Lost Ships and Lonely Seas/Chapter 11
THE LOSS OF THE WAGER MAN-OF-WAR
TO the modern generation, one of the great adventures of seafaring history is familiar only in an eloquent reference of The English Admirals":, and few readers, I venture to say, have taken the trouble to delve for the facts which inspired the following tribute in the essay called "
In 1739 the bitter rivalry between England and Spain for the trade and treasure of the New World flamed afresh in war. A squadron of six British men-of-war under Commodore George Anson was sent out to double Cape Horn and vex the dons in their South American ports and on the routes of the Pacific where the lumbering galleons steered for Panama or Manila. With these fighting-vessels went a supply-ship called the Wager, an old East Indiaman which had been armed and filled with stores of every description. Clumsy, rotten, and overladen, the Wager was no better off for a crew, which consisted of sailors long exiled on other voyages and pining for home. The military guard was made up of worn-out old pensioners from Chelsea Hospital, who were very low in their minds at the prospect of so long and hazardous a cruise. They could not be called a dashing lot aboard the Wager, and as for the captain of her his name was Cheap, and he was not much better than that. You shall have the pleasure of damning him as heartily for yourselves as did his forlorn ship's company.
The crazy old hooker of a store-ship began to go to pieces as soon as she encountered the wild gales and swollen seas off the Horn. Decks were swept, boats smashed, and the mizzenmast carried clean out of her. Disabled and leaking, the Wager was somehow worked into the Pacific; but the captain had no charts of the coast, and he blundered along in the hope of finding the rest of the squadron at the rendezvous, which was the island of Juan Fernandez. He was warned by the first lieutenant, the gunner, and other officers that the floating weed, the flocks of land birds, and the longitude, as they had figured it out, indicated a lee shore not many miles distant. The gunner was a man of sorts and he was bold enough to protest:
"Sir, the ship is a perfect wreck; our mizzenmast gone, and all our people ill or exhausted; there are only twelve fit for duty,—therefore it may be dangerous to fall in with the land."
Captain Cheap stubbornly held on until he was disabled by a fall on deck which dislocated his shoulder, and confined him to his cabin. The officers were better off without him. On the morning of May 13, 1740, the carpenter's keen eyesight discerned the lift of land through a rift in the cloudy weather, but the others disagreed with him until they saw a gloomy peak of the Cordilleras. The ship was driving bodily toward the land, and the utmost exertions were made to crowd her off-shore; but the sails split in the heavy gale, and so few men were fit for duty that there were no more than three or four active seamen to a watch.
In darkness next morning the Wager struck a sunken rock, and her ancient timbers collapsed. She split open like a pumpkin, rolled on her beam-ends, and lodged against other projections of the reef, with the seas boiling clean over her. Then a mountainous billow or two lifted her clear, and she went reeling inshore, sinking as she ran. Several of the sick men were drowned in their hammocks, and others scrambled on deck to display miraculous recoveries. Because the commander of the ship was worthless and disabled besides, the discipline of the ship in this crisis was abominable. The brave men rallied together as by instinct, and tried to hammer courage and obedience into the frenzied mob. The mate, Mr. Jones, was a man with his two feet under him, and he shouted to the cowards:
"Here, lads, let us not be discouraged. Did you never see a ship amongst breakers before? Come, lend a hand; here is a sheet and there is a brace; lay hold. I doubt not that we can bring her near enough to land to save our lives."
Mr. Jones thought they were all dead men without a ghost of a show of salvation, as he later confessed, but his exhortations put heart into them, and he was not one to die without a gallant struggle. Soon the wreck of the Wager piled up in the breakers between two huge rocks, where she stayed fast. Dry land was no more than a musket-shot away, and as soon as daylight came the three boats that were left—the barge, the cutter, and the yawl—were launched and instantly filled with men, who tumbled in helter-skelter. The rest of the sailors proceeded to break open casks of wine and brandy and to get so drunk that several were drowned in the ship. The suffering Captain Cheap permitted himself to be lifted out of bed and borne into a boat with most of the commissioned officers, while the master, gunner, and carpenter, who were not gentlemen at all, but very ordinary persons, in fact, remained in the wreck to save what they could of her and to round up the riotous bluejackets and bear a hand with the surviving invalids.
