Lost Ships and Lonely Seas/Chapter 12

 

CHAPTER XII

THE CRUISE OF THE WAGER'S LONG-BOAT

THE story of the man-of-war Wager was by no means finished when young Midshipman Byron rode into London and was welcomed as one risen from the dead. It will be recalled that about twenty of the crew persisted in the attempt to sail homeward by way of the Strait of Magellan. They had been at sea only a few days when the cutter, the smaller of their two boats, was knocked to pieces among the rocks, and the survivors were therefore jammed into the long-boat, which had room for no more than half of them. How they managed to stay afloat is a mystery that cannot be fathomed, with the gunwales only a few inches above water and scarcely any space to row or steer or handle sail. They quarreled continually, and "hardly ten testified any anxiety about the welfare of the voyage but rather seemed ripe for mutiny and destruction." Eleven of the company soon preferred to quit this madhouse of a boat and to face a less turbulent death ashore, and at their own request they were landed on the coast of Patagonia.

The long-boat, still overcrowded to a degree that meant incredible discomfort and danger, blundered on her course, with only the sun and stars for guidance. A little flour and some other stores had been taken from the wreck, and now occurred a curious manifestation of human selfishness, of the struggle for survival reduced to the lowest terms. The officers had endeavored to ration the food, share and share alike, but the ugly temper of the men made such prudent precautions impossible, and some obtained more provisions than others. The situation was described by one of them in these words:

 
The people on board began to barter their allowance of provisions for other articles. Flour was valued at twelve shillings a pound, but, before night, it rose to a guinea. Some were now absolutely starving for want—and the day following, George Bateman, a lad of sixteen, expired, being reduced to a perfect skeleton. On the 19th, Thomas Capell, aged twelve years, son of the late Lieutenant Capell, died of want. A person on board had above twenty guineas of his money, along with a watch and a silver cup. The latter the boy wished to sell for flour; but his guardian told him it would buy clothes for him in the Brazils.

"Sir," cried the miserable youth, "I shall never live to see the Brazils, I am now starving—almost starved to death; therefore give me my silver cup, for God's sake, to get me some victuals, or buy some for me yourself."

But all his prayers and entreaties were vain, and Heaven sent death to his relief. Those who have not experienced such hardships will wonder how people can be so inhuman as to witness their fellow creatures starving before their faces without affording them succor, but hunger is void of all compassion.
 

They actually sailed through the Strait of Magellan and reached the Atlantic after two months of suffering during which twenty men died of famine and disease. Landing wherever possible, they found seal and fish or traded with wandering Indians for dogs and wild geese to eat. Of the survivors no more than fifteen were able to stand or to crawl about the boat. A happier fate was granted them when they coasted along the wilderness of the Argentine and found thousands of wild horses, which kept them plentifully supplied with meat. At length they came to the Rio Grande and the town of Montevideo, and thirty of them were alive, or half the number that had made the voyage in the long-boat.

Among those who died almost within sight of rescue was Thomas MacLean, the cook, a patriarch of eighty-two years, presumably one of those soldier pensioners who had been snatched from his well-earned repose at Chelsea Hospital. This is one of the most extraordinary facts of the whole story, that this tough old veteran of a red-coat, his age past four score, should have lived all those months, during which the great majority of the younger officers and men of the Wager had been blotted out by privations which seemed beyond human endurance.

While the long-boat was standing along the coast, on this last stretch of the journey, there came a time when there was no food or water left. There was no small boat to send ashore, so nine of the strongest men offered to swim to the beach and see what they could find. Over they went, feeble as they were, and all reached shore except one marine, who had so little strength to spare that he sank like a stone. Those in the long-boat let several empty water-casks drift to the land and tied to them some muskets and ammunition wrapped in tarred canvas. A gale blew the long-boat out to sea and disabled her rudder. Tacking back with great difficulty, she found it impossible to lay to and bring off the eight men, and another cask was floated off to them, containing a letter of farewell, and more ammunition, and the boat made sail, and vanished to the northward.

The adventures of this little band of seamen, accidentally marooned in this manner, were most remarkable. They are almost unknown to history, although a century and more ago much was written about the Wager. The heroism and manliness of this group of actors go far to redeem many other episodes of the disaster which were profoundly shameful, and they are the chief reason for recalling the cruise of the long-boat. Said Isaac Morris, one of them:

 

We found ourselves on a wild, desolate part of the world, fatigued, sickly, and destitute of provisions. However, we had arms and ammunition and while these lasted we made a tolerable shift for a livelihood. The nearest inhabited place of which we knew was Buenos Ayres, about three hundred miles to the northwest: but we were then miserably reduced by our tedious passage through the Straits of Magellan, and in a poor condition to undertake so hazardous a journey. Nothing remained but to commit ourselves to kind Providence, and make the best of the melancholy situation until our health became recruited.

