The terrible tale of HMS Cannibal: Forgotten for centuries, it's a saga, told in a new book, of shipwreck, mutiny and murder that scandalised Britain... 

  • HMS Wager set out from England in September 1740 to harass the Spanish 
  • Also tasked with capturing enemy warships off coast of South America
  • Crew shipwrecked in storm off the coast of South America in May 1741
  • New book reveals how the sailors turned into mutineers and cannibals 

Ragged and emaciated, some blind with malnutrition, others wild-eyed with drink, they roamed the island — cutlasses and pistols at the ready.

Since their ship had foundered on rocks off this desolate spot, the men’s exasperated captain had been unable to control them.

Some had formed their own camp away from the main party, returning only to try to pilfer from the paltry food supplies that the captain kept under armed guard.

Once, the hoodlums even attempted to blow him up, laying a trail of gunpowder to his tent, which was discovered just in time.

Doomed: HMS Wager got caught in heavy seas after setting sail from England in 1740

Doomed: HMS Wager got caught in heavy seas after setting sail from England in 1740

Such mayhem might have been expected from pirates, but these were sailors in His Majesty’s Royal Navy, shipwrecked off the coast of South America.

Yet in a matter of weeks they had turned into mutineers and cannibals, eating chunks of human flesh from corpses washed ashore from the wreck or from those lying unburied on the island.

Shockingly, a cabin boy was found trying to eat the liver of a dead shipmate.

Captain David Cheap, who had been in command of the ship, HMS Wager, was woefully ill-equipped to prevent the descent into chaos. Inexperienced, insecure and hot-tempered, he strove to assert his authority by brutally punishing transgressions, whipping those caught stealing, then leaving them in the open to die of their wounds.

Not surprisingly, such harshness simply alienated more men.

Three weeks after the shipwreck, he intervened in a row between a drunken young midshipman, Henry Cozens, and the ship’s purser, who had fired a pistol at Cozens — though he missed.

Rather than waiting to discover the details, Captain Cheap shot Cozens — whom he disliked — through the cheek.

Then he cruelly refused to let a surgeon tend the injured man, insisting he be left out in the cold to die an agonising death . . . another corpse to add to those littering the island. Worse was to follow.

The disaster of HMS Wager in 1741 is little known today, overshadowed by the more famous mutiny on the Bounty half a century later.

But the horrifying saga of shipwreck, murder and betrayal reveals human nature at its best and worst.

The survivors’ stories became best-selling books in Georgian Britain, with rival and contradictory accounts lapped up by a grimly fascinated public.

Now naval historian Rear Admiral C. H. Layman has used these accounts, together with a never before published letter by Captain Cheap, to reveal what happened when bureaucratic penny-pinching, poor leadership and an abundance of alcohol combined to create a terrifying cocktail on the high seas.

HMS Wager’s voyage had been dogged by ill luck from the start. She was one of six ships that had set out from England in September 1740 to harass the Spanish, with whom Britain was at war, and capture enemy warships off the west coast of South America.

The men lying below decks were drowned 

A rickety former store ship, she had been hastily converted to a fighting role with 28 guns and a crew of 160 men. She was carrying supplies — including, fatefully, large amounts of liquor — for the rest of the ships.

Wager was totally unsuited for the world’s most hostile seas, and so was her crew.

Recruitment difficulties meant that many were old men or invalids with missing limbs, dragged unwillingly from Chelsea Hospital. Some were so crippled they had to be hoisted aboard. A few weeks out to sea, HMS Wager’s first captain fell ill and died. David Cheap, the lieutenant of another vessel, was hastily promoted to the role.

Due to a muddle at the naval dockyards, the ships had not been ready to sail on time and therefore reached Cape Horn, at the tip of South America, when the seas were at their roughest.

One of HMS Wager’s masts snapped off and she became separated from the rest of the ships.

Not long afterwards, Captain Cheap fell down a hatchway and broke his collarbone. The surgeon gave him opiates — though Cheap complained later that he had been drugged without his knowledge. He was still heavily sedated when the boat was hit by a storm.

When she struck the rocks at 4.30am on May 14, 1741, a few men who had been lying below decks sick with scurvy were drowned.

This is believed to be part of the wreckage of the 18th Century warship which sank off the coast of Chile

This is believed to be part of the wreckage of the 18th Century warship which sank off the coast of Chile

Some of the crew did their utmost to right the ship, but others panicked wildly.

Sixteen-year-old midshipman John Byron, grandfather of the poet Lord Byron, saw one man run amok with a cutlass. Others lay in terror on the deck, ‘bereaved of all sense, like inanimate logs, and were bandied to and fro by the jerks and rolls of the ship’, Byron later wrote.

Another contingent at first refused to leave the ship, which was stuck on the rocks, but hadn’t broken up.

While the others rowed ashore, the remaining sailors smashed open the casks of brandy and wine, dressed themselves in clothes stolen from the officers’ cabins and spent the next few days drinking and brawling.

Eventually, a boat rowed out to the wreck and brought the mutineers ashore, where a furious Captain Cheap knocked the boatswain unconscious.

Now, most of the men had made it to land — only to find they were on an uninhabited island off the coast of what is now Chile, with no shelter and little to eat but wild celery.

Fear and lethargy prevailed. Captain Cheap seemed incapable of formulating a feasible plan for escape from an island that was rapidly becoming a mass grave as starvation and hypothermia took their toll.