A hundred and forty people of the Wager found themselves alive, and nothing more, on the savage and desolate coast of Patagonia. The boatswain, who was a hard case, had stuck by the ship, but there was nothing noble in his motive. He led a crowd of kindred spirits, who vowed they would stay there as long as the liquor held out. When ordered to abandon the hulk, they threatened mutiny and broached another cask. During the following night, however, another gale drove the sea over the wreck, and the rogues had quite enough of it.
They signaled for the boats to take them off, but this was impossible because of the raging surf; wherefore the gay mutineers lost their tempers and let a cannon-ball whizz from a quarter-deck gun at the refugees on shore. While waiting for rescue, they rifled the cabins for tempting plunder, and swaggered in the officers' laced coats and cocked hats. The boatswain, who egged them on, saw to it that they were well armed, for he proclaimed defiance of all authority, and there was to be more of the iron-handed code of sea law. These were pressed men, poor devils, who broke all restraint because they had not been wisely and humanely handled.
When at length they were taken ashore, Captain Cheap showed one of his fitful flashes of resolution by sallying from his tent and knocking the insolent boatswain down with a loaded cane and putting a cocked pistol to his ear. This took the wind out of the sails of the other mutineers, and they tamely submitted to being stripped of their arms, which made them harmless for the moment. So bleak was the coast that the only food obtainable was shellfish, while from the wreck almost no stores were saved. The most urgent business was to knock huts together of the drift-wood and canvas, and effect some sort of organization. A fortnight passed before Captain Cheap had the provisions properly guarded and the rations dealt out in a systematic manner, while in the meantime the sailors were stealing the stuff right and left, and the battle was to the strongest.
It was ascertained that they were marooned on what appeared to be an island near the coast and about three hundred miles to the northward of the Strait of Magellan. Three canoes of Patagonian Indians happened to discover the camp, and they were friendly enough to barter for two dogs and three sheep, which were no more than a meal for the hungry crew of the Wager. The Indians vanished, and the agony of famine took hold of these miserable people. Instead of pluckily working together to master the situation like true British seamen, they split into hostile factions, and insubordination was rampant. There were rough and desperate men among them, it is true, but a leader of courage and resource whom they respected would have stamped out much of this disorder.
They wandered off in sullen groups, ten of them straying away into the woods until starvation drove them back, another party building a punt and sailing away in it, never to be heard of again. These latter fellows were not regretted, according to the narrative of one of the survivors, who declares that
there was great reason to believe that James Mitchell, one of them, had perpetrated no less than two murders, the first on a sailor found strangled on board and the second on the body of a man who was discovered among some bushes, stabbed in a shocking manner. On the day of their desertion, they plotted blowing up the captain in his hut, along with the surgeon and Lieutenant Hamilton of the marines; they were with difficulty dissuaded from it by one less wicked than the rest; and half a barrel of powder, together with the train, were found actually laid.
Among the officers was a boyish midshipman named Cozens who was of a flighty, impulsive disposition and who had no head for strong liquors. Too much grog made him boisterous, and by way of a lesson he was shut up in a hut under guard. He cherished a hearty dislike for Captain Cheap and was extremely impertinent to that chicken-hearted bully of a commander, who thereupon lashed him with his cane. The doughty sentry of marines interfered, swearing that not even the captain of the ship should strike a prisoner placed in his charge. The midshipman took the disgrace to heart, and what with anger, drink, and privation he seems to have become a bit unbalanced. There had been no more popular young officer in the Wager, easy, genial, affectionate; but now he quarreled with the surgeon and had a more serious row with the purser, taking a shot at him and vowing that he was ready to mutiny to get rid of the blockheads and villains who had brought ruin to the expedition.