We were eight in number thus abandoned by our comrades, for whose preservation we had risked our lives by swimming ashore for provisions, and our names Guy Broadwater, Samuel Cooper, Benjamin Smith, John Duck, Joseph Clinch, John Andrews, John Allen, and myself. After deliberating on our unhappy circumstances and comforting each other with imaginary hopes, we came to the resolution of taking up our quarters on the beach where we landed until becoming strong enough to undergo the fatigue of a journey to Buenos Ayres.

 

There was no senseless chatter about mutiny, no selfish bickering. They were sturdily resolved to stick together and make the best of a bad bargain. For a month they lived in a burrow in the sand, knocking a seal on the head whenever they needed food. As preparation for the journey they made knapsacks of sealskin, filled them with the dried flesh, and used the bladders for water bottles. Muskets on their shoulders, they trudged for sixty miles, when no more fresh water could be found, and they retreated to their camp to await the rainy season. Now they built a sort of hut under the lee of a cliff and varied the diet of seal by catching armadillos and stewing them in seaweed. Their patience was amazing, and Seaman Isaac Morris wrote of this weary inaction:

 

Nothing remarkable happened to us in the course of these three months. Our provision, such as it was, did not cost us much difficulty to procure, and we were supplied with fire-wood from a small coppice about seven miles distant. We seldom failed of bringing home something every night and generally had a hot supper. The time passed as cheerfully as might be with poor fellows in such circumstances as ours.

 

Again they set out on foot, in the month of May, after burdening their backs with seal and armadillo meat, and traversed a barren, open country until incessant cold rains chilled them to the bone and no supplies of any kind were obtainable. There was prolonged argument, and the majority was for returning once more to the hut they had left behind as the nearest refuge. Back they toiled over the same old trail, cast down, but not disheartened, and still loyal comrades who "bound themselves never to quit each other unless compelled by a superior force." They had a certain amount of order and discipline, four of them out hunting for food on one day and remaining in camp the next day while the other four ranged the country for deer and the coast for seal. Wild dogs were numerous, and several litters of puppies were adopted until every man had a brace of them as his faithful friends and helpers. Several young pigs were also taken into the family, and they trotted contentedly along with the dogs.

The eight seamen lived in this strangely simple and solitary manner until seven months had passed, and then they concluded to make another attempt to escape from the bondage of circumstances. Not an Indian had been seen, and there was no reason to believe that they had been discovered or observed. They merited good fortune, did these stanch and courageous castaways, but the curse of the Wager had followed them. While they were getting together supplies for another journey toward Buenos Aires, Samuel Cooper, John Andrews, John Duck, and Isaac Morris went some distance along the beach to hunt seals. Late in the day they were returning to the hut when the dogs were seen to be running and barking in much agitation. The four men hurried to the hut, which was empty and plundered of muskets, powder, and ball, sealskin clothes, dried meat—everything they possessed.

Scouting outside, one of the sailors shouted to Morris:

"Aye, Isaac, something much worse has happened, for yonder lie poor Guy Broadwater and Benjamin Smith murdered."

One poor fellow was found with his throat cut, and the other had been stabbed in the breast. Their bodies were still warm, and, afraid the assassins might be somewhere near, the four men ran hard and hid in a rocky bight a mile away until next morning, for they had no firearms left. Of the four who had been overtaken in this tragedy, Joseph Clinch and John Allen had vanished, nor was any trace of them discovered. It was sadly agreed that Indians must have killed two and carried the two others away with them. The four survivors were deprived not only of their comrades, but of their precious muskets and the means of making fire. Never were men left more naked and defenseless in a hostile wilderness. In this plight Samuel Cooper, John Andrews, John Duck, and Isaac Morris trudged off for the third time to look for the mouth of the River Plate and Buenos Aires.

With them trooped sixteen dogs and two pigs, and it must have been an odd caravan to behold. They carried their provender on the hoof this time. By following the sea-coast, they found pools of fresh water among the sand-dunes, where the heavy rains had not yet filtered into the ground, and a dead whale washed up on the beach served for several hearty meals. They got along without great difficulty until ten days of travel found them mired in endless swamps and bogs, which they could find no way of crossing. Again they retreated to the starting-place at the hut, but the amiable pigs were no longer in the troop. There were not so many dogs, and their number steadily dwindled; for there would have been no bill of fare without them.

