Byron’s Narrative of the Loss of the Wager / With an account of the great distresses suffered by himself and his companions on the coast of Patagonia from the year 1740 till their arrival in England 1746

Byron’s Narrative of the Loss of the Wager / With an account of the great distresses suffered by himself and his companions on the coast of Patagonia from the year 1740 till their arrival in England 1746

John Byron
John Byron

Author: Byron, John, 1723-1786
Patagonia (Argentina and Chile)
Wager (Ship)
Chiloé (Chile)
Byron’s Narrative of the Loss of the Wager
With an account of the great distresses suffered by himself and his companions on the coast of Patagonia from the year 1740 till their arrival in England 1746





At a time when every thing connected with the name of Byron is regarded with such general interest, it is a subject of surprise and regret that no popular edition should exist of the Narrative of Commodore Byron. Indeed, to procure any copy at all of the work requires some research and trouble. To supply this deficiency is the object of the present publishers.
To the admirers of the illustrious Poet, the Narrative of the sufferings of his grandfather will, on more than one account, be acceptable. In the Poems, it is often, whether humorously or pathetically, alluded to; for instance, in the mournfully beautiful stanzas to his sister, written soon after he left England for the last time, he says,

“A strange doom is thy father’s son’s, and past
Recalling, as it lies beyond redress;
Reversed for him our grandsire’s fate of yore,
Had no rest at sea, nor I on shore!”

Again, in a different mood, in Don Juan, after having carried his hero through the horrors of a shipwreck, as disastrous and fatal in itself and its consequences as his imagination could conceive, he observes—

“——for none
Had suffered more—his hardships were comparative
To those related in my grand-dad’s Narrative.”

To which passage he appends the following note:—”Admiral Byron was remarkable for never making a voyage without a tempest. He was known to the sailors by the facetious name of ‘foul-weather Jack.'” Indeed, to this narrative the poet is indebted for many of the incidents in that surpassing description of “the dangers of the sea.” The awful “whispering” in which, according to the Admiral, the men communicated their first horrid thoughts of putting one of their number to death for the support of the rest, is admirably preserved and amplified in Don Juan:

“At length one whispered his companion, who
Whispered another, and thus it went round,
And then into a hoarser murmur grew,
An ominous and wild, and desperate sound,
And then his comrade’s thought each sufferer knew,
‘Twas but his own, suppressed till now, he found:
And out they spoke of lots for flesh and blood,
And who should die to be his fellow’s food.”