Captain Cheap heard a report of the uprising of Midshipman Cozens and delayed not to investigate, but rushed out and shot the rash youngster through the head. There was nothing novel in talking mutiny. The whole camp was infected with lawlessness. If it was a crime to ignore authority, all hands were guilty. Flouted and held in contempt, Captain Cheap killed the midshipman as an example to the others, and, of course, they hated and despised him more than before. Poor young Cozens lived long enough to take the hand of his chum, Midshipman Byron, and to smile a farewell to the sailors who had been fond of him. They begged to be allowed to carry him to one of their own tents while he was still breathing, but the captain refused, and flourished his pistol at them; so he died where he fell.
Captain Cheap, after the deed was done, addressed the people, assembled together by his command, and told them he was resolved to retain his authority over them as usual, and that it remained as much in force as ever. He then ordered them all to return to their respective tents, with which they complied. This event, however, contributed to lessen him in the regard of the people.
Three boats had been saved from the wreck of the Wager, and the largest of them was the long-boat, a word that awakens memories of many an old-time romance of the sea and seems particularly to belong to "Robinson Crusoe." It was what might be called a ship's launch, and was often so heavy and capacious that vessels towed it astern on long voyages. Two months after the disaster, the Wager's people despairing of rescue, began to patch up the boats with the idea of making their way to the Spanish settlements of the mainland. The long-boat was hauled up on the beach, and the carpenter undertook the difficult task of sawing it in two and building in a section in order to make it twelve feet longer.
While this enterprise was under way, a party of fifty Indians, men, women, and children, found the camp and built wigwams, evidently intending to settle for a while and do some trading. Their canoes were filled with seal, shell-fish, and live sheep, and the visitation was immensely valuable to the castaways; but some of the ruffianly sailors insulted the women, and the indignant Patagonians soon packed up and departed, bag and baggage. As a result, the ravages of famine became so severe that the muster-roll was reduced to a hundred men. This meant that a third of the survivors of the wreck were already dead.
Throughout the whole story of suffering, mutiny, and demoralization the deeds of those who bravely and unflinchingly endured seemed to gleam like stars against a somber background. You will find frequent mention of Midshipman Byron, a lad in his teens, who was the real hero of the Wager, although he never realized it. He achieved nothing spectacular in a way, but he always tried to do his duty and something more. The British midshipman of that era was often a mere rosy-cheeked infant who pranced into the thick of a boarding-party with his cutlass and dirk or bullied a boat's crew of old salts in some desperate adventure on an enemy's coast. The precocious breed survives in the Royal Navy of to-day, and in the great battleships of the Grand Fleet, at Rosyth or Scapa Flow, you might have seen these bantam midshipmen standing a deck watch with all the dignity of a four-starred admiral.
Midshipman Byron of the Wager built himself a tiny hut in which he lived alone after the captain killed his messmate Cozens, and his companion was a strayed Indian cur, which adored him. The dog faithfully guarded the hut when Byron was absent from it, and they shared together such food as could be found, mostly mussels and limpets. At length a deputation of seamen called to announce that they must eat the dog or starve. Byron made a gallant fight to save his four-legged friend, but was subdued by force, and for once during the long and terrible experience he wept and was in a hopeless state of mind.
Among the minor characters who commend themselves to our approval was a reckless devil of a boatswain's mate, who noticed that the seabirds roosted and nested on reefs and islets out to seaward. In the words of one of his shipmates:
In August the three boats had been made seaworthy enough to undertake an escape from the miseries of this hopeless island. Then, as usual, there arose confusion of purpose and violent disagreement. This ship's company could be trusted to start a row at the drop of the hat. As long as there was breath in them, they were sure to turn against one another. The majority proposed that they try for a passage homeward by way of the Strait of Magellan. Captain Cheap and his to take him along as a prisoner and hand him over to justice for killing Midshipman Cozens.were for steering northward, capturing a Spanish vessel of some sort, and endeavoring to find the British squadron from which the Wager had become separated. He blustered about his authority, insisted that his word was law, and so on, until the high-handed majority grew tired of his noise and decided
They hauled their commander out of bed and lugged him by the head and the heels to the purser's tent, where he was guarded by a sentry of marines and very coarsely derided by these unmannerly rebels. The gunner informed Captain Cheap that he was to be carried to England as a prisoner; at which he retorted, with proper spirit, that he would sooner be shot than undergo such humiliation and, given his choice, he preferred to be left behind on the island. This was agreeable to the mob, who gave three cheers and thought no more about him. His two loyal companions, the surgeon and Lieutenant Hamilton, elected of their own free will to remain with the fallen commander, and this devotion was one of the admirable episodes of the tragedy. The mutineers recognized it as such, and they distributed the provisions fairly with these exiles and gave them arms and ammunition.There were now eighty-one men to embark in the long-boat, the cutter, and the barge and set sail for the Strait of Magellan. They started off with huzzas and Ho for Merry England, with about one chance in a thousand of getting there, and coasted along for two days when the wind blew some of their rotten canvas away and they halted to send the barge back to the wreck for more sail-cloth. Midshipman Byron found the company uncongenial, to put it mildly, and the venture seemed so confused and hazardous that he shifted into the barge to return to the island and resume existence in his little hut. The crew of the barge were of the same opinion and so they announced to Captain Cheap that they would take chances with him. Eight deserters came straggling out of the woods to join the party and there were, in all, twenty men to contrive a voyage of their own.