Three months more the four unconquerable seamen lingered in their exile, at their wits' ends to plan a way of escape, because the exodus to Buenos Aires had been given up as hopeless. Then they discovered a large trunk of a fallen tree on the beach, and conceived the wild notion of fashioning some kind of boat of it and hoisting a sail of sealskins sewed together with sinews. They had no tools whatever, barring a pocket-knife or two, but this could not discourage the handy mariners. John Duck happened to remember that during the first journey toward Buenos Aires eleven months before, he had thrown away his musket because the lock was broken. It occurred to one of them that the iron of the barrel might be pounded into something like a hatchet, and what did the quartet do but take a little seal meat and water and walk sixty miles to look for that musket. They found it, which was still more wonderful, and beat half the length of the barrel flat, using stones as hammer and anvil, and whetted an edge on the rough rocks.

They were about to attack the project of making a boat when a dozen horses came galloping along the beach, and there were Indians on their backs. They were as astonished as the British seamen, but had no intention of shedding blood, and promptly whisked their prisoners up behind them. At a great pace the Indian horsemen rode several miles inland to a camp where a dozen of them were rounding up wild horses. It affords a glimpse of what the life had been in that hut on the Patagonian coast to hear Isaac Morris say:

"We were treated with great humanity; they killed a horse, kindled a fire, and roasted part of it, which to us who had been eating raw flesh three months was most delicious entertainment. They also gave each of us a piece of an old blanket to cover our nakedness."

Two hundred miles back into the mountainous interior, where white men had never been seen, the wandering party of horse-hunting Indians carried the four sailors. These were sporting savages with a taste for gambling, and it is chronicled that "in this place we were bought and sold four different times, for a pair of spurs, a brass pan, ostrich feathers and such trifles, which was the low price generally set on each of us; and sometimes we were played away at dice, so that we changed masters several times in a day."

A few weeks later the band of nomad Indians was joined by other parties, and together, with a train of fifteen hundred horses, they moved by easy stages far inland, almost a thousand miles from the coast, and came in four months' time to the capital, or chief town of the tribe, where the king claimed the seamen as his own property. He spoke a little Spanish, and hated the Spaniards so cordially that his friendly regard was offered these wanderers because they had served in an English man-of-war of a squadron sent against the enemy. They were slaves, it is true, but this condition was tempered with kindness, and for eight months they lived and labored among these wild horsemen of South America. When the season of spring arrived, the tribe broke camp for the long pilgrimage to the pampas and the chase of the wild horses which supplied food and raiment.

The customary route to the sea passed within a hundred miles of Buenos Aires, and the sailors persuaded their masters that it was worth while trying to obtain ransom for them. At last there was a tangible hope of extricating themselves, but it brought joy only to three of the four comrades. Poor John Duck happened to be a mulatto born in London, and his brown skin won the fancy of the Indians, who insisted that he was of their own blood. Therefore they refused to part with him and he was sold for a very high price to another chief in a region even more remote, and this was the last of him. His three shipmates were very sorrowful at leaving him, no doubt, and it must have been an incident deeply moving when they shook hands and went their opposite ways, for they had suffered manifold things together and carried it off magnificently. And in their minds there must have been the memory of that vow they had sworn together "never to quit each other unless compelled by a superior force."

The chief was faithful to his word in sending a messenger to Buenos Aires, where the Spanish governor expressed his willingness to buy three English prisoners at the bargain price of ninety dollars for the lot.

In this manner were Midshipman Morris and Samuel Cooper and John Andrews delivered from their captivity in the wilds of Patagonia, though they were not yet to see the long road home to England. The Spanish governor of Buenos Aires behaved toward them like a very courteous gentleman, but felt it his bounden duty to labor with them for the good of their souls. "He sent for us several times," Midshipman Morris tells us, "and earnestly urged us to turn Catholics and serve the king of Spain; to which we answered that we were Protestants and true Englishmen and hoped to die so. Many tempting offers were made to seduce us but, thank God, we resisted them all."

