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Friday, July 12, 2024

The Castaways Who Built a Town From Their Wrecked Ship

Captain David Cheap emerged from the native dwelling carrying a pistol. The men continued to look at him doubtfully, as if they had found out some secret about him. After less than a week on the island, he was in danger of losing their trust as they realized the full extent of their predicament. Not only were the three boats unable to weather a long journey; they were too small to carry most of the castaways. And even if they located tools and materials to build a larger vessel, it would take them months to complete the task. They were stuck here for the foreseeable future, with winter approaching, and they were already showing signs of physical and psychological deterioration.

Cheap knew that unity was paramount to their survival, intuiting a principle that science would later demonstrate. In 1945, in one of the most comprehensive modern studies of human deprivation, known as the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, scientists assessed the effects of hunger on a group of individuals. During a six-month period, 36 male volunteers—all were single, fit pacifists who had shown an ability to get along with others—had their calorie intake cut in half. The men lost their strength and stamina—each shedding roughly a quarter of his body weight—and they became irritable, depressed, and unable to concentrate. Many of the volunteers had hoped that self-abnegation would lead them, like monks, to a deeper spirituality, but instead they began conniving, stealing food, and coming to blows. “How many people have I hurt with my indifference, my grouchiness, my overbearing perversion for food?” one subject wrote. Another subject shouted, “I’m going to kill myself,” then turned on one of the scientists and said, “I’m going to kill you.” This person also fantasized about cannibalism and had to be removed from the experiment. A report summarizing the results of the study noted that the volunteers were shocked at “how thin their moral and social veneers seemed to be.”

The castaways on Wager Island, already depleted from the voyage, were receiving far less caloric intake than those in the experiment did, and they were under far greater distress: Nothing about their environment was controlled. Captain Cheap, ill and hobbling, had to cope with his own torments. Yet he domineered. He hated consulting with other officers, and there was no time to waste. And he began to forge a plan to carve out an outpost in this wilderness, planting the seed of the British Empire. To prevent them from falling into a Hobbesian state with “every man against every man,” Cheap believed the castaways needed binding rules and rigid structures—and their commander.

Cheap summoned everyone and reviewed the Articles of War, reminding them that the rules still applied on land, particularly those prohibiting any “mutinous assemblies … practices, designs”—on “pain of death.” The men all needed to pull together, each fulfilling his designated tasks with steadiness and courage; they were still part of that human machinery moving with precision to the captain’s will. 

Given the potential threats on the island and the lack of food, Cheap decided that his men must salvage the wreckage of the Wager, where a few segments of the quarterdeck and forecastle were still above water. “My first care was to securing a good quantity of arms, ammunition, and some provisions,” he wrote in a report.

He began to put together an excavation team. For this hazardous mission, he chose the gunner, John Bulkeley, though he considered him to be an argumentative sailor, a so-called sea lawyer who was always ready to insist that he knew better than his superiors. Ever since the wreck, Bulkeley seemed to carry himself with smug independence, building his own great cabin and holding forth to the other men. But, unlike Lieutenant Baynes, Bulkeley was a ferocious worker—a survivor—and other members of the excavation team would perform better with him in charge. Cheap also sent along the midshipman John Byron, who had faithfully served him during the voyage and who had helped him escape the sinking ship.

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As Cheap looked on, Bulkeley, Byron, and the small team of recruits set off in a boat; the welfare of the entire group was now in their hands. As they rowed alongside the fragments of the Wager, the waves thrashed them. Once their boat was fastened to the man-of-war, they slithered onto the wreckage, crawling along the caved-in deck and cracked beams, which continued to break apart even as the men were perched on top of them. 

As the explorers inched along the sunken ruins, they saw, down in the water, the corpses of their compatriots floating between the decks; one misstep, and they would join them. “The difficulties we had to encounter in these visits to the wreck cannot be easily described,” Byron wrote. 

They detected some barrels amid the debris and lassoed and transferred them to their boat. “Found several casks of wine and brandy,” Bulkeley noted excitedly. At one point, he reached the captain’s storeroom and pried open the door: “Got out several casks of rum and wine, and brought them ashore.”