The most unruly lot had departed in the long-boat and the cutter, and mutiny no longer kept the island in a turmoil. Order was restored to the extent that a sailor was flogged and banished for stealing food, and the party sensibly toiled at the wreck until they salvaged several barrels of salt beef from the hold, and so recruited health and strength. They patched together the remnants of the yawl, and in this and the barge they put to sea to cruise to the northward in December, or more than half a year after the loss of the Wager. Misfortune beset them at every turn. It seemed as though their ship had been under a curse. A gale almost swamped the two boats as soon as they were clear of the island, and to keep afloat they had to throw overboard all their salt beef and seal meat. Most of the other stuff was washed out, and they made a landing in worse plight than before.
With fitful weather they skirted a swampy coast, with nothing to eat but seaweed, until they were chewing the shoes they had sewed together from raw sealskin. It was Christmas day or thereabouts when the yawl was smashed beyond mending by dragging its anchor and driving into the surf. The barge was not large enough to carry all hands, and it was agreed that four of them should be abandoned ashore. There was no obstreperous argument over it. They had become careless of such matters as life and death. Just how these four men were chosen or whether they volunteered is left to conjecture. The story written by Midshipman Byron, which is the most detailed account of the episode, describes it as follows:
The picture of the four marines as they waved their caps and shouted that immortal huzza is apt to suggest the wreck of the Birkenhead troop-ship in 1852, when she struck a rock off the Cape of Good Hope and four hundred British soldiers and marines perished. With the ship foundering beneath their feet, they fell in and stood as though on parade, while the women and children were put into the two available boats. As the decks of the Birkenhead lurched under the sea, the ranks of the four hundred British soldiers and marines were still splendid and unbroken. The deed rang through England like a trumpet-call, as well it might.
Brothers in arms and kinsmen in spirit were these four hundred men of England's thin, red line to the four humble privates of the Royal Marines whose names are forgotten. And Kipling's tribute may be said to include them also:
Is nothing so bad when you 've cover to 'and, an' leave an' likin' to shout;
But to stand an' be still to the Birken'ead drill is a damn tough billet to chew,
An' they done it, the Jollies—'Er Majesty's Jollies—soldier an' sailor too.
The wretched voyage of the Wager's barge was so delayed by head winds and battering seas and the necessity of landing often in search of food that all hope of reaching a Spanish port was relinquished, and finally they put about and trailed wearily back to the island and the wreck of the Wager after two months of futile endeavor. The superstition of the sea perturbed these childish sailormen, who laid their distresses to the fact that one of the crew who was murdered on the island had never been given burial. Therefore the first errand when they tottered ashore at their old camp was to dig a grave and say a prayer.
They were so tormented with famine that they talked, or rather whispered, of choosing one of their number by lot, that dreadful old expedient, and boiling him for a square meal; but the discovery of some rotten beef cast up from the wreck averted this procedure. They existed for a fortnight, and then a party of Indians appeared, among them a chief. He spoke a little Spanish, and an officer of the Wager managed to convey to him that they desired guidance to the nearest white settlement. The promise of the barge as a gift persuaded the mercenary Patagonian to lead them out of the wilderness. Thirteen survivors were left of the twenty who had attempted to fare to the northward. The four marines had been left to their heroic fate, and three others had later died of hunger.