This obstinacy vexed the conscientious governor, and he sent the three heretics on board of the man-of-war Asia, the flag-ship of Admiral Pizarro's squadron, which was then lying at Montevideo. Aboard the Asia the three Englishmen were confined more than a year, with sixteen other unlucky seamen of their own race. They complained that they were treated more like galley-slaves than prisoners of war, and it was inevitable that they should try to escape. A sentry was tied and gagged one night, and the Britons swam for the shore, a quarter of a mile away. Most of them were overtaken in a boat, but Isaac Morris and one sailor, naked as the day they were born, scrambled into the jungle, and had such a piteous time of it that they were glad to surrender to the laborers of the nearest plantation. Taken back to the ship, they were thrust into the stocks, neck and heels, four hours a day for a fortnight as a hint to discourage such rash enterprise.

Admiral Pizarro had journeyed overland to Chile, and in the very leisurely course of time he returned to Buenos Aires to set sail for Spain in his flag-ship, having achieved nothing more than a wild-goose chase in quest of the daring Anson. The towering, ornate Asia was refitted as completely as possible, but there was a great lack of seamen. More than half her crew had died of scurvy or deserted during the long voyage and the year at an anchorage. Press-gangs combed the streets and dives of Buenos Aires and Montevideo, but the ship could not find a proper complement, and, as a last resort, eleven Indians were unceremoniously thrown on board. They had been captured while raiding the outposts of the thinly held Spanish settlements, and were of a fighting tribe which preferred death to submission to the cruel and rapacious invader.

One of these eleven Indians was a chief by the name of Orellana and a man to be considered note-worthy even in that age of high adventure. When dragged aboard the Spanish flag-ship, he and his fellows were, of course, handled like dogs,

 

being treated with much insolence and barbarity by the Spaniards, the meanest officers among whom were accustomed to beat them on the slightest pretences. Orellana and his followers, though apparently patient and submissive, meditated a severe revenge. He endeavored to converse with such of the English as understood the Spanish language and seemed very desirous of learning how many of them were on board and which they were. But not finding them so precipitate and vindictive as he expected, after distantly sounding them, he proceeded no farther in respect to their participation, but resolved to trust his enterprise to himself and his ten faithful followers.

 

In short, these eleven unarmed Indians were planning an uprising in a sixty-gun ship with a crew of nearly five hundred Spaniards. It was an enterprise so utterly insane that the level-headed English seamen refused to consider it. They regarded Orellana and his ten comrades as poor, misguided wretches who knew no better and who had been driven quite mad by abuse. Of all the tales of mutiny on the high seas this must be set down as unparalleled, and it seems to fit in, as a sort of climax, with the varied and almost endless adventures of the people who were wrecked in the Wager.

The eleven Indians first stole a few sailors' knives, which was fairly easy to do, and then they manufactured the singular weapon still in use on the plains of the Argentine and which Midshipman Morris described as follows:

 

They were secretly employed in cutting out thongs from raw-hides, to the ends of which they fixed the double-headed shot of the small quarter-deck guns. This, when swung round their heads and let fly, is a dangerous weapon and, as already observed, they are extremely expert with it. An outrage committed on the chief himself, precipitated the execution of his daring enterprise; for one of the officers, a brutal fellow, having ordered him aloft, of which he was incapable of performance, then, under pretence of disobedience, cruelly beat him and left him bleeding on the deck.

 

It was a day or two after this, in the cool of the evening, when the Spanish officers were strolling upon the poop, that Orellana and his ten companions came toward them and drifted close to the open doors of the great cabin in which Admiral Pizarro and his staff were lounging, with cigars and wine. The boatswain roughly ordered the Indians away. With a plan of action carefully preconceived, the intruders slowly retreated, but six of them remained together, while two moved to each of the gangways, and so blocked the approaches to the quarter-deck. As soon as they were stationed, Orellana yelled a war whoop, "which is the harshest and most terrific noise that can be imagined."

With knives and with the deadly bolas, or thonged missiles, the eleven Indians made a slaughter-house of the flag-ship's spacious poop. Spanish sentinels of the guard, seamen on watch, boatswain's mates, and the sailors at the steering tackles, sailing masters and dandified officers, were mowed down as by a murderous hurricane before they could find their wits or their arms. In the fury of this first onslaught twenty of the ship's company were laid dead on the spot and as many more were disabled. Those who survived were in no mood to mobilize any resistance. Some tumbled into the great cabin, where they extinguished the candles and barricaded the doors, while others flew into the main-shrouds and took refuge in the tops or in the rigging.