Cheap soon dispatched more parties to help with the excavation. “By the Captain’s orders we were every day working on the wreck, except when the weather would not permit us,” Midshipman Campbell wrote. All three boats were deployed. Cheap knew that the castaways had to salvage as much as possible before the wreck submerged entirely.

They tried to bore deeper into the hull, into the flooded chambers. The seeping water pooled around them as they burrowed through layers of debris, like shipworms eating through a hull. Hours of labor often turned up little of value. At last, the men broke into part of the hold, extracting 10 barrels of flour, a cask of peas, several casks of beef and pork, a container of oatmeal, and more casks of brandy and wine. They also retrieved canvas, carpentry tools, and nails—which, Campbell noted, “in our situation were of infinite service.” And there was still more: several chests of wax candles, along with bales of cloth, stockings, shoes, and several clocks. 

Meanwhile, the hull had further come apart—“blown up,” as Bulkeley put it. And as the wreckage became increasingly dangerous to climb on, with little more than a few rotted planks poking out of the sea, the men devised a new strategy: they fastened hooks to long wooden sticks and, reaching over the gunwale, tried to blindly fish out additional supplies. 

On shore, Cheap had erected a tent by his dwelling, which stored all the provisions. As he had on the Wager, he relied on the strict hierarchy of officers and petty officers to enforce his edicts. But, amid the constant threat of rebelliousness, he primarily trusted an inner circle of allies—a structure within a structure—that included the marine lieutenant, Hamilton; the surgeon, Elliot; and the purser, Harvey. 

Cheap also secured all the guns and ammunition in the store tent; no one was allowed access without his permission. The captain always carried a pistol, and he authorized Hamilton, Elliot, and Harvey to do so as well. With their guns gleaming, they met the transport boats as they came ashore, making sure that everything was properly transferred to the tent and registered in the purser’s accounts. There would be no thievery—another Thou Shalt Not in the Articles of War.

Cheap found that, at times, Bulkeley bristled at all the rules and regulations. On nights when the moon was out, the gunner sought to continue mining the wreck with his friends, but Cheap forbade it, because of the risk of stealing. Bulkeley complained in his journal of Cheap and his inner circle, “They were so cautious of anything being embezzled that they would not suffer the boats to go off and work by night. … By this we omitted several opportunities of getting out provisions, and other useful things, which we shall shortly stand in great need of.”

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Despite such tensions, after a week on the island there was generally a new sense of purpose. To conserve rations, Cheap doled them out sparingly—with what Byron called “the most frugal economy.” On those fortunate days when Cheap could offer the castaways meat, a slice ordinarily for one person was divided among three. Even so, this was more sustenance than the men had enjoyed since being orphaned on the island. “Our stomachs are become nice and dainty,” Bulkeley wrote. Periodically, Cheap was able to further cheer the group with servings of wine or brandy. 

Though the carpenter’s mate, Mitchell, and his companions remained fractious, the open rebelliousness had quieted; even the boatswain, King, had begun keeping his distance from them. Cheap, whose insecurities could lead to sudden eruptions, also seemed calmer. And he and his men soon received an inexplicable blessing: Their scurvy began to be cured, unbeknownst to them, by the island’s wild celery. 

Campbell wrote that, all this time, Cheap had “expressed the greatest concern for the safety of the people,” adding, “If it had not been for the Captain, many would have perished.”

To Byron, the castaways were all like Robinson Crusoe, ingeniously eking out an existence. One day they discovered a new source of nourishment: a long, narrow form of seaweed, which they scraped from the rocks. When boiled in water for about two hours, it made what Bulkeley deemed “a good and wholesome food.” Other times Byron and his companions would mix the seaweed with flour and fry it with the tallow from candles; they called the crispy concoction “slaugh cakes.” Campbell noted, “I had the honour to sup” with Cheap one night, adding, “We had a slaugh cake of his making, the best I ever eat on the island.” (Campbell was still startled by the sight of his commander being reduced to such fare: “This poor stuff even the Captain was forced to content himself with!”)

