Shipwreck, Mutiny, And Cannibalism: Inside The Harrowing True Story Of The HMS Wager

Published March 9, 2024
Updated March 10, 2024

The British warship HMS Wager was supposed to "annoy and distress the Spaniards" in the South Seas. Instead, the crew became stranded on an uninhabited island — and descended into chaos.

Wager Mutiny

Wikimedia CommonsThe Wager mutiny was a sensation in the 1740s, but it was later overshadowed by other mutinies.

For the HMS Wager, a doomed voyage around the world began as a difficult journey and turned into a hellish one, marked by disease, shipwreck, hunger, mutiny, desperation, murder, and even cannibalism.

The year was 1741, Britain and Spain were at war, and the Wager was part of a group of British warships that were ordered to “annoy and distress the Spaniards” in the South Seas. But then, the crew on the Wager found themselves shipwrecked upon a desolate island off the coast of Chile.

Cast away in a remote corner of the world, surrounded by hostile seas, many members of the Wager crew descended into mutiny, revolting against their captain and setting off on a perilous 2,500-nautical-mile journey to Brazil. Though this incident led to many tragedies, including the deaths of dozens of crew members, it also led to astonishing feats of navigation and endurance.

This is the true story behind the Wager mutiny, one of history’s most dramatic — yet often forgotten — rebellions at sea.

The Original Mission Of The HMS Wager

War had been brewing between Britain and Spain for years. There were many reasons for the conflict, but the best-known story follows British Captain Robert Jenkins, who was accused by a Spanish coast guard of smuggling goods near Cuba in 1731. According to Jenkins, when officers couldn’t find the alleged goods on his ship, one officer cut off his ear. Later, in 1738, Jenkins was summoned to relate his story before Parliament.

At the time, many British authorities were complaining about the Spanish restricting their trade in the Americas. And Jenkins allegedly getting his ear cut off seemed to be the perfect way to symbolize the brutality that the Spaniards were willing to turn to in order to suppress British trade. As legend has it, Jenkins may have even presented his pickled ear during the hearing.

One year later, the so-called War Of Jenkins’ Ear began. Though much of the fighting took place in or near the Caribbean Sea, British Commodore George Anson was given orders for a very different expedition.

George Anson

Wikimedia CommonsBritish Commodore George Anson was ordered to wreak havoc on the Spanish empire in the Pacific during the War of Jenkins’ Ear, with the HMS Wager making up part of his force.

According to the U.S. Naval Institute, Anson was instructed to sail across the Atlantic, around the hostile waters of Cape Horn, and then take the war to the South Seas. He was ordered to “annoy and distress the Spaniards, either at sea or land, to the utmost of your power, by taking, sinking, burning, or otherwise destroying all their ships and vessels that you shall meet with.”

He was also told to “seize, surprise, or take any of the towns or places belonging to the Spaniards on the coast.”

To complete this mission, Anson gathered six warships — one of which was the HMS Wager — and prepared for the challenging voyage ahead.

From Scurvy To Shipwreck

Anson's Squadron

Wikimedia CommonsGeorge Anson’s ships HMS Centurion, HMS Wager, and HMS Pearl in 1741.

The Wager wasn’t originally built as a warship and was instead a merchant ship that had been re-purchased and renovated for battle, so its main task was to carry weapons, naval equipment, food, and beverages.

Since conscription didn’t exist in Britain at the time and authorities were lacking in volunteers to join the squadron, they forced any former mariners they could find to board the Wager. According to NPR, they also entered retirement homes to forcibly recruit men in their 60s and 70s to join the crew — even if they were visibly sick or missing arms or legs.

Unsurprisingly, bad luck plagued the Wager from the beginning of the voyage in September 1740. While the vessel was crossing the Atlantic, several men fell ill from typhus. Then, as the ship made its way around Cape Horn, many men became sick from scurvy. Before long, some of the sick began to die. At some point, the original captain of the ship also died and had to be replaced with the second-in-command on another ship, David Cheap.

Though the Wager eventually navigated around Cape Horn, the vessel was in poor shape from the rough waters, and it also became separated from the rest of its squadron. As many crew members continued to suffer from illness and struggled to maneuver their battered vessel, they must have felt a sense of dread when they realized that the weather was worsening.

Hms Wager

Charles Brooking/Wikimedia CommonsDisease was only the beginning of the HMS Wager’s problems, as the vessel would soon be shipwrecked.

On May 14, 1741, hurricane-force winds caused the Wager to wreck upon a desolate island off the coast of Chile, now known as Wager Island.

By this point, many of the sick men had drowned, but about 140 survivors successfully made it to the shore. (There had been about 250 people onboard when the ship had first departed on its journey.) At first, the surviving men were optimistic about the island, thinking that it would be a good place to seek shelter as they contemplated their next steps.