The Indian chief had not bound himself to furnish food, and it soon appeared as though the castaways would all perish to a man before they came to the end of the journey. They were trying to pull the barge up a turbulent river with a rapid current, and there occurred an incident or two which illumined the characters of Midshipman Byron and Captain Cheap and showed what very different men they were. I quote the old record:
At this time, the captain had a large piece of boiled seal by him and was the only one in possession of anything like a meal. But they were become so hardened to the sufferings of others and so much familiarized to similar scenes of misery that the poor man's dying entreaties were in vain. Mr. Byron sat next him when he dropped, and having about five or six dried shell-fish in his pocket, put one from time to time in his mouth, which only served to prolong his misery. From this, however, death released him soon after his benefactor's little supply was exhausted. For him, and the other man, a grave was made in the sand.It would have greatly redounded to the tenderness and humanity of Captain Cheap if he had remitted somewhat of that attention which he testified to self-preservation and spared in those exigencies what might have been wanted, consistently with his own necessities. He had better opportunities of recruiting his stock than the others, for his rank was an inducement to the Indian guide to supply him when not a bit of anything could be found for the rest. On the evening of the same day. Captain Cheap produced a large piece of boiled seal, of which he permitted no one, excepting the surgeon, to partake. His fellow-sufferers did not expect it, as they had a few small mussels and herbs to eat, but the men could not suppress the greatest indignation at his neglect of the deceased, saying that he deserved to be deserted for such savage conduct.
If one may hazard a personal conjecture, it seems plausible to assume that Captain Cheap was the Jonah of the Wager expedition and that the spell might have been lifted if he had been thrown overboard much earlier in the adventure. Be that as it may, the curse was still potent, for as the next mishap six sailors and one of the Indians stole the barge and made off to sea with it. This left the others stranded and bereft of everything that belonged to them. Besides this affliction, the Patagonian chief was disgruntled because the barge was to have been his reward for befriending them. He was for killing them at once as the easiest way to settle the account, but it was Midshipman Byron, of course, who cajoled him out of his mood and pleased him with the gift of a fowling-piece. The six seamen who stole the barge passed into oblivion at the same time, and so were justly punished for their perfidy. They joined the great majority of the Wager's company who never saw port again.
Over the rocks and through the swamps panted and staggered the few survivors, hauling and paddling canoes like galley-slaves and abused immoderately by their Indian guides, or captors. They were cold and wet and famished, and at last the surgeon died, and the others were little more than shadows. Captain Cheap grew more selfish and pompous, and adversity had no power to chasten him. One more picture and we are almost done with him.
When they were led at last to a small Spanish garrison called Castro, only four of the party had survived the journey. Midshipman Byron, Lieutenant Hamilton of the Royal Marines, Lieutenant Alexander Campbell, and Captain Cheap. Although the English were enemies, the corregidor and the Jesuit priests felt pity for these poor victims, and treated them with great kindness. When they had recovered, they were escorted to the larger town of Choca with a guard of thirty Spanish soldiers. At this seaport of the Chilean coast the governor entertained them handsomely and invited them to travel on his annual tour through the districts of his province. Midshipman Byron was so popular with the ladies that he had to steer a very careful course to avoid entanglements. He was the guest of one doting mother who had two very handsome daughters, and she straightway sent a message to the governor asking that the young Englishman be sent back to spend a month with the family.
This was not so serious as the affair with the niece of the rich and venerable priest, a highly educated damsel
The officers of the Wager were compelled to wait for another of the infrequent trading ships from Lima, and it was therefore in January, 1743, before they made the next stage of their interminable pilgrimage. They were sent ashore at Valparaiso, where the Spanish governor promptly threw them into prison; but he later forwarded them to Santiago, the capital of Chile, where they were handsomely released on parole.