Though the castaways were desperate to hunt the black-necked cormorants and the white-chinned petrels and the other aquatic birds that perched tantalizingly on the rocks out at sea, they had no way to reach them because the boats were occupied mining the wreck. Even the men who could swim were deterred by the surf and the water temperature, which at that time of year was often in the forties. If they dove in anyway, they would soon suffer from hypothermia, and given their thin bodies, they could die within an hour. Some of the castaways, refusing to give up the bird hunt, scrounged whatever materials they could find and pieced together makeshift miniature rafts. These included, Bulkeley wrote, “punts, cask-boats, leather-boats, and the like.” 

A 30-year-old seaman named Richard Phipps improvised a raft by cracking open a large barrel, then taking part of the wooden shell and lashing it with rope to a pair of logs. Though a poor swimmer, he bravely set out, as Byron put it, “in quest of adventures in this extraordinary and original piece of embarkation.” He carried a shotgun, with Cheap’s permission, and whenever he spied a bird, he steadied himself as well as he could amid the waves, held his breath, and fired. After some success, he began to venture farther along the coast, mapping out new realms.

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One night he failed to return. After he didn’t come back the next day as well, Byron and the rest of the castaways mourned the loss of one more companion. 

The following day, another seaman, undaunted, headed out on his own raft to hunt. As he approached a rocky islet, he spotted a large animal. He edged closer, gun ready. It was Phipps! His craft had been capsized by a wave, and he’d just managed to scramble onto the rock, where he’d been stranded, shivering and hungry—the castaway of castaways.

After Phipps was brought back to the encampment, he immediately began building a new, sturdier craft. This time he took an oxhide, which had been used on the Wager to sift gunpowder, and wrapped it around several bent wooden poles, forming a suitable canoe. And off he went again. 

Byron and two friends designed their own precarious craft—a flat-bottomed raft, which they propelled with a pole. When they weren’t mining the wreck, they went on excursions. Byron made a study of the seabirds that he saw, including the steamer duck, which had short wings and big webbed feet, and made a snoring sound when it cleaned its feathers at night. He considered this duck an avian equivalent of a racehorse because of “the velocity with which it moved across the surface of the water, in a sort of half flying, half running motion.”

Once, while Byron and his two friends were on a long journey on their raft, they were caught in a squall. They took refuge on a protruding rock, but while pulling their vessel out of the water they lost hold of it. Byron could not swim well, and he watched their lifeline drifting away. But one of the other men dove into the water and retrieved it; there were still acts of gallantry. 

The castaways never caught many birds on these voyages, but they relished the few they did catch, and Byron marveled at the fact that their proud navy was patrolling the coastal waters.

John Bulkeley was on a mission. With the carpenter, Cummins, and several other stout friends, he began collecting branches; at a flat spot in the encampment, the men hammered them into an extended skeletal frame. Then they picked leaves and reeds from the forest and used them to cover the exterior with thatch, further insulating the walls with bits of camlet wool taken from the wreck. Using strips of canvas sails as curtains, they divided the space into 14 quarters—or “cabins,” as Bulkeley called them. And voilà! they had built a dwelling, one that dwarfed the captain’s. “This is a rich house, and, in some parts of the world, would purchase a pretty estate,” Bulkeley wrote. “Considering where we are, we cannot desire a better habitation.”

Inside, wooden planks served as tables, and barrels were used as chairs. Bulkeley had private sleeping quarters, along with a place by the firelight to read his cherished book, The Christian’s Pattern: or, A Treatise of the Imitation of Jesus Christ, which he’d rescued from the ship. “Providence made it the means of comforting me,” he noted. He also now had a dry refuge where he could write regularly in his journal—a ritual that kept his mind alert and preserved some part of his former self from the ravaging world. Moreover, he had discovered Master Clark’s logbook, which had been torn to pieces—yet another sign that someone had been determined to expunge evidence of any human errors that might have contributed to the wreck. Bulkeley vowed to be exceedingly “careful in writing each day’s transaction” in order to ensure a “faithful relation of facts.” 

