A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny, and Murder

By the middle of July, nine bloodless months had gone by for the squadron since the war began. If the ships left promptly, Cheap was confident that they could reach Cape Horn before the end of the austral summer. But the men-of-war were still missing the most important element of all: men.

Because of the length of the voyage and the planned amphibious invasions, each warship in Anson’s squadron was supposed to carry an even greater number of seamen and marines than it was designed for. The Centurion, which typically held four hundred people, was expected to sail with some five hundred, and the Wager would be packed with about two hundred and fifty—nearly double its usual complement.

Cheap had waited and waited for crewmen to arrive. But the Navy had exhausted its supply of volunteers, and Great Britain had no military conscription. Robert Walpole, the country’s first Prime Minister, warned that the dearth of crews had rendered a third of the Navy’s ships unusable. “Oh! seamen, seamen, seamen!” he cried at a meeting.

While Cheap was struggling with other officers to scrounge up sailors for the squadron, he received more unsettling news: those men who had been recruited were falling sick. Their heads throbbed, and their limbs were so sore that they felt as if they’d been pummelled. In severe cases, these symptoms were compounded by diarrhea, vomiting, bursting blood vessels, and fevers reaching as high as a hundred and six degrees. (This led to delirium—“catching at imaginary objects in the air,” as a medical treatise put it.)

Some men succumbed even before they had gone to sea. Cheap counted at least two hundred sick and more than twenty-five dead on the Centurion alone. He had brought his young nephew Henry to apprentice on the expedition . . . and what if he perished? Even Cheap, who was so indomitable, was suffering from what he called a “very indifferent state of health.”

It was a devastating epidemic of “ship’s fever,” now known as typhus. No one then understood that the disease was a bacterial infection, transmitted by lice and other vermin. As boats transported unwashed recruits crammed together in filth, the men became lethal vectors, deadlier than a cascade of cannonballs.

Anson instructed Cheap to have the sick rushed to a makeshift hospital in Gosport, near Portsmouth, in the hope that they would recover in time for the voyage. The squadron still desperately needed men. But, as the hospital became overcrowded, most of the sick had to be lodged in surrounding taverns, which offered more liquor than medicine, and where three patients sometimes had to squeeze into a single cot. An admiral noted, “In this miserable way, they die very fast.”

After peaceful efforts to man the fleets failed, the Navy resorted to what a secretary of the Admiralty called a “more violent” strategy. Armed gangs were dispatched to press seafaring men into service—in effect, kidnapping them. The gangs roamed cities and towns, grabbing anyone who betrayed the telltale signs of a mariner: the familiar checkered shirt and wide-kneed trousers and round hat; the fingers smeared with tar, which was used to make virtually everything on a ship more water-resistant and durable. (Seamen were known as tars.) Local authorities were ordered to “seize all straggling seamen, watermen, bargemen, fishermen and lightermen.”

A seaman later described walking in London and having a stranger tap him on the shoulder and demand, “What ship?” The seaman denied that he was a sailor, but his tar-stained fingertips betrayed him. The stranger blew his whistle; in an instant, a posse appeared. “I was in the hands of six or eight ruffians whom I soon found to be a press gang,” the seaman wrote. “They dragged me hurriedly through several streets, amid bitter execrations bestowed on them from passersby and expressions of sympathy directed towards me.”

Press-gangs headed out in boats as well, scouring the horizon for incoming merchant ships—the most fertile hunting ground. Often, men seized were returning from distant voyages and hadn’t seen their families for years; given the risks of a subsequent long voyage during war, they might never see them again.

Cheap became close to a young midshipman on the Centurion named John Campbell, who had been pressed while serving on a merchant ship. A gang had invaded his vessel, and when he saw them hauling away an older man in tears he stepped forward and offered himself up in his place. The head of the press-gang remarked, “I would rather have a lad of spirit than a blubbering man.”

Anson was said to have been so struck by Campbell’s gallantry that he’d made him a midshipman. Most sailors, though, went to extraordinary lengths to evade the “body snatchers”—hiding in cramped holds, listing themselves as dead in muster books, and abandoning merchant ships before reaching a major port. When a press-gang surrounded a church in London, in 1755, in pursuit of a seaman inside, he managed, according to a newspaper report, to slip away disguised in “an old gentlewoman’s long cloak, hood and bonnet.”

Sailors who got snatched up were transported in the holds of small ships known as tenders, which resembled floating jails, with gratings bolted over the hatchways and marines standing guard with muskets and bayonets. “In this place we spent the day and following night huddled together, for there was not room to sit or stand separate,” one seaman recalled. “Indeed, we were in a pitiable plight, for numbers of them were sea-sick, some retching, others were smoking, whilst many were so overcome by the stench, that they fainted for want of air.”

Family members, upon learning that a relative—a son, or a brother, or a husband, or a father—had been apprehended, would often rush to where the tenders were departing, hoping to glimpse their loved one. Samuel Pepys describes, in his diary, a scene of pressed sailors’ wives gathered on a wharf near the Tower of London: “In my life, I never did see such a natural expression of passion as I did here in some women’s bewailing themselves, and running to every parcel of men that were brought, one after another, to look for their husbands, and wept over every vessel that went off, thinking they might be there, and looking after the ship as far as ever they could by moonlight, that it grieved me to the heart to hear them.”

