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The Wager Mutiny, an 18th-Century Sensation

The shipwreck and mutiny was followed by a court martial.

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  • Charles Brooking's 1744 painting of the wreck of the HMS Wager.Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By the middle of the 18th century, it was well known throughout Europe that Spain’s colonization of the New World had been a lucrative operation. Silver from Peru, sugar, spice, dye, and tobacco from the Caribbean, and the slaves needed to gather it all—there were many opportunities for colonizers to profit, and everyone wanted a piece of the pie. The British Admiralty was itching for any excuse to declare war on Spain, and in 1731, they got it. 

Spanish seamen boarded the British ship Rebecca and, during the ensuing argument with Captain Robert Jenkins, one of them sliced off his left ear. Thus began the War of Jenkins’ Ear, aimed at total British domination of the South American market. To that end, in 1739, the Admiralty purchased the HMS Wager, a 30-gun trading ship, from the East India Company, and sent her to join Commodore George Anson’s squadron. The result was one of the most catastrophic mutiny attempts in naval history.

Commodore Anson’s voyage was doomed before it even began. Delayed by powerful winds, they departed from the English port of Spithead late on September 18, 1740. Seemingly followed by bad weather, Anson’s group of six warships and three supply ships (including the Wager) was several weeks late arriving in South American waters. By the time it got there, many had already died of scurvy. The most affected came from the population of wounded and retired sailors dragged along inexplicably. One of the supply ships, the Industry, got cold feet and turned back early, transferring her stores of rum onto the Wager. Anson shuffled his remaining officers around: Captain Dandy Kidd went from the Wager to the Pearl, and Lieutenant David Cheap of the Tryal took over as captain of the Wager.

Captain Cheap was an imposing, powerful man, taken to fits of anger during which he would insult his crew’s competence. He had never before captained so large a ship, and was woefully unprepared for the task. Storms only worsened as the squadron rounded Cape Horn, and the scurvy epidemic limited the hands available to maintain the ship amid constant blustering. With poor visibility, insufficient maps, and a lack of navigational aids, the Wager soon lost sight of the other ships, and her crew began arguing about the proper time to turn north. The ship’s gunner John Bulkeley suggested they proceed to a rendezvous point at the Juan Fernández Islands, while Cheap stubbornly refused and insisted on proceeding to Socorro Island. 

All the while, no one realized that the Wager had drifted into the crook of a curved peninsula until the ship’s carpenter, John Cummins, sighted land on the morning of May 13, 1741. He told Lieutenant Robert Baynes, but Baynes had seen nothing, and failed to report the sighting. By 2:00 that afternoon, however, the presence of land dead ahead was undeniable. The captain called for all hands to turn the ship about. In a panic, Cheap slipped on a ladder, dislocating his shoulder and putting him out of commission. The weather worsened, and at 4:30 the next morning, the Wager collided with a rock that smashed her tiller to bits.

The ship began flooding, drowning many of the scurvy patients who were held below deck. Bulkeley took the helm, but ended up wrecking the Wager on an uninhabited island off the coast of modern-day Chile. 

Much of the crew immediately took advantage of the situation, breaking into the storerooms and guzzling the rum. They looted the officers’ quarters, and instigated brawls. Slowly, though, the ship was sinking, and more level-headed survivors took to shore. Their arrival on land wouldn’t stop the debauchery, though; drinking and fighting raged on as Cheap and Bulkeley separately went about weighing their options for survival. 

Bulkeley’s plan was to stoke the crew’s resentment of Cheap, rousing them to mutiny. He directed Cummins to modify the Wager’s longboat into a larger schooner, which could accommodate more men. The schooner would be followed by a barge and a cutter, whose crews would go ashore to forage for food as they traveled up the Strait of Magellan toward the Atlantic and the Portuguese-occupied coast of Brazil. 

