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The Wager Disaster by Rear Admiral CH Layman

In September 1740 Commodore George Anson set off from England with five other warships and two supply ships and 1854 men (many actually unfit for any service, let alone what they were actually to experience), ordered to round the Horn and attack the Spanish on the west coast of the Americas. Nearly four years later his flagship, HMS Centurion, returned to Spithead alone. The rejoicing that marked the procession of thirty-two wagons of loot to the Tower of London masked the loss of the lives of many hundreds of men.

One of the ships lost was HMS Wager, Captain Cheap, 28 guns, somewhat awkwardly converted from an Indiaman and carrying 142 military pensioner and marine passengers and encumbered by a large quantity of stores. This is the story of her loss and the adventures and vicissitudes of her survivors, of whom out of about 250 only thirty odd ever returned to England. She had grounded early in the morning watch of 15th May 1741 in a howling gale on what is now Wager Island at 47deg 40'S off the coast of Chile. So many of her crew were sick with scurvy that only a dozen were able to work the ship. NB I write 15th as Wager's day, unlike ours, ran from the noon sight.

As to the loss, I infer from the narrative that the bower cable was foul of the cathead and given the debility of the men and the state of the sea could not be freed to permit club-hauling which might have got Wager out of her embayed situation – if indeed it was the lee anchor being described. Whatever, on the second grounding she was bilged and lost. Contributory problems were no efficient method to determine longitude – her officers thought she had a safe offing - and the physical incapacity of her recently injured captain.

Lost, her seamen were effectively released from discipline as their pay had ceased and the marines and soldiers were never under naval command in the first place. However her officers mutinied against their Captain who to some extent brought this on himself as described. In his critique of Cheap's leadership one presumes that Layman is drawing on his own extensive experience of sea command.

Eventually, as survival in their present condition became more and more problematical, the Gunner effectively took command of the majority and in the cleverly lengthened but seriously overcrowded longboat set off eastabout to Brazil. Layman has cleverly cross-edited the published narratives of Gunner Bulkley (who, somehow, kept a log throughout his voyage) and two of the midshipmen to produce a coherent narrative of what happened to the various parties after this separation – a tale of murder, slavery, starvation, exposure, exhaustion and imprisonment.

It takes an experienced seaman intelligibly to describe, as Layman does, the seamanship aspects of this story. However one might take issue with some items in the glossary. The 'Back and Fill' entry only describes backing, i.e., setting the sails aback – filling is reversing this in order to turn the ship in a short space. The 'Orlop' deck is the lowest deck, not the highest (it 'overlaps' the hold). To 'Bend' may mean to secure a cable to an anchor – only grocers tie.

Over sixty pertinent illustrations have been cleverly ferreted out for inclusion. Two are of extracts of Wager's reconstructed Muster List (what's the National Archives reference for this please?). I dearly wished for an appendix giving a complete nominal list of her officers, people and passengers together with their ages and origins if available, and their fates. There are many individuals mentioned in the text (often only when their death is remarked) and I would have wished to relate them to the tale as a whole, if only to try and identify how some survived while others succumbed. I also wished for a timeline that would cross-relate the experiences of the various separated parties.

Seafaring apart, there is much to be learned from this book about survival in extreme conditions of privation, not just that wild celery is an effective anti-scorbutic, a seal's bladder makes a useful water bottle, and armadillos are good eating, but how the stone-age locals managed to live perfectly well in conditions that were absolutely marginal for Europeans. We also see what happens to social values when a group of normal people are in extremis.

The book concludes with an account of the rediscovery and excavation of the Wager wreck, an interesting story in its own right.

The previous major work on Wager, by Anson's biographer Captain SWC Pack (who gives a somewhat more convoluted account of the command changes at Spithead), was published over half a century ago. Admiral Layman does us all a service by bringing this adventure story before us again, explicating its ramifications with great clarity. I found myself absorbed in the narrative and the nitpicks above should not deter other readers.

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