and to go southward with you if that is your resolve.” With this major concession—and agreeing to increase each man’s daily allowance of liquor—the captain calmed the crowd, and the animosity returned to a simmer. The following day, some fifty or so indigenous people arrived in canoes, but they refused to barter with the agitated Englishmen, and they departed immediately in the morning.
The men began preparations for the journey home. Captain Cheap ordered a team to take the barge south along the coast, scouting the way to the Straits of Magellan. Carpenter Cummins recruited assistance in turning the soon-to-be-schooner right side up. Bulkeley, realizing that the schooner would need much more freshwater for the voyage, stated his intention to dump a number of barrels of black powder into the sea, so that the containers could be refitted for water storage. The captain’s response was disconcerting: “I desire you will not destroy any one thing without my orders.” Without additional fresh water capacity, the long journey to Brazil would be impossible, but the captain adamantly refused to part with the powder.
On the morning of 09 September, the captain was asleep in his hut when he was awakened by a number of hands roughly grasping his person. One among the intruders took the captain’s pistol, while another bound the captain’s hands. “What are you about?” demanded Cheap, “Where are my officers?” The Master, Gunner, Carpenter, and Boatswain stepped inside. “Gentlemen,” the captain said, “Do you know what you have done, or are about?”
“Yes, sir,” one of them responded, “Our assistance was demanded by Captain Pemberton, to secure you as a prisoner for the death of Mr Cozens; and as we are subjects of Great Britain, we are obliged to take you as such to England.”
“Gentlemen,” Cheap said, “Captain Pemberton has nothing to do with me; I am your commander still.” But his hands were tied. Although Pemberton had indeed asked them to arrest the captain, the murder was convenient pretext—a Jenkin’s Ear. The men had gathered and agreed that Captain Cheap still secretly intended to sail the schooner north to find Commodore Anson, as evidenced by his comportment regarding the powder kegs. He was, in their view, reckless with the lives of the crew, and no longer to be trusted.
Four days after the captain’s arrest, being five months since the loss of Wager, the survivors christened the completed schooner as Speedwell. The men loaded her modest hold with their modest stock of provisions, including powder kegs converted for fresh water. Captain Cheap insisted that he would rather be shot than carried away a prisoner, and asked to be left behind on the island. The others readily agreed. Better for the captain to disappear than have him come along and survive to press charges of mutiny back in England. Surgeon Elliot opted to stay with the captain, as did Lieutenant Hamilton of the marines. A handful of additional men were left behind due to prior desertions. The departing contingent left a portion of provisions for their marooned countrymen, along with the little yawl, so that the captain might have some transportation, whatever he decided to do.
One of the officers—most likely Bulkeley—wrote up a short constitution for Speedwell’s journey home. It consisted of a justification for Cheap’s arrest and abandonment, as well as a series of articles that forbade violence, and outlined the fair division of current and future provisions. By noon the departing men had pressed themselves into the trio of escape craft: fifty-nine on Speedwell, twelve on the cutter, and ten on the barge. The survivors set sail southward.
Ship’s gunner Bulkeley wrote:
This was the last Time I ever saw the unfortunate Captain Cheap. […] let us do so much Justice to his Character, do declare, he was a Gentleman posses’d of many Virtues; he was an excellent Seaman himself, and lov’d a Seaman; as for personal Bravery, no Man had a larger Share of it; even when a Prisoner he preserv’d the Dignity of a Commander.
The escapees were about a day into their journey—still in the confines of “Cheap’s Bay”—when they suffered a major loss of men. The officers on Speedwell realized that their supply of sailcloth was insufficient for the undertaking, and they sent nine men on the barge back to Wager Island to retrieve spare material. One of the occupants of the barge—Midshipman John Byron—walked back to where Speedwell was anchored near the shore to inform Gunner Bulkeley that those on the barge had decided to stay with the captain. The loss of the barge was alarming, as it was useful for fetching food and water from shore; but Speedwell still had the cutter. The seventy-two remaining evacuees in two vessels resumed their departure from Cheap’s Bay.
