The Real Story Behind ‘The Wager’

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio reunite for this tale of mutiny on the high seas.
Scorsese and DiCaprio: The Real Story Behind The Wager

Real Stories is an ongoing column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the real story behind the upcoming AppleTV+ film The Wager by Martin Scorsese.

Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio will reunite for The Wagera book by David Grann of the same name. Grann is also the author of another Scorsese-DiCaprio collaboration based on a true story, Killers of the Flower MoonThe film marks the seventh time the actor and director have worked together. They first collaborated on the 2002 epic, Gangs of New York

Described as a story of “shipwreck, survival, and savagery,” here is a look at the true events behind the famous mutiny chronicled in The Wager. 

War of Jenkins’ Ear

Our story more or less begins with an amputated ear. Seriously. Throughout the 18th century, Great Britain and Spain often found themselves in armed conflict. The War of Jenkins’ Ear began in 1783. British Sea Captain Robert Jenkins appeared before the House of Commons and showed his alleged ear. Jenkins claimed that Spanish coast guards cut off the ear in the West Indies seven years earlier. Jenkins said the Spanish pillaged his ship and sent it adrift.

While the truth of Jenkins’ story remains in doubt, it had a tremendous impact. During the period, public sentiment in Britain was increasingly militant towards the Spanish. Political figures soon used the incident to rile up the public in favor of the war and in opposition to the existing government, headed by Robert Walpole, the man many refer to as Britain’s first prime minister.

The events led to continued and renewed conflict between British and Spanish forces. The conflicts came to be included in the broader War of the Austrian Succession, which lasted from 1740 – 1748 and included numerous nations.

A Trip Around the World

The conflict with Spain presented an opportunity for British Commodore George Anson. Appointed the leader of a small squadron of ships, Anson set off for, as Rear Admiral CH Layman, writing in the BBC’s History Extra describes it, “the infamously stormy Cape Horn into the Pacific to take the war to the Spanish possessions in the South Seas.” But Anson had more up his sleeve.

Anson’s squadron aimed to complete a trip around the world. But the ships faced a sea of challenges. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica entry, the ships were “poorly manned, ill-equipped vessels to capture Spanish treasure ships in the Pacific.” Anson lost three ships while rounding Cape Horn but eventually made his way to Chile. While there, they raided Spanish mining settlements.

They eventually lost all but one of the ships, the Centurion. However, that one ship powered Anson and his remaining men to many victories. Near the Philippines, the Centurion captured a Spanish treasure ship, which they were able to turn into £400,000 when they reached China. There, they became the first British warship to enter Chinese shores.

In 1744, four years after they left Britain, they returned to England. More than half of the 2,000-member crew had died, mostly from scurvy. Included on the list of casualties and controversies from the voyage were men from a ship called the Wager.

The Wager Wrecks

In 1741 off the coast of Chile, HMS Wager, a member of Anson’s squadron, faced “vicious hurricane-force winds.” They were blown off course to an island now called Wager Island. Many men, including those who were already ill with scurvy, drowned. About 140 men were able to make it ashore. The conditions were horrible. Many starved to death. Others died from exhaustion and hypothermia.  According to Layman:

Discipline started to break down in these miserable conditions, with at least one murder, much pilfering of scanty supplies, disaffection and mutinous murmurings.

Soon, factions began to form. The group’s leader, Captain David Cheap, believed that the group should head north in boats. There, they could rejoin Anson. However, many of the men disagreed. They believed that heading south served as their “only chance of survival.”

Paranoia grew. And Cheap, according to Layman, shot and killed one of his officers, believing the man a “mutineer.” The move lead to chaos.

Mutiny on the Wager

Cheap’s actions and the growing desperation of the situation led to an actual mutiny. Gunner John Bulkeley, who Layman describes as “austere,” led the charge with another officer. Cheap was arrested, tied to a tree, and left behind with a small group of men.

The other men, 81 in total, set off for the Straits of Magellan, located on the Southern coast of Chile. Ill-equipped for the journey and lacking food, many died. But the group, now totaling 37, successfully passed through the straits. The group then journeyed to Patagonia. Once at the Argentine portion of the region, eight were sent ashore for water but were stranded and then abandoned.

And then there were 29. According to Layman:

survivors arrived at Rio Grande in Brazil, after an epic journey of 2,500 nautical miles in an open boat through the world’s most hostile waters – perhaps the greatest castaway voyage ever known.

Then a colony of Portugal, the Portuguese governor, and people received the men and aided them in their journeys home to England, where they faced “a doubtful future.”

The Stranded Men

So what happened to the other men? The men left behind with Cheap included John Byron, nicknamed “Foul-weather Jack.” Grandfather to the famous, not-yet-born poet Lord Byron, Foul-weather Jack” was one of only three non-mutineers, including Cheap, who survived the journey back to England. After the mutiny, according to The Guardian, Cheap and his men set off in “two small and hardly seaworthy boats.” New mutinies followed. Men were lost. But the survivors were luckily aided by the Chonos indigenous people, who guided them to safety. They finally ended up in Spanish hands and, through a prisoner of war exchange, returned to England five years after their journey began.

The mutineers stranded on Argentine Patagonia were not so fortunate. According to Layman, some of the men were captured and then murdered or enslaved. Later, some were prisoners of war and brought back to Spain. Those who lived returned to England five-and-a-half years after they first departed.

What Happened?

The sudden return of these men, who many believed dead, naturally raised many questions. How did the ship sink? Who was to blame? Had the sailors engaged in a mutiny? Should they or their leader be prosecuted?

A court martial convened. Was Cheap to blame? Or were the mutineers? Or both? Ultimately, Layman writes, the men were never brought to trial. The story instead became a legend of survival, with figures like Byron becoming well-known.

The events did have an impact. According to Layman, Anson, then an admiral on the Admiralty Board, the body in charge of the British navy, “learned the lessons of the Wager disaster.” New protocols were put in place for when a shipwrecked. Layman writes:

He also brought embarked marine forces under the captain’s command – a move that led directly to the formation of the Royal Marines, an elite part of the naval service to this day.

Will DiGravio: Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.