In Santiago at that time were Admiral Pizarro and several officers of the squadron which had been sent out from Spain to intercept Commodore Anson and drive him away from the rich trade routes of the Pacific. It was a powerful force of six men-of-war, with a total of three hundred guns and four thousand sailors, marines, and soldiers. The storms of Cape Horn and the ravages of disease crippled the expedition, and shipwreck almost wiped it out. The flagship Asia found refuge in the River Plate with half her crew dead; the Esperanza had only fifty-eight men alive of the four hundred and fifty who had sailed from Spain in her, and of an entire regiment of infantry all but sixty perished. Only two ships survived to return home after four years' absence, and more than three thousand Spanish sailors had found their graves in the sea.
While his flagship was undergoing repairs at Montevideo, Admiral Pizarro made the journey by land across the Andes to Santiago to confer with the Viceroy of Chile. Introduced to the officers of the Wager, one of the ships of the enemy's squadron which he had hoped to engage in battle, the Spanish admiral invited them to dine with him and displayed the most perfect courtesy. One of his staff, Don Manuel de Guiros, insisted upon advancing them funds to the amount of two thousand dollars. Midshipman Byron and his companions accepted part of it, giving drafts on Lisbon, and were able to live comfortably and await the next turn of fortune's wheel.
Two weary years they tarried in Santiago, and were treated not as enemies but as castaways. They found great consolation in the friendship of a Scotch physician who was known as Don Patrico Gedd. Midshipman Byron wrote:
This gentleman had been a long time in the city and was greatly esteemed by the Spaniards, as well for his abilities in his profession as for the humanity of his disposition. He no sooner heard that four English prisoners had arrived in that country than he waited on the president and begged that they might be lodged in his house. This was granted, and had we been his own brothers we could not have met with a more friendly reception; and during two years that we were with him, it was his constant study to make everything as agreeable to us as possible. We were greatly distressed to think of the expense he was at upon our account, but it was vain to argue with him about it.
A French ship, bound from Lima to Spain, finally carried them homeward as passengers, and they saw the shores of England in November, 1745, or more than five years after the Wager had been lost in the Gulf de Panas on the coast of Patagonia. The boyish midshipman who had behaved so well through all vicissitudes was of gentle blood and breeding, and in England he was known as the Honorable John Byron, second son of the fourth Lord Byron. When he landed at Dover with two of his shipmates his troubles were not quite at an end, and to quote his own words:
When I got to the Borough of London I took a coach and drove to Marlborough Street where my friends lived when I left England but when I came there I found the place shut up. Having been absent so many years, and having, in all that time, never a word from home, I knew not who was dead or who was living or where to go next, or even how to pay the coachman. I recollected a linen-draper's shop, not far from thence, at which our family used to deal. I therefore drove thither and, making myself known, they paid the coachman. I then inquired after our family and was told that my sister had married Lord Carlisle and was at that time in Soho Square. I immediately walked to the house and knocked at the door. But the porter, not liking my figure which was half French and half Spanish, with the addition of a large pair of boots covered with dirt, was going to shut the door in my face but I prevailed upon him to let me in.I need not acquaint the reader with what surprise and joy my sister received me. She immediately furnished me with money to appear like the rest of my countrymen. Till that time I could not properly be said to have finished all the extraordinary scenes in which I had been involved by a series of adventures, for the space of five years and upwards.
The Honorable John Byron became a British vice-admiral and was also the grandfather of the poet, who transmuted some of the exploits of the midshipman of the Wager into the pages of Don Juan. As one of the most famous fighting sailors of his era, Admiral Byron earned the nickname of "Foul Weather Jack," because he contended so constantly with gales and head winds, and it is to this that Lord Byron refers in his "Epistles to Augusta":
A strange doom is thy father's son's, and past
Recalling as it lies beyond redress,
Reversed for him our grandsire's fate of yore.
He had no rest at sea, nor I on shore.
You will find that Stevenson mentions him in that same tribute to the English admirals:
Most men of high destinies have high-sounding names. Pymn and Habakkuk may do pretty well, but they must not think to cope with the Cromwells and Isaiahs. And you could not find a better case in point than that of the English Admirals. Drake and Rooke and Hawke are picked names for men of execution. Frobisher, Rodney, Boscawen, Foul-Weather Jack Byron, are all good to catch the eye in a page of naval history.