For weeks on end, the sailors delicately steered Speedwell southeast through “boisterous” seas and narrow, rocky channels. The men in the cutter groped just ahead, frequently measuring the depth of the water to ensure the larger schooner would not run aground. Each evening the vessels anchored, and the cutter carried men ashore to hunt wild geese, forage for shellfish, and collect drinking water. The closely-packed living area became a swamp of bodily odors. One man wrote, “The Steams of our Bodies and filthy wet Apparel infected the Air.” Another described, “The Stench of the Mens wet Cloaths makes the Air we breathe nauseous.” In spite of the discomfort, the journey was beginning to feel survivable. On 03 November, however, the cutter’s square-sail tore in a violent squall. Unable to steer, the small vessel was blown away and well out of sight. The loss of the cutter made it nearly impossible for Speedwell acquire fresh food, and just a few days in this state left the men with little motivation to survive. But in these literal dire straits, in what must have seemed a miracle, the cutter reappeared. Its crew of eleven men sailed up alongside and tied their craft to Speedwell, to the great relief of all present. Overnight the winds howled and flailed. The cutter broke loose, disappearing into the rocks and darkness. This time it did not return.
Some days later in the journey, according to Gunner Bulkeley’s journal, ten men “requested and desired” to be put ashore to find their own way. It is unlikely they volunteered voluntarily, their chances of survival on foot were dismal, and the men in question happened to be regarded as the most apathetic of the crew. Nevertheless, they were ejected ashore into the desolate, cold bog. Sixty souls remained aboard Speedwell as it entered the Straits of Magellan.
“We expected every Wave to swallow us, and the Boat to founder,” wrote Bulkeley. “We were surrounded with Rocks, and so near that a Man might toss a Bisket on them. It blew a Hurricane of Wind.” During rare calm weather, a few crew swam ashore to seek food. On one occasion they encountered some natives, and traded a pair of English trousers for a mangy dog to eat. On another occasion a marine successfully hunted a large seal. But these victuals did not go far among sixty stomachs. As Speedwell inched through the craggy, labyrinthine channels, men began to die of starvation.
Ship’s cooper John Young wrote:
It was remarkable of these people that some hours before they expired they became delirious. In this state they would joke, laugh immoderately, and play ridiculous pranks, as if they were really merry; in which temper they died. Those of us that survived had almost ground to envy the deceased, who were thereby freed from the horrid circumstances under which we groaned, tortured with hunger and thirst, catching at the most nauseous things that could any way appease the rage of these cruel appetites, and an abhorrence even to ourselves by reason of stench and vermin. Was not death in such a case a release or deliverance?
Hopelessly lost, the survivors turned around and went back to the entrance of the straits to regain their bearings, costing them a week and a half. Upon resuming the transit, they made good progress, though the ship grounded twice, and narrowly avoided sinking.
Speedwell emerged from the Straits of Magellan into the Atlantic Ocean in early December 1741. Those who survived owed their lives to Gunner Bulkeley and his proficient navigation. The crew anchored off Seal Island, which, true to its name, was crowded with the blubbery “sea dogs.” The Englishmen set up a butcher tent and processed a number of seals to replenish the larder, then set off again.
Within a few days the seal meat began to decay, saturating the air with the stench of death, but the rotting meat remained the only nourishment on offer. The freshwater supply was also dwindling fast. “Never were beheld a Parcel of more miserable Objects,” Bulkeley wrote, “there are not above fifteen of us healthy (if People may be call’d healthy that are scarce able to crawl).” In desperation, fourteen men jumped into the sea and swam toward land with weapons and water casks. One man drowned in the crossing, but the others got ashore. They shot, butchered, and cooked several fresh seals, one horse, and one wild dog. As swimmers helped haul the meat and water to Speedwell on a makeshift raft, the wind began to worsen, and the rickety schooner was obliged to move away from shore. Eight men were left behind.
Fifteen weeks after departing from Wager Island, having crossed over 2,000 miles, Speedwell arrived at the mouth of the Rio Grande river in Brazil. The schooner was barely seaworthy, broken and sagging much like her crew. As Speedwell approached the shore, a friendly ship of the Portuguese navy sailed alongside and two officials boarded. They were aghast at the bleak mass of skeletal humanity that occupied the open boat. “We were become such a frightful Crew of Starvelings,” Cooper John Young wrote, “that they could not but look on us with a Mixture of Horror and Compassion.” Thirty men were all that remained of the original eighty-one.