By the end of June, 40 men had died of the 140 who had survived the wreck. John Byron, the teenage midshipman, tamed a wild dog and was devastated when his hungry shipmates killed and ate it.

They were like skeletons, mad with hunger 

But a few weeks later he found its rotting paws and, desperate with hunger, ate them raw.

At one point, a party of Indians, as the indigenous people were known, arrived on the island in canoes and shared their shellfish and meat with the crew.

But when some of the sailors made advances on their wives, they left.

A cabal of men, led by the chief gunner John Bulkeley, wanted to sail south and seek help on the Argentine coast. But Captain Cheap insisted on heading north by boat to rejoin the rest of the squadron and capture Spanish ships, despite the men lacking a vessel of their own.

His plan never got off the ground. In October 1741, five months after the wreck, John Bulkeley and his men used Cozens’s murder as an excuse to arrest Captain Cheap, seizing him in his tent and tying him up.

Taking possession of the ship’s longboat — the biggest vessel to survive the wreck — and two other small boats, they set out to sea.

Captain Cheap, the surgeon and one lieutenant were left behind on Wager Island, as it was now known.

Soon they were joined by midshipman John Byron and seven other men who had changed their minds and rowed back in one of the small boats.

Out on the waves, gunner John Bulkeley and his 72 men had only 12 days’ worth of rations between them, no chart and — after their smaller vessel sank — just one overcrowded, open boat.

Surviving on a small handful of flour a day, they grew sick and weak. Eleven men asked to be put ashore on the wild, jungle-fringed coast — and were never seen again.

The remaining mariners became living skeletons, delirious with hunger. A teenage sailor died. Then Thomas Capel, aged just 12, who was accompanied by a man appointed as his guardian, began to fade.

The poor boy tearfully begged his guardian for the 20 guineas that he held for him, so he could buy food from the other sailors to save his life, but the man refused.

Thomas died slowly, whimpering in misery. ‘Hunger is destitute of compassion,’ one of his companions later wrote. After six weeks at sea, most of them were more dead than alive.

In 2006 a team of Chilean and Royal Navy explorers discovered the wreck of the HMS Wager

In 2006 a team of Chilean and Royal Navy explorers discovered the wreck of the HMS Wager

Then, a little way up the Atlantic coast of South America, a few men managed to swim ashore at a desolate beach and kill some game. But, in a brutal act of self-preservation — fewer mouths would improve the chances of survival for those on board — once the meat was hoisted on board, the boat sailed off, abandoning eight men on shore.

Their betrayers made it to Rio Grande in southern Brazil and were taken in by the Spanish.

Only 30 men, including their leader John Bulkeley, had survived the 2,500-mile odyssey. In January 1743, John Bulkeley arrived back in England, where he wrote his version of events, a best-selling tale of heroic endurance.

He downplayed suggestions of mutiny or marooning, claiming that he had reluctantly taken on the role of leader.

Bulkeley must have reckoned the only people who could challenge his story were probably dead.

In fact, back on Wager Island, Captain Cheap and his companions were still alive, albeit reduced to eating seaweed and their sealskin shoes.

After many months of procrastination by the Captain and more deaths, they began a long and torturous journey north by sea.

Again, disaster and betrayal beset the party. One of their two small boats, salvaged from the wreck, soon sank, and the men put ashore.

As his men died from hunger, Captain Cheap hoarded food, cruelly eating meat in front of the others.

Some muttered that they should maroon him — then six men made off with the group’s only remaining boat. No more was heard of them.

The five left onshore, Captain Cheap and the young John Byron among them, seemed doomed — until some Indians took them inland in their canoes, forcing them to row though they were weak.

Aged just 12, the boy sailor died whimpering 

The ship’s surgeon died of exhaustion, but after months of canoeing, they reached the island of Chiloe off what is now Chile.

Here, Captain Cheap and his few remaining men recuperated, John Byron even flirting with Spanish ladies, until they were sent to Santiago by the Spanish and eventually put on a ship for England.

Byron’s family had given him up for dead. When he arrived at their London home in 1746, more than five years after he had left, the porter at first tried to shut the door in his face — before a joyous family reunion.

Their homecoming was not the only surprise for John Bulkeley’s crew. Against the odds, some of the game-hunters they had abandoned on the Brazilian coast also made it back. The surviving sailors had been taken prisoner by other Indians and sold on to the Spanish.

They were enslaved for several years on the Spanish warships, before their eventual release and journey home.

The returning men’s saga of betrayals and maroonings flatly contradicted John Bulkeley’s account and gripped the public.

Who was telling the truth? Who were the villains? Who, if any, were the heroes?

A court martial ensued, presided over by the Admiralty Board. After hearing of Captain Cheap’s callous and incendiary behaviour, the Board decided not to press charges of mutiny, preferring to portray the story as one of epic survival.

However, Captain Cheap was excused the loss of his ship and promoted, and the teenage midshipman John Byron eventually became an admiral and returned to the stormy waters off South America, claiming the Falkland Islands for Britain.

In 2006, a team of Chilean and Royal Navy explorers discovered the wreck of HMS Wager.

Lying in shallow waters, the ill-fated ship remains a monument to one of the most barbarous episodes in maritime history, in which the urge for self-preservation prevailed all too often over decency and compassion.

  • THE Wager Disaster: Mayhem, Mutiny And Murder In The South Seas by Rear Admiral C. H. Layman (Uniform Press, £20).


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