The germ of the conception of the cave-scenes, so beautifully described in the poem, will also be found here; the fondness of Juan for his favourite dog, the voracity with which he devoured the long-withheld food, and many other incidents, were suggested by this Narrative.[1]
To those who would study the character of Lord Byron; discover what qualities of his nature were derived from his ancestors, and what were peculiarly his own; who would trace the effect produced on his writings by early tastes, habits, and associations, the narrative will afford ample material for observation.
Mr. Moore,—who, in paying to genius that tribute which genius alone can fully pay, has shewn how thoroughly he understood the character of the poet (a character, perhaps, after all to be felt rather than explained), how well he appreciated his virtues and the peculiar circumstances attendant on genius, which palliate, if they do not excuse, his foibles,—remarks, that Lord Byron “strikingly combined, in his own nature, some of the best and perhaps worst qualities that lie scattered through the various characters of his predecessors; the generosity, the love of enterprise, the high-mindedness of some of the better spirits of his race, with the irregular passions, the eccentricity, and daring recklessness of the world’s opinion, that so much characterised others.” In the character then of the most famous of those “better spirits,” as exemplified in his own narrative of his sufferings and adventures, we may discern the source of many of the amiable qualities which descended to and adorned the immortal poet. We shall observe in both the same frankness, generosity, affability, love of excitement, the same mildness, and unassuming modesty. But the contrasts of their characters we shall find even more striking than the resemblances. We shall see in the sailor the ease and contentedness of spirit arising from its agreement with the sphere it moves in—the soul harmonizing with the situation—the man with the circumstances—the Supply equivalent to the Demand. We shall see in the poet the “high instincts of a creature moving about in worlds not realized”—the large expectancies, the high anticipations, unfulfilled and unanswered; the discontent, the jarring of a being not at one with the place of its existence, panting for something above it, aspiring “beyond the fitting medium of desire.” We shall see him inordinately yearning after affection and happiness, yet enveloped, as it were, in a nervous network of sensibility, feelingly alive to every the faintest manifestation of slight, neglect, unkindness,—to all that causes sorrow and pain: we shall see the co-existence of these qualities producing necessarily disappointment and disgust; the very capability of enjoying the good, unfitting him for the endurance of the ill; the power of imagination heightening the beauties of the ideal, the keenness of perception aggravating the defects of the real; the consequent struggles for existence in a wounded spirit between “feelings unemployed,” affections unreturned, and the bitterness or apathy they engender—between original benevolence and acquired misanthropy. We shall see the sailor habitually yielding himself to the guidance and authority of others, unhesitatingly acknowledging, and, as a matter of course, complying with, the established relations, laws, and customs of society; submitting without repining, question, or surprise, to the vicissitudes of fortune; patient of hardship, uncomplaining of Circumstance. The poet, from the pride of Mind, accustomed ever to decide for itself, to act and reflect always, obstinately questioning even Destiny and Fate; bidding haughty defiance to their Ruler, or yielding with sullen indifference or gloomy repining; if confessing the necessity of compliance, hardly resigned. We shall find the sailor sustaining his cheerfulness in every situation; the poet, plunging, perhaps from constitutional melancholy, into misery; acted upon by that strong attraction, that irresistible impulse towards the dark and the sad, that capability, strikingly described by himself, of “learning to love despair.” We shall see throughout the difference between the continual presence and the comparative absence of consciousness, that power by which Self, rising as it were above itself, makes itself the subject of microscopic observation. In the writings especially, of each, we shall observe the operations of these opposite properties. The sailor writes on, unaware and thoughtless of the effect of what he writes: the poet, in his letters particularly, seems to know intuitively the effect on others of every word he sets down; he reads their thoughts, he hears their remarks as he writes; and this knowledge, so immediate that its effects on his style seem almost unintentional, continually modifies his expressions, giving the appearance of affectation to what is no more than a natural result of his quick perception and extreme sensitiveness. In every action, too, of the poet, important or trivial, the working of this principle, so hard to be discovered in the sailor, is equally evident. He looks always to the effect: nothing seems done solely for itself: the love of admiration, of being remarkable, of standing alone, however disguised, may almost always be detected. Finally, we shall not fail to observe throughout, the contrast between the single and the “many-sided” mind; between the ordinary and the extraordinary; between the Mortal made immortal by force of circumstances; the Immortal, in spite of circumstances, asserting and maintaining his inborn immortality.
Yet, enhanced as the interest attaching to this narrative is, by the connection of its author with one of the greatest of the master-minds of these latter days, it is a work which of itself may well demand and obtain our attention and regard. The incidents it relates are peculiarly of that complexion which has caused it to be remarked (as Byron himself has somewhere) that Fiction, however wonderful, must often yield to Truth. It is a striking specimen of the romance of real life. The spectacle of a member of an old and noble family, accustomed to the comforts and luxuries that attend high birth, reduced to the necessity, at one time, of beating his shirt in order to crush the vermin it was useless to attempt to get rid of by washing; and at another, of making a meal (eagerly, as he himself confesses,) of the putrid remains of a favourite dog, is as well calculated to excite the curiosity of the observer of mankind as to gratify the taste of the reader of romance. And if the extraordinary nature of the incidents themselves arouse our wonder, the manner in which they are related will insure and fix our sympathy. The simple, unaffected style, slightly tinged with the quaintness of old phraseology; the total absence of any thing like striving after effect; the apparent unconsciousness of the narrator that he must be the object of admiration or pity; the freedom from all attempts to disguise some feelings, or to affect and assume others; the modesty, the frankness, which characterize this narration, while they give additional interest to the work itself, afford indisputable testimony to the amiableness of the author. To have imitated so correctly this natural style, is one of the highest triumphs of the genius of Defoe, in his romance of Robinson Crusoe.
Considered, then, either as an useful appendage to the Works and Life of Byron; as an aid in forming an estimate of his character; or as an account of sufferings and adventures which would appear suitable rather to a romance than to a journal of events actually experienced; an illustration of the strange vicissitudes human life may undergo, of the extremities and hardships human nature may bear; or, in short, as a specimen of simple and beautiful writing, this work can scarcely fail of affording delight and gratification to the reader.

