HMS Wager Fraught With Mutiny, Murder and Misery
Captain David Cheap, skipper of the Wager and former noncommissioned officer, was the leader of the earlier cargo vessel converted into a warship. He followed the maritime rule book to a “T.” He was liked by most of his men. This was probably because he came up through the ranks and at age 30 got his own commission. The Wager and four other ships ran into a fierce storm that lasted four days. During this time the ships separated, leaving Captain Cheap and his vessel on their own. The storm increased and pushed the warship into Drake Passage that was part of Cape Horn.Cape Horn is a rocky headland on Hornos Island in southern Chile’s Tierra del Fuego archipelago. It’s surrounded by wild seas off the southern tip of South America where the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans meet. The albatross-shaped Cape Horn Monument commemorates the lives of thousands of seafarers who perished attempting to sail around the Cape. Veteran seamen who’ve made at least one trip around the Cape call it many names including “hell on water.” Thousands of sailors have met their maker in this graveyard of ships. The Wager was one of the ships that failed in her attempt to navigate around the Horn having crashed into the rocks on the south coast of Chile on May 14, 1741.
The Horn was notorious for everything bad. First, the seaman faced big waves and constant surf. The 91 survivors of the demise of the Wager became castaways on this desolate island with the harsh reality of having to face the freezing Winter ahead. The others died from typhoid on the week long journey to the Horn. Secondly, they landed on an unforgiveable island. A forested mountain was near the beach where no small animals were seen. But there was space for the castaways to build their huts. They used wood and canvas washed ashore from the ship. There was no sign of life except for an old domed deserted hut that once belonged to Native islanders.Captain Cheap had his own hut while others lived 2 or 3 per shelter. Food stores such as barrels of salted beef and pork were salvaged from the wreck and kept in a guarded hut so it could be distributed fairly. The men lived off seaweed which when boiled for two hours was edible. They also ate the wild celery growing on the bushes of the mountain side which appeared to be instrumental in mitigating the effects of scurvy among the men. An occasional fish was caught, a cormorant was shot, or a seal was harpooned. The surf hindered fishing. There was no wildlife on the island. The food supply dwindled during the first six months. Soon depression and isolation impacted the men and as fights broke out things got worse. Two seamen had a disagreement and one was murdered in his sleep. Cannibalism reared its ugly head when one of the crew wanted the arm of the deceased crewman. Captain Cheap, who had taken the brunt of the marooned crew was usually calm and collected. However, on one occasion he lost his cool and respect. In a confrontation with one of the crew who was caught stealing food, Captain Cheap pulled his gun and shot him in cold blood. That’s when the first sign of mutiny appeared on the scene, six months into the ordeal.
The men turned to John Bulkeley, the ship’s munitions officer who was in charge of keeping the pistols and cannons ready to use. Bulkeley was a late 30ish burly, dedicated officer whom the men trusted. He never forgave Captain Cheap for ignoring his advice to sail the ship farther from shore, leading to the Wager crashing on the rocks. He wanted to remain neutral, but this wasn’t possible. Most of the men wanted to repair one of the lifeboats and sail it to Brazil. Captain Cheap wanted to sail to Patagonia in a rougher ocean. Sailing to Brazil was 3,000 miles in calmer seas, while the trip to Patagonia was 1,200 miles in unforgiving waters of Cape Horn. Captain Cheap was imprisoned in a hut and Bulkeley was appointed leader to make the trip to Brazil. Only five men stayed with Cheap. After Bulkeley and his men departed, Captain Cheap and his crew prepared a second lifeboat to try to sail to Patagonia.
Bulkeley and the other “separatists” made it to Brazil and eventually to England, where they were hailed as heroes but of the original 80 men only 30 survived the ordeal of the lengthy voyage. Captain Cheap and some of his men were rescued from the island by a group of Native people.The leader of the mutineers and the captain were reunited in England at a court martial hearing to decide whether they were guilty of the crimes of mutiny and murder. The verdict was not guilty for all and this was surprising to some people who had been following the events in the newspapers. The reason for the acquittal was that the Navy didn’t want any more publicity. The years’ long misery was finally over.
The Wager: A Tale of Shipwrecks, Mutiny and Murder (Doubleday, Inc, NY, NY, 2023) by David Grann, jumped to Number 1 on the New York Times best seller books list when it came out recently. It is also being adapted into a feature film by director Martin Scorsese and actor Leonardo DiCaprio. No date has been announced for the film’s release.
Author: Ellsworth Boyd
Ellsworth Boyd, Professor Emeritus, College of Education, Towson University, Towson, Maryland, pursues an avocation of diving and writing. He has published articles and photo’s in every major dive magazine in the US., Canada, and half a dozen foreign countries. An authority on shipwrecks, Ellsworth has received thousands of letters and e-mails from divers throughout the world who responded to his Wreck Facts column in Sport Diver Magazine. When he’s not writing, or diving, Ellsworth appears as a featured speaker at maritime symposiums in Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, Ft. Lauderdale, New York and Philadelphia. “Romance & Mystery: Sunken Treasures of the Lost Galleons,” is one of his most popular talks. A pioneer in the sport, Ellsworth was inducted into the International Legends of Diving in 2013.