You couldn’t make this up if you tried.
The year is 1741 and England is at war with Spain over someone’s ear. The War of Jenkins’ Ear. The English plan is to make mischief and annoy the Spanish in the Pacific. A squadron of ships is gathered in Portsmouth, with orders to set sail around Cape Horn.
Except that the preparations are much delayed, and no-one wants to go on this almost certain one-way trip round the other side of the world to attack the world’s most powerful empire. Instead of able-bodied seamen and five hundred soldiers as planned, the squadron are sent 69 seamen, mostly from the sick bay ashore, 100 freshly press-ganged young sailors, and 500 men from the “Corps of Invalids” (patients from Chelsea Hospital who are old, wounded or infirm and completely unfit for service). Of these Corps of Invalids, the ones who can walk desert on the way to Portsmouth, leaving only the extremely infirm, most of whom have to be hoisted aboard the ships because they can’t climb the ladders to reach the deck.
Despite all this, the squadron sets off. Soon, the captain of one of the ships, the Wager, dies of unknown causes, and his place is taken by Captain Cheap. The squadron takes months to sail south, and most of those who were previously in some way fit are hit by scurvy. They head round the Horn.
Then the Wager becomes completely separated from the other ships. Captain Cheap is incapacitated when he falls on deck during a week-long storm, and dislocates his shoulder. Out of over 200 seamen and soldiers onboard, only a handful are fit enough to be on deck. The Wager starts to lose its masts and rigging. It hits the rocks and is badly holed. Everyone gets on their knees and prays for mercy. The ship starts to break up. Day breaks and they can just about see the shore, but it looks desolate, and they believe that there are hostile Indians waiting there.
So – to get back to the subject line of this blog post – what do they do next?
In the words of Midshipman the Hon John Byron, who obviously doesn’t know it at the time but who turns out to be the grandfather of Lord Byron, they break “open every chest and box that was at hand, stove in the heads of casks of brandy and wine, as they were borne up to the hatch-ways, and got so drunk that some of them were drowned on board, and lay floating about the decks for some days after.”
As one would!
Some eventually manage to get ashore, though, again to quote Byron, “The Boatswain, and some of the people, would not leave the ship so long as there was any liquor to be got at…”
Ashore, three men die of the cold and hunger within 24 hours. They manage to catch one seagull and eat it, but this makes them all sick. Byron continues, “We were in all about a hundred and forty who had got to shore; but some few remained still on board, detained either by drunkenness or view of pillaging the wreck, among which was the Boatswain. These were visited by an officer in the yawl, who was to endeavour to prevail upon them to join the rest; but finding them in the greatest disorder, and disposed to mutiny, he was obliged to desist from his purpose, and return without them.”
You’d think that things could only get better, wouldn’t you? But I’ve just noticed that Chapter 4 is titled “The captain shoots an officer”.
I’ve started to read The Wager Disaster: Mayhem, Mutiny and Murder in the South Seas, by Rear Admiral C.H. Layman. It is the true story of what happened in the 1740s, and it is gripping.