For centuries, Spanish galleons plied their way between Manila and Acapulco, the one trading route between Spain’s colonies in Asia and the Americas. Their twice-yearly Pacific crossings brought silver west from Mexico and silks and spices east from the Philippines. These valuable ships were a prime target for Spain’s enemies but proved elusive in thousands of miles of open ocean. Only four times in over 250 years did a Spanish galleon fall into enemy hands. One of the lucky ships to capture one was helmed by British Commodore George Anson, in 1743.

Two years earlier, Anson’s vessel Centurion was the lead ship in a flotilla dispatched from Britain to the Pacific to harass the Spanish as part of the War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739–48). They planned to attack some of Spain’s ports on the Chilean coast of South America, before pushing on to see if they could get a galleon as well. Unfortunately, they didn’t even reach the Pacific before the plan started to come apart. Ships in the squadron sank or, in one case, turned back rather than face the challenge of rounding Cape Horn. One ship, HMS Wager, captained by David Cheap, managed to limp around the Cape only to be wrecked off the coast of Chile. There was a mutiny among the surviving crew, and David Grann recounts their story in his new book, The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny, and Murder, published by Doubleday.

Grann begins by detailing just how underfunded and ill-prepared this campaign was. Construction at the shipyards ran late. Sailors were snatched from the streets of port towns and pressed into service. Some of the marines were elderly veterans who had been dragged out of retirement. Britain was exhausting her man-power in this conflict, and the men forced to join knew there was a good chance they would die.

The months it took to get to the other side of the globe added a toll of misery for the crews. An outbreak of typhus hit them as they departed England, followed by scurvy, which left the survivors weakened (the cause and treatment for which was not widely understood at the time). Supplies were depleted and what remained was often rancid. Food barrels had to be jettisoned to lighten the ship. Past Brazil, there were no friendly ports.

By the time Wager was wrecked, its company was down to 145 from 250 initially on board, and other ships had suffered similar losses. Hundreds of men from the squadron wasted away from malnutrition and disease—a drumbeat of death.

Their fate hardly improved with the wreck. The island off the coast of southern Chile where Wager ran aground was not some tropical land of plenty. The survivors scratched together sea celery and shellfish for a marginal diet, and the sharing of rations was a flashpoint of tensions. As Grann describes it, “Wager’s officers and crew—those supposed apostles of the Enlightenment—descended into a Hobbesian state of depravity. There were warring factions and marauders and abandonments and murders. A few of the men succumbed to cannibalism.” The idea that European rationality might save them, in desperate straits, was a vain thought. In such an extreme, what might any of us do?

The challenge of writing such a history lies in capturing the mindset of an eighteenth-century mariner. The limitations of sources mean we only get an impression of what some of the survivors would have felt—those literate enough to leave records are at a distinct advantage in pleading their case to readers centuries on. Grann’s sympathy also seems to be split between Captain Cheap’s desperate (and failing) attempts to maintain order and the mutineers’ desire to survive. Cheap believed it was their duty to press on, to fight Spain, whatever it took. This was his first command; to fail would likely be the end of his career. Meanwhile the rebels just wanted to go home.

The Wager episode draws comparison with the more famous Bounty mutiny, which has been presented in popular culture with Captain Bligh as a tyrant and the mutineers as romantic heroes. The Bounty mutineers dumped their captain (and his loyal crew) in the ship’s open launch, abandoning them in the Pacific and never expecting them to survive—or to sail over 3,500 nautical miles in a twenty-five foot craft to raise the alarm at the nearest friendly port. Wager’s mutinous team did the exact same decades earlier, and they certainly didn’t expect Cheap to live, still less to make it back to England and face them in the dock.

Back in England, the Wager survivors offered conflicting accounts to the Admiralty. The leader of the mutineers, the gunner John Bulkeley, was a devout and careful man, so much so that he kept a record of all the events on the voyage, and this contemporaneous diary was used to put his side of the story in the press. But Cheap had allies, including Commodore Anson, who backed his side.

Grann acknowledges that we don’t know for certain who was telling the truth or whose perceptions were accurate at the time. Scurvy doesn’t just weaken the body: it can have psychological symptoms, inducing paranoia and hallucinations.

The mid-eighteenth century was a historical hinge-point for the empires of Europe, as militaries grew professionalized and conflicts expanded into global wars. The Wager story presented both the sailors’ best (in terms of survival skills) and worst (in terms of discipline) for the Admiralty to consider. In the decades to come, there followed more rules, more order, and more attempts to mold sailors into disciplined beings that could withstand extreme pressure.

But such improvements didn’t always work—evidence of human weakness in trying conditions. As Grann notes: “The forces unleashed on Wager Island were like the horrors inside Pandora’s box: once unlocked, they could not be contained.” Those forces are in all of us, the darker impulses that wait for an opportunity to emerge. 

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