Precarious authority: reading the narratives of the wreck of the Wager (1741)

A IOSARN seminar given by

Associate Professor Michael Titlestad, WISER, University of the Witwatersrand

22 September 2010, 12.30 – 2 pm, UTS Bldg 10 (235 Jones St), Level 3, Room 330


My presentation explores a crisis of captaincy in the Georgian Royal Navy: the events following the wreck off the coast of Chile in 1741 of the Wager, a supply ship in the Anson expedition. The wreck and the fate of her castaways are recounted in four narratives: three written by her midshipmen (John Byron, Alexander Campbell and Isaac Morris) and one co-authored by two of her warrant officers, the gunner, John Bulkeley, and the carpenter, John Cummins. These narratives have formed the basis of two popular histories, by S.W.C. Peck (1964) and Peter Shankland (1975) respectively, they have been interpreted in an excellent essay by Philip Edwards (1994), and have been discussed most recently in Glyn Williams’ The Prize of All the Oceans (1999), an authoritative study of the Anson voyage and the fortuitous seizure of the Spanish treasure galleon, the Nuestra Señora de Covadonga. Although the story of the Wager has been fully documented, I will offer a skeletal account of the wreck, the subsequent behaviour of Captain Cheap and the dramatic mutiny of the crew. This provides the basis to ruminate on the loss of authority in shipwreck more generally, using the analytical lenses of the writing of Greg Dening, Josiah Blackmore, Barrington Moore and Marcus Rediker. In the final section of my presentation I will consider Patrick O’Brian’s idiosyncratic use of the Wager historical sources in his novel, The Unknown Shore (1959). This exploration provides a basis for conjecturing – perhaps in excess of any evidence I provide – about the representation of naval authority in popular maritime fiction, and the notable conservatism of the genre.

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