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The Loss of the Wager by John Bulkeley and John Byron

18 November 2007

When I first told some friends about this book, I joked that the best way to describe it was ‘Horatio Hornblower in Hell’, if only for the fact that you almost can’t turn a page without reading about someone freezing to death or falling overboard or dying of hunger or getting shot in the face by an increasingly fearful captain. I still think it’s quite an apt description.

The Loss of the Wager by John Bulkeley and John Byron

In 1740, Commodore George Anson set out on a long voyage to the Pacific with a small fleet of eight English ships. His mission was to harry the Spanish military and civilian naval traffic off the coast of Chile, but getting there meant that Anson’s fleet would have to navigate the cold and dangerous waters of the Strait of Magellan at the southernmost tip of South America. One ship, a transport and supply ship called the Wager, became separated from the company in a particularly nasty bout of squalls during the attempt to navigate the Strait, and was essentially driven onto the rocks in an inhospitable part of southern Patagonia. Of the scores of men who had made up the Wager‘s crew, only a handful made it back to England alive. The rest died of disease, drowning, exposure, starvation…and one or two unpleasant incidents that gave rise to claims of mutiny and insubordination, and the possibility that the survivors of the wreck might well face a court-martial and death on the gallows.

The Loss of the Wager combines two stories of the shipwreck, written by crewmen who returned to England and published accounts of what had happened — mostly in an attempt to clear their respective names of the charges of mutiny. John Bulkeley was the ship’s gunner, and his account is in the form of a nearly daily diary he kept before and after the wreck of the Wager. The Hon. John Byron would become a vice-admiral in the Royal Navy, but he is perhaps better known as the grandfather of the poet Lord Byron. Byron’s account of the wreck, ‘The Narrative of the Honourable John Byron’, became the basis for Patrick O’Brian novel The Unknown Shore (and showed up in fragments in O’Brian’s later Aubrey-Maturin novels). Both accounts sold well in England, appealing to a public that enjoyed the dramatic narrative styles and the harrowing escapes from death that both sailors faced during their time in the wilds of South America.

One of the interesting historical facts about the Wager is that before Anson’s voyage, men who were serving aboard ships that wrecked were not paid for their time shipwrecked, and as a result many men took the opportunity to declare that they were no longer bound under military discipline and were not required to obey the orders of senior officers. The incident with the Wager prompted the Royal Navy to revise procedures, ordering that men were to be under military discipline even after a shipwreck and therefore liable to court-martial if they rebelled against their officers. Both Bulkeley and Byron’s accounts are written to exonerate their authors and attempt to restore their respective reputations, as well as to make a bit of money while the Admiralty tried to figure out how to hold hearings when neither Commodore Anson nor the Wager‘s Captain Cheap had yet returned to England — and as such, there’s quite a bit of pushing the blame onto other people in these narratives, though no more than one might reasonably expect to find. Fans of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series and C. S. Forester’s Hornblower books might find The Loss of the Wager a diverting read, if only to see that even if Jack Aubrey and Horatio Hornblower faced some perilous waters on occasion, the real-life experience was often far worse.

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