Bulkeley and most of his fellow survivors arrived back in England, at the port city of Spithead, on New Year’s Day 1743. The last leg of their lengthy journey home had been aboard HMS Stirling Castle. Their stay in Brazil had been fraught with complications; the boatswain John King—the same man who had fired a cannon at Captain Cheap’s hut back on Wager Island—had formed a gang there and inexplicably terrorized his fellow survivors. And the crossing of the Atlantic had been somewhat harrowing, having encountered several severe storms, one of which nearly pushed their vessel into the rocky shore. But here they were at long last. It had been more than two years since they had departed England aboard Wager.
Lieutenant Baynes rushed ahead of the others to report to the Admiralty first, and delivered a narrative which left himself blameless. His retelling conflicted with Bulkeley’s and Cummins’s in some meaningful details. The Admiralty were reluctant to draw attention to this embarrassing probable mutiny, so their Lordships stalled formal legal proceedings pending Commodore Anson’s anticipated return. The devastated remnants of Commodore Anson’s squadron did indeed return to England over a year later, only 188 men surviving of the original 1,854. Exactly as Anson had predicted before the squadron originally sailed, most of the conscripts uselessly perished. Still, the squadron had circumnavigated the globe, and taken some valuable prizes from the Spanish along the way, so Anson was received as a hero, with a reception from King George II, a knighthood, and a promotion to the rank of Rear-Admiral. It was now up to the freshly-minted Rear-Admiral to initiate legal proceedings regarding the loss of HMS Wager. But Anson cleverly sidestepped the awkwardness by declining to court-martial the officers in the absence of their captain, thereby postponing the reckoning indefinitely.
Bulkeley went on to command his own ship—a forty gun privateer—where his gallantry and grit against the French won him some fame in London newspapers. He and Cummins published their narratives and journal entries from the Wager shipwreck and subsequent misadventures, and though some readers concluded that the men should be hanged as mutineers, much of the public viewed their survival as miraculous deliverance. The officers of the late HMS Wager each went on with his own life, having circumnavigated any repercussions for their questionable actions on Wager Island. That is, until 26 March 1746, when an advertisement began appearing in newspapers all over Britain:
Vice-Admiral Stewart being directed to hold a court-martial at Portsmouth for enquiring into the cause of the loss of His Majesty’s late ship the Wager, the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty do hereby direct the officers, petty-officers, and foremast-men who belonged to the said ship, to repair immediately down to Portsmouth
By God, Captain Cheap was in London.
When describing the departure of Speedwell from Wager Island, Ship’s Gunner John Bulkeley had written in his journal that the departing party gave three cheers to the men left ashore, and that the cheers were returned in kind. This depiction was almost certainly a fiction, as Captain Cheap and his small party of castaways were decidedly uncheerful under the circumstances. Their mood improved, however, when the barge returned, expanding Captain Cheap’s group to twenty mostly loyal men. They immediately began preparations to refit their two vessels and stock them with provisions for a journey to the island of Chiloé 300 miles to the north. They were sure to be taken prisoner by the Spanish there, but at least they would live.
About two months later they set sail. The rain remained relentless, and the sea was heaving in its usual way along the Patagonian shore, and just a few hours after departure the overloaded barge and yawl were both inundated with water. To avoid certain sinking, the desperate men threw all of their food and supplies overboard. This saved their lives for the moment, but within days the absence of nourishment became acute. The closest thing they had to food was the shoes on their feet, handcrafted from raw sealskin, which was quite inedible. The men ate them anyway. The pair of vessels crept along the coast, occasionally scraping a meager sustenance of shellfish from the rocks. The men shot a few geese and seals. The starving sailors indulged themselves on the seals’ rich livers, which was dangerous owing to the concentration of vitamin A. They were indeed stricken with acute vitamin A toxicity. “We were seized with excessive sickness,” Midshipman Byron recorded, “which affected us so much that our skin peeled off from head to foot.”
One night, while both boats were at anchor, the wind suddenly and turbulently shifted from the north to the south. The yawl capsized and sank. The barge was not large enough to accommodate all of the remaining survivors, so a decision was made to abandon four marines who were in poor health. The barge went on with its fourteen, but could no longer make northerly progress due to the shift in the winds. Having no better option, the party fell all the way back to their abandoned camp on Wager Island. The aborted attempt had cost them all of their food, supplies, and two months of time.