Cheap, however, would not agree. His own plan involved proceeding directly north along the coast, eventually making rendezvous with Anson at Valdivia. He knew his crew blamed him for the wreck, and grew paranoid. One night, hearing a fight outside, Cheap left his tent and shot one of the men involved. He went on to refuse the man, a midshipman named Henry Cozens, the benefit of medical care, and so Cozens was made to suffer for 10 days before finally succumbing to his injury.

When the schooner, which the men christened the Speedwell, was ready, Bulkeley confronted Cheap. He officially declared his mutiny, placing Cheap under arrest for the murder of Cozens. However, Cheap refused to board the schooner when it launched on October 13, 1741, and so Bulkeley left him behind on Wager Island with 19 others. Bulkeley wrote in his diary that day that he had seen the last of poor Captain Cheap.

Just two days later, the Speedwell’s sails became badly damaged. Bulkeley sent the barge back to Wager Island to collect a set of spares. Midshipman John Byron, who had believed Cheap to be coming along on the schooner, snuck aboard the barge and returned to his disgraced captain. He resolved to stay with Cheap, and make good use of the barge. 

The journey up the Strait of Magellan was no easier than the one around Cape Horn; food was in short supply, the weather was freezing, and the crew was close to giving up all hope. The cutter met its demise, leaving the Speedwell all on its own. Bulkeley left many men for dead on the shores of the strait. Finally, after a harrowing journey, they sighted the southern tip of Brazil on January 28, 1742. Of the 81 mutineers, only 33 survived this part of the journey.

Meanwhile, Cheap had attempted to sail the barge up to Valdivia, but the barge proved unequal to the task. He and his crew returned to Wager Island with no hope of rescue. Only two weeks later, they encountered a nomadic group of Chono people led by Martín Olleta, a liaison between Indigenous groups and Spanish colonizers. He agreed to lead Cheap’s crew back to a Spanish settlement via an overland route, in exchange for their barge. This would be an equally harrowing journey; only four of Cheap’s men, including Byron, made it to the Spanish outpost at Chacao. They were made prisoners, but were allowed to live with locals while the governor decided what to do with them.

Now in Rio de Janeiro, the boatswain John King had been making life difficult for his former crewmates. He had joined up with a local gang, and his constant threats worried Bulkeley. Bulkeley and Cummins requested aid from the Portuguese government, gaining passage back to England aboard the HMS Stirling Castle and arriving on January 1, 1743. Baynes had beaten them there, however, and given a scathing account to Navy officials. They were briefly jailed, but the Admiralty decided to hold off on a trial unless Cheap ever returned. Bulkeley was released and, for a time, believed he had gotten away with mutiny. 

Then who should appear on England’s shores nearly two years later than a breathless and vengeful Captain Cheap? He had been granted passage back by way of Santiago. Cheap practically sprinted to London to tell his side of the story, and the Admiralty called a trial. Bulkeley invited the Deputy Marshal of the Admiralty to dinner, inventing a false identity so he could ask without bias about his inclinations toward the case. The result was not what he had hoped for; the Marshal expressed a profound belief that Bulkeley would be hanged. Bulkeley revealed himself, and was immediately arrested. 

The April 15, 1746 trial heard testimony from all of the major players, including Cheap, Byron, Bulkeley, Cummins, and King, who had somehow returned from Rio. Many of the crewmen whom Bulkeley had abandoned along the shores of the Strait of Magellan also showed up, braving both imprisonment and hungry jaguars on their way back. In the end, the Admiralty absolved all involved of any wrongdoing, with one exception: Lieutenant Baynes, who had failed to report Cummins’ land sighting, received a slap on the wrist.

Cheap and Bulkeley were both offered promotions for their daring, although Bulkeley declined. The thrilling story of the Wager mutiny made it a public phenomenon in its day. That was aided in no small part by the first-hand written account The Narrative of the Honourable John Byron. (Byron’s grandson, best known as Lord Byron, would go on to exceed his ancestor in literary fame.) The renown of the Wager mutiny continues into the present day as one of naval history’s most bizarre true stories, a comedy of errors full of widespread confusion and against-all-odds survival.