JOHN BYRON, the second son of William, the fourth Lord Byron, by his third wife, was born at Newstead Abbey, November 8th, 1723, and at an early age entered as a midshipman in the British navy. He still held that rank in 1740, when the expedition to the South Sea against the Spaniards took place under the command of Commodore Anson. The Wager, Captain Cheap, to which Mr. Byron belonged, was separated from the rest of the squadron, and wrecked on a desert island to the southward of Chiloe (47° south lat.) After encountering the most dreadful sufferings from famine, a small number of the crew, including the Captain and Mr. Byron, reached the isle of Chiloe, and surrendered themselves prisoners to the Spaniards. They were afterwards removed to Chili, and detained some time at Valparaiso and St. Jago; but were at length allowed to return to England, where they arrived after an absence of more than five years. At a subsequent period, Mr. Byron published his “Narrative.” The young seaman was not deterred by his misfortunes from pursuing his naval career; he returned to the service of his country, and commanded the America, in Boscawen’s action off Cape Lagos, August 18, 1759. His skill and enterprising spirit afterwards occasioned his appointment to the command of an expedition fitted out to make discoveries in the South Sea.[2] He sailed from England, June 21st, 1764, and having circumnavigated the globe, returned home in May, 1766. Several islands were explored in this voyage, which were afterwards visited by Bougainville and Cooke; and experiments were also made to determine the accuracy of Harrison’s time-keeper, and its consequent value as a means of ascertaining the longitude. This officer subsequently was made an admiral, and commanded in the West Indies during the American war. Admiral Byron was much beloved in the navy, more so, perhaps, than any other officer except Nelson. He died in 1798, leaving one son, John, who dying before his uncle, Lord Byron, the title of the latter descended to his only son, George Gordon, the poet.

Loss of the Wager.