A fortnight and a day after returning to Wager Island, a group of indigenous people arrived, surprised to find that the Englishmen had returned. One of their number—a chief who went by the name Martin—spoke a little Spanish, as did surgeon Elliot, and thus the castaways were able to arrange a trade: the natives would escort the Englishmen to a Spanish settlement in exchange for the barge.
Two men died of starvation shortly after the group resumed the attempt north. As captain, Cheap was entitled to more rations, which he took, much to the bitter annoyance of the other survivors. While camping on a desolate island, six sailors set off in the barge claiming to be seeking food, but they never returned. Five men remained in Captain Cheap’s party: Lieutenant Hamilton of the marines, Surgeon Elliot, Midshipman Byron, Midshipman Campbell, and Captain Cheap himself. Elliot persuaded Chief Martin to continue escorting them despite the loss of the barge; instead they would give him their last remaining firearm, and they promised further compensation on arrival at Chiloé.
This new route required the men to paddle by canoe on rivers for some stretches, and carry the canoes overland for other stretches. The starving Englishmen spent much of their time wading through waist-to-shoulder-deep bogs thick with woody vegetation. They had no shoes, and their tattered clothing became “alive with vermin” (probably lice and/or fleas). The party encountered occasional villages and groups of natives, and the Englishmen received a variety of reactions ranging from sympathy to disgust and contempt. Surgeon Elliot succumbed to starvation, depriving the two groups of intercommunication beyond mere gestures. Lieutenant Hamilton of the marines became separated from the others. Three remained in Cheap’s party.
From midshipman Byron’s narrative:
It is impossible for me to describe the miserable state we were reduced to; our bodies were so emaciated that we hardly appeared the figures of men. It often happened to me in the coldest night, both in hail and snow, where we had nothing but an open beach to lie down upon, in order to procure a little rest, that I was obliged to pull off the few rags I had on, as it was impossible to get a moment’s sleep with them on for the vermin that swarmed about them. I used, as often as I had time, to take my clothes off, and putting them upon a large stone beat them with another, in hopes of killing hundreds at once, for it was endless work to pick them off. What we suffered from this was ten times worse even than hunger.
But we were clean in comparison to Captain Cheap; for I could compare his body to nothing but an ant-hill, with thousands of those insects crawling over it; for he was now past attempting to rid himself in the least from this torment, as he had quite lost himself, not recollecting our names that were about him, or even his own. His beard was as long as a hermit’s…
Four months after beginning the overland journey with Chief Martin, in the dead of winter, the three remaining Englishmen arrived at a village south of the Spanish town of Castro. The villagers sent word of the survivors’ arrival, built a great fire, and fed the malnourished, pest-eaten trio a feast of mutton, potatoes, eggs, and barley meal as they awaited armed escort to Spanish detention.
The Englishmen’s stay with the Spaniards was surprisingly congenial. They stayed in the Spanish town of Chacao on Chiloé island as guests of the governor. There they were housed, fed, and allowed to move around freely as they recovered from their ordeal. A search party located Lieutenant Hamilton, and he was reunited with his countrymen. Via a series of vehicles ranging from ships to mules, the four were eventually conveyed to a frigate that was bound for France, though the men were legally prisoners of Spain.
After delaying departure for about six months, the frigate set sail for the city of Brest in France. Upon arrival there, the Englishmen were forced to wait several more months for permission to return home to England under a prisoner exchange program. Finally, on 05 February 1746, the Court of Spain ordered that the four English captives be allowed to return home. Cheap, Hamilton, Byron, and Campbell arrived in Dover over four years after originally setting out with Commodore Anson’s secret squadron. Captain Cheap’s first priority was to go to his superiors in London to make his full report.
With the return of Captain Cheap, the Admiralty were reluctantly duty-bound to move forward with legal proceedings. They published the newspaper advertisement ordering all surviving officers of HMS Wager present themselves for a court-martial. The Admiralty also sent out messengers to retrieve Bulkeley, Cummins, Baynes, and King. If any or all of these men were found guilty of mutiny, each man’s punishment would certainly involve a brief suspension—from the end of a noose.
After arriving in Spithead as summoned, Bulkeley learned that the Deputy Marshal who sought him was dining at nearby Paul’s-Head Tavern. Bulkeley went there himself and approached the Deputy Marshal anonymously, engaging him in conversation about the gossip of the day: these Wager officers and the miraculous return of their captain.
