Copyright © 2004-2017 
Historical Materials from Southern Patagonia
Midshipman Alexander Campbell, HMS Wager, 1740-46
Shipwreck and rescue on the Pacific coast of Patagonia
  Preamble   |   Book :    1     2     3     4  
Byron's plagiarism


The wreck of the British Navy store-ship Wager on the west coast of Patagonia in 1741 has been immortalized in the work of its most famous survivor, the Honourable John Byron. /1/ There were others, however, each with his own tale of adventure and suffering; among these, Midshipman Alexander Campbell.

A Scot by birth, Campbell was one of the small group (including Byron) which remained loyal to the ship's captain, David Cheap. Five months after the shipwreck, the majority of the survivors departed for the Magellan Strait, en route to the Atlantic Ocean. Two months later, Campbell and his companions attempted to escape northward, but were turned back by impassable seas. A subsequent attempt, with the aid of local natives, was finally successful. In all, it took more than a year for this miserable group of four survivors to reach civilization, at the Spanish outpost of Chiloe. As prisoners-of-war, they were later transported to Santiago, in central Chile, living there in comparative comfort for a further two years, until an amnesty allowed them to return to Britain. Their voyage had lasted over five years.

Because of personal differences with Captain Cheap while in Santiago, Campbell chose to live separately from his companions /2/, returning home by a different route. Arriving in Britain later than the others, he found that the Captain had blackened his name by asserting that Campbell had joined the Spanish service. /3/ This book, therefore, is not only an account of Campbell's adventures, but also a defence of his behaviour in the face of what he claims to be unfair treatment and plain ingratitude on the part of his captain.

In all, five separate accounts were published by the Wager survivors:—

Bulkeley and Cummins, followed by Morris and Young, all members of the dissident group that returned via the Magellan Strait, went to print shortly after returning home. Of the other group, Campbell published promptly, but Byron's book did not appear until 1768 (i.e. 27 years after the shipwreck). So, we may reasonably assert that Campbell's account, though less polished than Byron's, is the more reliable, being much closer in time to the events described.

There is more, however. A comparison of these last two texts reveals similarities beyond mere coincidence: time and again, we read the same events, observations and opinions, in the same sequence and sometimes in the same words. It should not surprise us that Byron referred to Campbell's text to refresh his memory. However, there is little doubt that nowadays he would be held guilty of plagiarism.

Perhaps this apparent impropriety was driven by a certain sense of impunity on Byron's part. Whereas he enjoyed a successful naval career, Campbell lost his: unable to clear his reputation, he did indeed go over to the Spanish, eventually returning to live in South America. But, that is another story ...

In the meantime, 260 years after its first edition, we are pleased to present Campbell's book to a wider audience than the author could ever have imagined. Please read on, and enjoy this stirring tale of misfortune and adventure. —> text begins here

Duncan Campbell (not a known relative!)
May 2007 (revised October 2012)

1.   A modern reprint, The Loss of the Wager, was published in 2004 by the Boydell Press, Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK.

2. Byron states that Campbell went to live separately because he changed his religion.

3. There was some truth to this accusation: see the timeline for further information.