It was sheer panic which spread forward along the decks until it reached the forecastle. The officers were killed or in hiding, and the leaderless sailors assumed that the English prisoners were leading the upheaval. A few of the wounded men scrambled forward in the darkness and told the watch on deck that the after guard had been wiped out and the ship was in the hands of mutineers. Thereupon the Spanish seamen prudently locked
 
P 305--Lost ships and lonely seas.jpg

BRIG "TOPAZ," OF NEWBURY PORT, BUILT IN 1807

Original in the Marine Room, Peabody Museum, Salem. Painted by Anton Roux, Marseilles

 
themselves in the forecastle or swarmed out on the bowsprit and into the fore rigging. Orellana and his ten Indians were completely in possession of the sixty-gun flag-ship, the admiral, and the crew of almost five hundred Spaniards. For the moment they had achieved the impossible.
 

The officers and crew, who had escaped into different parts of the ship, were anxious only for their own safety, and incapable of forming any plan for quelling the insurrection. The yells of the Indians, indeed, the groans of the wounded, and the confused clamors of the crew, all heightened by the obscurity prevailing, greatly magnified the danger at first. The Spanish, likewise, sensible of the disaffection of the impressed men, and at the same time conscious of the barbarity their prisoners had experienced, believed that it was a general conspiracy and that their own destruction was inevitable.

 

A strange interval of silence fell upon the blood-stained ship as she rolled, without guidance, to the impulses of a gentle sea, while the canvas flapped and the yards creaked as the breeze took her aback. The conquering Indians were vigilant and anxious, unable to leave the quarter-deck, where they held the mastery, the Spanish crew lying low, as it were, and wondering what might happen next. Orellana promptly broke open the arms-chest, which had been conveyed to the poop a few days previously as a safeguard against mutiny. In it he confidently expected to find cutlasses enough to equip his men, and with these weapons they would hew their way into the great cabin and cut down the surviving officers. Alas! for the cleverly contrived plans, the chest contained only muskets and pistols, and the Indians had never learned how to use fire-arms.

Meanwhile that high and mighty personage Admiral Pizarro was using animated language in the great cabin, and Spanish oaths are beyond all others for crackling eloquence. His guests had begun to compose their scrambled wits, and through the windows and port-holes they were able to talk things over with their friends who were hiding in the gun-room and between decks. From these sources it was learned that those unholy devils, the English prisoners, were not concerned in the hurricane of a rebellion, and that the prodigious affair was solely the work of the eleven rampant Indians. The admiral looked less disconsolate, and his officers breathed easier. It was resolved to storm the quarter-deck before the storm gathered more headway.

There were pistols in the great cabin, but neither powder nor ball, but a bucket was lowered to the gun-room on the deck below, and plenty of ammunition was fished up. Cautiously unbarring the cabin doors, they began to take pot-shots at the Indians, and were lucky enough to shoot Orellana through the head. When his followers saw him fall and discovered that he was dead, to a man these ten heroes leaped over the bulwark and perished in the sea. They knew how to finish in style, and the admiral was deprived of the pleasure of swinging them to a yard-arm to the flourish of trumpet and drum.

Midshipman Isaac Morris and his two shipmates of the Wager witnessed this splendid undertaking, or bits of it, as they paced to and fro under guard in the middle of the ship. It seemed as though they might be granted a quieter life by way of a change, but when the flag-ship reached Spain they were hustled ashore and put into a prison for a fortnight, where they were chained together like common criminals and fed on bread and water. After that they were marched off to an island by a file of musketeers, and held for fourteen weeks in a sort of penal colony among thieves and felons. The longest lane has a turning, and there came at length a royal order providing that the three Englishmen should be sent to Portugal. At Oporto the English consul gave them quarters and a little money, and the end of the story is thus described by Isaac Morris:

 
We embarked in the Charlotte, scow, on the 18th of April, 1746, and under convoy of the York and Folkstone men-of-war, arrived at London on the 5th of July following; three only of the eight men left on the coast of Patagonia, Samuel Cooper, John Andrews, and myself, being so happy as once more to see their native country.
 

The Wager had sailed on her fatal voyage on September 18, 1740, and had been lost in May of 1741. These three survivors had therefore spent more than five years in the endeavor to reach home. By devious ways three parties of the Wager's people had finally extricated themselves from the toils of misfortune. Midshipman Byron and Captain Cheap, and a few of those who had lived through the cruise in the long-boat, and these three men who had been marooned. Left unfinished were those other tragic stories, shrouded behind the curtain of fate, the four marines and their farewell huzza, the crew of the barge who basely abandoned their companions, and the eleven people who requested to be set ashore in Patagonia sooner than endure the horrors of the long-boat. The wreck of the Wager is a yarn of many strands, an epic of salt water, and still memorable, although the ship was lost almost two hundred years ago.