But the island was uninhabited and thus had little to offer in terms of shelter. The men also struggled to find food on the island, and while they did have some food left from their ship, Captain Cheap kept it in a tent so it could be rationed out over time. Many of the men began to suffer from starvation as well as hypothermia due to the cold, windy, and rainy weather.

As Cheap later wrote, “My ship’s company at that unhappy juncture [when shipwrecked] were almost all sick, having not more than six or seven seamen, and three or four marines, that were able to keep the deck.”

Though the crew was briefly visited by a group of friendly Indigenous people who traveled by canoe — and had clearly adapted to living in such a harsh environment — the British refused to accept help from what they believed was an “inferior” civilization. The crew members only accepted assistance from their captain, but before long, they even began to lose faith in him.

Mutiny On Wager Island

David Cheap Shooting Henry Cozens

Wikimedia CommonsCaptain Cheap’s decision to shoot Midshipman Henry Cozens was one of many reasons why the crew mutinied.

At first, the crew members remained loyal to Captain Cheap, who was determined to maintain naval law while on the inhospitable island. But as the men grew more ill from starvation and exhaustion, all sense of discipline completely disappeared. Many members of the crew became violent toward one another, and some became so hungry that they descended into cannibalism, eating the bodies of their dead shipmates.

In this chaotic environment, the crew members even began to fight with their captain.

Though Cheap believed it would be best to rebuild the Wager’s longboat and travel north to rejoin Anson and the squadron, the vast majority of his crew members thought that traveling south was their best chance at surviving — since they could then eventually find refuge in Brazil.

Perhaps the last straw for the crew members was when Cheap fatally shot Midshipman Henry Cozens, who’d been accused of dereliction of duty. Almost no one believed that the murder was justified, especially since Cozens had died a slow, agonizing death over the course of several days.

Naturally, the crew members began to search for new leadership, and they found it in John Bulkeley, a gunner. Despite the harsh conditions, Bulkeley rallied most of the crew to his side by using language that emphasized duty and honor, inspiring them that there could still be a chance of survival.

Wreck Of The Wager

Wikimedia CommonsJohn Bulkeley was key to planning the Wager mutiny, but he couldn’t have pulled it off alone.

Together, they secretly planned to mutiny against Cheap, even creating a written record of their plans and the reasons behind their revolt.

After the men were done working on lengthening the longboat for their arduous journey ahead, they took control of the boat, tied Cheap up, and abandoned him on the island with 18 other men who remained loyal to him.

There were 81 mutineers who left on the longboat bound for Brazil in October 1741. It would be a 2,500-nautical-mile journey full of the same rough waters that they had struggled to journey through months earlier, and they would face many of the same challenges they had before. By the time they landed in Brazil in January 1742, there were only 29 survivors left.

Those who lived were welcomed with open arms by the Portuguese in Brazil, astounded that any of the mutineers had survived at all. Shockingly, it was later revealed that Captain Cheap had survived the incident as well.

The Aftermath Of The Wager Mutiny

David Cheap

Wikimedia CommonsCaptain David Cheap was a skilled sailor, but he was clearly despised by his men.

When Captain David Cheap was left behind on Wager Island, he thought he was done for. But incredibly, he and some of his loyal crew members were soon rescued by a group of Indigenous people passing by the island.

They were taken to Chile, where they faced the challenges of the wilderness. At one point, they were held by the Spanish. Cheap wouldn’t make it back to England until 1745, alongside just two other men who’d been left to die on the island (including John Byron, later the grandfather of the poet Lord Byron). Many were surprised that any of them survived.

The mutineers had already returned to England in 1743. Unlike their initial landing in Brazil, they did not receive a hero’s welcome in their home country. They were widely criticized for the mutiny, and many of the mutineers feared that they’d face charges for their actions.

But as it turned out, Cheap was not interested in pressing his luck at the court martial that he and his former crew members would be summoned to. After all, Cheap was at risk of being charged with murder for killing Cozens. Everyone at the court martial was so terrified that they’d be hanged that they were careful not to say anything that could hurt their own case.

Amazingly, in the end, no one was convicted of mutiny or murder during the court martial. Some believe this is because the Wager’s voyage had been so disastrous that the Navy hoped to sweep it under the rug.

But there was one significant change made to British naval law in the aftermath. The mutineers had argued that, since their pay had stopped when the Wager went down, they weren’t under naval law and couldn’t be charged with mutiny. The wording of the laws concerning mutiny were changed to apply to all Royal Navy ships, “wrecked, lost, or taken.” Mutiny would afflict the Navy again in years to come, but the Wager loophole was closed.

After reading about the Wager mutiny, go inside the harrowing true story of the whaleship Essex that inspired “Moby Dick.” Then, take a look at the grim history of the lost Franklin Expedition.

Morgan Dunn
Morgan Dunn is a freelance writer who holds a Bachelor's degree in fine art and art history from Goldsmiths, University of London. His areas of interest include the Soviet Union, China, and the effects of colonialism.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.