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Other castaways, meanwhile, were constructing their own “irregular habitations,” as Byron called them. There were tents and lean-tos and thatch-covered huts, though none as large as Bulkeley’s.

Perhaps out of adherence to longstanding class and social hierarchies, or perhaps simply from a desire for familiar order, the men segregated on the island much the way they had on the ship. Cheap now had his shelter to himself, where he ate with his closest allies and where he was attended to by his steward, Plastow. Bulkeley, for his part, shared his house largely with Cummins and other warrant officers. 

Byron lived in a shelter with his fellow midshipmen, crowded together with Cozens, Campbell, and Isaac Morris, as if they were back in the oaken vault on the Wager’s orlop deck. The captain of the marines, Robert Pemberton, occupied a habitation next to the tents of the other army forces. And the seamen, including John Jones and John Duck, broke off into their own communal shelters. The carpenter’s mate, Mitchell, and his band of desperados also stuck together.

The area no longer resembled a campsite. It formed, Byron noted, “a kind of village,” with a street running through it. Bulkeley wrote proudly, “Observing our new town, we find there are no less than 18 houses in it.” 

There were other signs of transformation. In one tent, the group had set up a makeshift hospital, where the ailing could be looked after by the surgeon and his mate. To collect drinking water, they caught rain with empty barrels. Some of the survivors cut strips of cloth salvaged from the Wager and stitched them into their loose garments. Fires burned constantly—not only for warmth and cooking but also for the slim possibility that the smoke might be detected by a passing ship. And the Wager’s bell that had washed ashore was rung the way it had been on the ship—to signal a meal or a gathering. 

At night, some men would sit around a blaze, listening to the old salts spin their yarns of the world that once was. John Jones confessed that when he had confidently beseeched the crew to save the Wager before it struck, he’d never thought that any of them would actually survive. Perhaps they were proof of a miracle. 

Others read the few books that they had salvaged. Captain Cheap had a battered copy of Sir John Narborough’s account of his British expedition to Patagonia between 1669 and 1671, and Byron borrowed it, escaping into an adventure still rife with hope and excitement. The castaways gave names to the places around them, making them their own. They christened the body of water in front of their beach Cheap’s Bay. The summit overlooking their village—the one that Byron had climbed—was dubbed Mount Misery, and the largest mountain later became known as Mount Anson. And they named their new home after their old one: Wager Island.

After only a few weeks, most of their beach had been picked clean of shellfish, and the wreck was offering fewer and fewer provisions. Hunger began to gnaw at the men again, until their journals became an endless litany about it: “Hunting all day in quest of food … nightly task of roving after food … quite exhausted for want of food … not tasted a bit of bread, or any wholesome diet, for such a long time … the calls of hunger .…” 

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Byron realized that, unlike the solitary castaway Alexander Selkirk, who had inspired Robinson Crusoe, he now had to cope with the most unpredictable and volatile creatures in all of nature: desperate humans. “Ill humour and discontent, from the difficulties we laboured under in procuring subsistence, and the little prospect there was of any amendment in our condition, was now breaking out apace,” Byron wrote.

Mitchell and his gang roved about the island with their long beards and hollowed eyes, demanding more liquor and threatening those who opposed them. Even Byron’s friend Cozens had somehow plied himself with extra wine and was getting wildly drunk. Late one evening, someone sneaked into the supply tent next to Captain Cheap’s dwelling. “The store tent was broke open, and robbed of a great deal of flour,” Bulkeley wrote. The burglary threatened the very survival of the group. Byron called it a “most heinous crime.”

Another day, while Mitchell and a fellow seaman were out searching the Wager, Byron and a party went out to join them. When they arrived, they noticed that the seaman who had been with Mitchell was lying on the half-submerged deck. His body was still, his expression unmoving. He was dead, and there were strange marks around his neck. Though Byron couldn’t prove it, he suspected that Mitchell had strangled him so that he could keep all the spoils that they had salvaged from the wreck.

Excerpt adapted from The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder, by David Grann. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Group, a division ofPenguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2023 by David Grann.

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