Bulkeley wrote of the exchange:
His answer was that he believed we should be hanged. To which I replied, for God’s sake for what, for not being drowned? And is a murderer at last come home to be their accuser? I have carefully perused the journal, and can’t conceive that they have been guilty of piracy, mutiny, nor anything else to deserve it. […] At which he said, Sir, they have been guilty of such things to Captain Cheap whilst a prisoner, that I believe the Gunner and Carpenter will be hanged, if nobody else.
Bulkeley then confessed his identity and was duly arrested. Friends of Bulkeley took it upon themselves to visit Captain Cheap. “Gentlemen,” the captain told them, “I have nothing to say for nor against the villains, until the day of trial, and then it is not in my power to be off from hanging them.”
On Monday, 14 April 1746, Deputy Judge Advocate Atkins summoned Bulkeley for his deposition. Charges of mutiny seemed inevitable—and Bulkeley would no doubt be regarded as the de facto leader. The officers might also be charged with piracy for the theft of crown property, having appropriated the longboat as they did. In his defense, Bulkeley had his journal, his myriad legal papers, and his Speedwell constitution, but none of these self-serving records was likely to withstand the direct, withering accusations of a navy captain. When seated for questioning, Bulkeley prevailed upon Judge Atkins to describe whatever charges Captain Cheap had made against him. This court-martial, Judge Atkins then informed him, served but a single purpose: to investigate the loss of His Majesty’s Ship Wager. Whatever happened after the wreck was no concern to these proceedings. No charges of mutiny or piracy were to be brought.
Hints in the historical record suggest that Rear-Admiral Sir George Anson had urged the prosecutors to focus on the sinking, and to conveniently overlook subsequent misconduct. The Admiralty complied, grateful to avoid the public outcry that would ensue if they prosecuted capital crimes against the officers of Wager, especially the popular John Bulkeley. Captain Cheap had not pressed the issue, as this also meant that the matter of the murder of Midshipman Cozens would be formally forgotten. Ultimately only Lieutenant Baynes was formally reprimanded—for dismissing the sighting of land that fateful day, and for failing to drop the anchor when so ordered. Soon thereafter the Admiralty revised the Articles of War to clarify that men on a Royal Navy ship remained under the command of their captain for the duration of the mission, even in the event of shipwreck.
In the aftermath of the Wager court-martial, many of the officers faded from the historical record. Captain Cheap, however, was promoted to post captain, and went on to command HMS Lark, having a respectable subsequent naval career. As for Gunner John Bulkeley, the Royal Navy offered to reinstate him as an officer and give him his own command: the cutter Royal George. Upon inspection of the vessel he declined, assessing that the vessel was in poor repair, and not seaworthy, a gloomy assessment coming from the navigator of Speedwell. But his view was later validated, when Royal George sank in the Bay of Biscay with no survivors. Bulkeley removed to America and disappeared from public view.
The War of Jenkins’ Ear formally ended along with the War of the Austrian Succession in 1748. After David Cheap died in 1752, John Byron of the Wager wrote his own story of escaping Wager Island with the captain, and the book became a major bestseller in its day. Byron went on to have a highly distinguished naval career, being promoted all the way to Vice-Admiral before he retired. One of his grandchildren grew up to be the famous poet Lord Byron; and one of Lord Byron’s children was Ada Lovelace, widely regarded as history’s first programmer. But that’s another story altogether.
To this day, the Drake Passage remains a harrowing stretch of sea, even for modern motorized seagoing vessels. But the Antarctic corridor was rendered mostly obsolete in 1914, when the Panama Canal was completed at a much milder latitude, just nine degrees north of the equator. The Drake Passage is now mostly reserved for summer travel and dedicated adventurers.
In 2006, the Scientific Exploration Society conducted an expedition to find the site where HMS Wager wrecked off the coast of Chile. After assembling clues from first-person accounts, satellite imagery, and local historians, the team identified an area that matched contemporaneous descriptions of Wager Island’s 1741 encampment. Despite the dreary weather, the researchers explored the region and identified landmarks to approximate the location where Wager ran aground. There, as the team worked in the shallow water, a member of the team stubbed his toe on something solid. The team brushed the silt aside, and were surprised to reveal a five square meter section of centuries-old treated timbers: the last surviving fragments of HMS Wager, still resting out on the rocks after 265 years.
The whereabouts of captain Robert Jenkins’ left ear, however, remain unknown.
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