Anson’s squadron received scores of pressed men. Cheap processed at least sixty-five for the Centurion; however distasteful he might have found the press, he needed every sailor he could get. Yet the unwilling recruits deserted at the first opportunity, as did volunteers who were having misgivings. In a single day, thirty men vanished from the Severn. Of the sick men sent to Gosport, countless took advantage of lax security to flee—or, as one admiral put it, “go off as soon as they can crawl.” Altogether, more than two hundred and forty men absconded from the squadron, including the Gloucester’s chaplain. When Captain Kidd dispatched a press-gang to find new recruits for the Wager, six members of the gang itself deserted.

Anson ordered the squadron to moor far enough outside Portsmouth harbor that swimming to freedom was impossible—a frequent tactic that led one trapped seaman to write to his wife, “I would give all I had if it was a hundred guineas if I could get on shore. I only lays on the deck every night. There is no hopes of my getting to you . . . . do the best you can for the children and God prosper you and them till I come back.”

Cheap, who believed that a good sailor must possess “honour, courage . . . steadiness,” was undoubtedly appalled by the quality of the recruits who lingered. It was common for local authorities, knowing the unpopularity of the press, to dump their undesirables. But these conscripts were wretched, and the volunteers were little better. An admiral described one bunch of recruits as being “full of the pox, itch, lame, King’s evil, and all other distempers, from the hospitals at London, and will serve only to breed an infection in the ships; for the rest, most of them are thieves, house breakers, Newgate [Prison] birds, and the very filth of London.” He concluded, “In all the former wars I never saw a parcel of turned over men half so bad, in short they are so very bad, that I don’t know how to describe it.”

To at least partly address the shortage of men, the government sent to Anson’s squadron a hundred and forty-three marines, who in those days were a branch of the Army, with their own officers. The marines were supposed to help with land invasions and also lend a hand at sea. Yet they were such raw recruits that they had never set foot on a ship and didn’t even know how to fire a weapon. The Admiralty admitted that they were “useless.” In desperation, the Navy took the extreme step of rounding up for Anson’s squadron five hundred invalid soldiers from the Royal Hospital, in Chelsea, a pensioner’s home established in the seventeenth century for veterans who were “old, lame, or infirm in ye service of the Crowne.” Many were in their sixties and seventies, and they were rheumatic, hard of hearing, partly blind, suffering from convulsions, or missing an assortment of limbs. Given their ages and debilities, these soldiers had been deemed unfit for active service. The Reverend Walter described them as the “most decrepit and miserable objects that could be collected.”

As these invalids made their way to Portsmouth, nearly half slipped away, including one who hobbled off on a wooden leg. “All those who had limbs and strength to walk out of Portsmouth deserted,” the Reverend Walter noted. Anson pleaded with the Admiralty to replace what his chaplain called “this aged and diseased detachment.” No recruits were available, though, and after Anson dismissed some of the most infirm men his superiors ordered them back on board.

Cheap watched the incoming invalids, many of them so weak that they had to be lifted onto the ships on stretchers. Their panicked faces betrayed what everyone secretly knew: they were sailing to their deaths. As the Reverend Walter acknowledged, “They would in all probability uselessly perish by lingering and painful diseases; and this, too, after they had spent the activity and strength of their youth in their country’s service.”

On August 23, 1740, after nearly a year of delays, the battle before the battle was over, with “everything being in readiness to proceed on the voyage,” as an officer of the Centurion wrote in his journal. Anson ordered Cheap to fire one of the guns. It was the signal for the squadron to unmoor, and at the sound of the blast the entire force—the five men-of-war and an eighty-four-foot scouting sloop, the Trial, as well as two small cargo ships, the Anna and the Industry, which would accompany them partway—stirred to life. Officers emerged from quarters; boatswains piped their whistles and cried, “All hands! All hands!”; crewmen raced about, extinguishing candles, lashing hammocks, and loosening sails. Everything around Cheap—Anson’s eyes and ears—seemed to be in motion, and then the ships began to move, too. Farewell to the debt collectors, the invidious bureaucrats, the endless frustrations. Farewell to all of it.

As the convoy made its way down the English Channel toward the Atlantic, it was surrounded by other departing ships, jockeying for wind and space. Several vessels collided, terrifying the uninitiated landsmen on board. And then the wind, as fickle as the gods, abruptly shifted in front of them. Anson’s squadron, unable to bear that close to the wind, was forced to return to its starting point. Twice more it embarked, only to retreat. On September 5th, the London *Daily Post *reported that the fleet was still “waiting for a favourable wind.” After all the trials and tribulations—Cheap’s trials and tribulations—the squadron seemed condemned to remain in this place.

Yet, on September 18th, as the sun was going down, the seamen caught a propitious breeze. Even some of the recalcitrant recruits were relieved to be finally under way. At least they would have tasks to distract them, and now they could pursue that serpentine temptation, the galleon. “The men were elevated with hopes of growing immensely rich,” a seaman on the Wager wrote in his journal, “and in a few years of returning to Old England loaded with the wealth of their enemies.”

Cheap assumed his commanding perch on the quarterdeck—an elevated platform by the stern that served as the officers’ bridge and housed the steering wheel and a compass. He inhaled the salted air and listened to the splendid symphony around him: the rocking of the hull, the snapping of the halyards, the splashing of waves against the prow. The ships glided in elegant formation, with the Centurion leading the way, her sails spread like wings.

After a while, Anson ordered a red pendant, signifying his rank as commodore of the fleet, to be hoisted on the Centurion’s mainmast.

The other captains fired their guns thirteen times each in salute—a thunderous clapping, a trail of smoke fading in the sky. The ships emerged from the Channel, born into the world anew, and Cheap, ever vigilant, saw the shore receding until, at last, he was surrounded by the deep blue sea.

This is drawn from “The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder.

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