Patagonia Bookshelf
The unfortunate voyage and catastrophe of HMS Wager, 1741-42
Shipwreck and mutiny on the coast of Patagonia: disaster, authority and defiance

Who wrote the "Affecting Narrative" of HMS Wager?

Of the five contemporary books describing the events and sufferings experienced by the survivors of HMS Wager, wrecked on the west coast of Patagonia, the Affecting Narrative (Anonymous, 1751) has received scant attention by modern commentators. Justifiably so, insofar as it adds no new material beyond what had already been published elsewhere. In fact, its description of events follows so closely that of Bulkeley and Cummins that it can reasonably be considered an entirely derivative work. But this still begs the question: who actually wrote it, had it published, and why?

A careful study of the text provides almost no direct evidence of authorship. We read on the title page that it was "compiled from authentic journals" and transmitted "from a person who was an eye witness of all the affair". Two pages before the end of the work, we are told that "Mr. Bulkeley, the Carpenter and your humble servant" went to talk to some British merchants in Lisbon. A logical analysis of these hints points to John Young, the ship's cooper. But, it seems that the writer's identity was not considered relevant. Why the cloak of mystery?

What emerges rapidly, as one reads the text, is that this is unlikely to be the work of a typical sailor. Right from the outset, there are references to classical mythology and contemporary literary themes, with an occasional biblical quotation for good measure. Events and behaviours are analysed, sometimes with lawyer-like thoroughness, in a moralising or improving tone. Sentence structures are often elaborate, while the choice of vocabulary is markedly more sophisticated than that used by the other authors. It re-tells events in a sententious tone, targeting a different class of audience — better educated and more genteel — dare one suggest, perhaps, women and young persons?

Anonymity is an established literary device, and does not automatically disqualify the work. But, is the book authentic? Opinions differ. One commentator has suggested that it is ghost-written. Others (Edwards, Williams) have dismissed it as "a fake", the work of a "Grub Street hack". Pack, on the other hand, admired the presentation, apparently unconcerned by the style of writing. None has contested that the events described actually took place.

We are still left with the question: why was it published at all? The answer may be — opportunism. Look closer at the sequence of events in Britain:

Sept 1742 first news of loss of Wager (May 1741)
Dec? 1742 arrival of Beans
Jan 1743 arrival of Bulkeley and Cummins
July 1743 1st episode of Bulkeley's book printed in the London Magazine
1743 Bulkeley and Cummins's book published
June 1744 arrival of Anson's fleet
Feb? 1746 arrival of Cheap, Byron and Hamilton
April 1746 arrival of Campbell; crew court-martialled (for the loss of the ship only)
July 1746 arrival of Morris
1747 Campbell's book published (said to have been rapidly suppressed)
1748 Anson's book published
1750 Morris's book published
1751 Affecting Narrative published

Now, tales of maritime adventure, and the Wager saga in particular, had an enduring appeal; and not only for the British reader — versions of the story quickly appeared in German (1745), in French (1756), in Swedish (1762) and in Dutch (1766), and a second edition of Bulkeley's book was printed in Philadelphia (1757). When Morris's account was published in 1750, its story of a disaster within a disaster was new to the British public, and would have revived interest, demonstrating that there was room for another book, told from a different angle. I contend that our anonymous author took advantage of this opportunity.

Later, in the same way, the 1768 anonymous account of John Byron's meeting with the "giants" of Patagonia provided him with the incentive to publish his own Wager memoirs, no less than 27 years after the wreck.

Whether 21st-century readers enjoy the Affecting Narrative or not is a matter of personal taste, but they deserve the chance to form their own opinions — this transcription provides that opportunity.

Duncan Campbell
October 2012

Other Book Editions:


1. The Wager Mutiny, S. W. C. Pack, London 1964
2. The Story of the Voyage: Sea-Narratives in Eighteenth-Century England, Philip Edwards, Cambridge 1994
3. The Prize of all the Oceans, Glyn Williams, London 1999
4. A Voyage round the World, in His Majesty's ship The Dolphin, commanded by the Honourable Commodore Byron, By an Officer on board the said ship, London 1768

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