The equipment and destination of the squadron fitted out in the year 1740, of which Commodore Anson had the command, being sufficiently known from the ample and well-penned relation of it under his direction, I shall recite no particulars that are to be found in that work. But it may be necessary, for the better understanding the disastrous fate of the Wager, the subject of the following sheets, to repeat the remark, that a strange infatuation seemed to prevail in the whole conduct of this embarkation. For though it was unaccountably detained till the season for its sailing was past, no proper use was made of that time, which should have been employed in providing a suitable force of sailors and soldiery; nor was there a due attention given to other requisites for so peculiar and extensive a destination.
This neglect not only rendered the expedition abortive in its principal object, but most materially affected the condition of each particular ship; and none so fatally as the Wager, which being an old Indiaman brought into the service on this occasion, was now fitted out as a man of war; but being made to serve as a store ship, was deeply laden with all kinds of careening geer, military and other stores, for the use of the other ships; and, what is more, crowded with bale goods, and encumbered with merchandise. A ship of this quality and condition could not be expected to work with that readiness and ease which was necessary for her security and preservation in those heavy seas with which she was to encounter. Her crew consisted of men pressed from long voyages to be sent upon a distant and hazardous service: on the other hand, all her land-forces were no more than a poor detachment of infirm and decrepid invalids from Chelsea hospital, desponding under the apprehensions of a long voyage. It is not then to be wondered, that Captain Kid, under whose command the ship sailed out of the port, should in his last moments presage her ill success, though nothing very material happened during his command.
At his death he was succeeded by Captain Cheap, who still, without any accident, kept company with the squadron till we had almost gained the southernmost mouth of Straits Le Maire; when, being the sternmost ship, we were, by the sudden shifting of the wind to the southward, and the turn of the tide, very near being wrecked upon the rocks of Staten Land; which, notwithstanding, having weathered, contrary to the expectation of the rest of the squadron, we endeavoured all in our power to make up our lost way and regain our station. This we effected, and proceeded on our voyage, keeping company with the rest of the ships for some time; when, by a great roll of a hollow sea, we carried away our mizen mast, all the chain plates to windward being broken. Soon after, hard gales at west coming on with a prodigious swell, there broke a heavy sea in upon the ship, which stove our boats, and filled us for some time.
These accidents were the more disheartening, as our carpenter was on board the Gloucester, and detained there by the incessant tempestuous weather, and sea impracticable for boats. In a few days he returned, and supplied the loss of the mizen-mast by a lower studding-sail boom; but this expedient, together with the patching up of our rigging, was a poor temporary relief to us. We were soon obliged to cut away our best bower anchor to ease the fore-mast, the shrouds and chain plates of which were all broken, and the ship in all parts in a most crazy condition.
Thus shattered and disabled, a single ship, (for we had now lost sight of our squadron) we had the additional mortification to find ourselves bearing for the land on a lee shore, having thus far persevered in the course we held, from an error in conjecture; for the weather was unfavourable for observation, and there are no charts of that part of the coast. When those officers who first perceived their mistake, endeavoured to persuade the captain to alter his course, and bear away, for the greater surety, to the westward, he persisted in making directly, as he thought, for the island of Socoro; and to such as dared from time to time to deliver their doubts of being entangled with the land stretching to the westward, he replied, that he thought himself in no case at liberty to deviate from his orders; and that the absence of his ship from the first place of rendezvous, would entirely frustrate the whole squadron in the first object of their attack, and possibly decide upon the fortune of the whole expedition. For the better understanding the force of his reasoning, it is necessary to explain, that the island of Socoro is in the neighbourhood of Baldivia, the capture of which place could not be effected without the junction of that ship, which carried the ordnance and military stores.
The knowledge of the great importance of giving so early and unexpected a blow to the Spaniards, determined the captain to make the shortest way to the point in view; and that rigid adherence to orders from which he thought himself in no case at liberty to depart, begot in him a stubborn defiance of all difficulties, and took away from him those apprehensions, which so justly alarmed all such as, from an ignorance of the orders, had nothing present to their minds but the dangers of a lee shore.[3]
We had for some time been sensible of our approach to the land, from no other tokens than those of weeds and birds, which are the usual indications of nearing the coast; but at length we had an imperfect view of an eminence, which we conjectured to be one of the mountains of the Cordilleras. This, however, was not so distinctly seen but that many conceived it to be the effect of imagination: but if the captain was persuaded of the nearness of our danger, it was now too late to remedy it; for at this time the straps of the fore jeer blocks breaking, the fore-yard came down; and the greatest part of the men being disabled through fatigue and sickness, it was some time before it could be got up again. The few hands who were employed in this business now plainly saw the land on the larboard beam, bearing N.W., upon which the ship was driving bodily. Orders were then given immediately by the captain to sway the fore-yard up, and set the fore-sail; which done, we wore ship with her head to the southward, and endeavoured to crowd her off from the land: but the weather, from being exceedingly tempestuous, blowing now a perfect hurricane, and right in upon the shore, rendered our endeavours (for we were now only twelve hands fit for duty) entirely fruitless. The night came on, dreadful beyond description, in which, attempting to throw out our topsails to claw off the shore, they were immediately blown from the yards.
In the morning, about four o’clock, the ship struck. The shock we received upon this occasion, though very great, being not unlike the blow of a heavy sea, such as in the series of preceding storms we had often experienced, was taken for the same; but we were soon undeceived by her striking again more violently than before, which laid her upon her beam ends, the sea making a fair breach over her. Every person that now could stir was presently upon the quarter-deck; and many even of those were alert upon this occasion, that h

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Byron’s Narrative of the Loss of the Wager / With an account of the great distresses suffered by himself and his companions on the coast of Patagonia from the year 1740 till their arrival in England 1746
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