Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A Representation of Capt. Cheap, 1745

A Representation of Capt Cheap, Commander of the ship Wager, Shooting Mr. Cozens his Midshipman; with the Crew building their Huts after the Ship was Cast away on a desolate island on the coast of Patagonia, artist unknown, published 1745 in A voyage to the South-seas, and to many other parts of the world, from 1740 to 1744, by an officer of the fleet.

This particular print was exceptionally difficult to find. I saw reproductions of the original in Leo Heaps' Log of the Centurion (without attribution) and Rear Adm. C.H. Layman's The Wager Disaster: Mayhem, Mutiny and Murder in the South Seas. Having searched through all of the usual sources, I turned to digital collections with the help of Adam Hodges-LeClaire, who found scans of widely varying quality across the internet.

The Wager was a 6th Rate 24 gun frigate with a company of 243 officers and men. She was assigned to the 1740-1744 Anson expedition to raid Spanish holdings and shipping in the Pacific, but like nearly every vessel in the fleet was doomed. Her fate was to be wrecked on the Patagonian shore. From there, the officers and men splintered under the ineffectual command and short temper of David Cheap.

The harrowing experience of the men, and the eventual death of most of them, was the subject of Patrick O'Brian's early maritime novel The Unknown Shore, a predecessor to his famous Aubrey-Maturin novels.

Midshipman Henry Cozens quarreled with Cheap, the purser, the surgeon, and other officers on occasion, but things came to a head on June 10, 1741. While at the mess tent, Cozens learned that rations had been stopped for one of the men. Confronting the purser, he demanded to know the reason. The purser's reply was to accuse Cozens of mutiny and attempt to shoot him. At the sound of the shot, Captain Cheap dispatched a lieutenant to find the reason, and was informed (incorrectly) that Cozens was a mutineer. In a rage, Cheap unceremoniously shot the midshipman in the head without a word.

The event was a major factor in the eventual collapse of discipline and dissolution of the stranded crew.

In the background, numerous sailors work at setting up camp on the Patagonian shore. They are mosty dressed in round hats with low crowns and floppy brims, plain trousers that end at about the bottom of the calf, single breasted jackets cut to about the top of the thigh, and plain, short neckcloths. Though difficult to tell from the piece, it appears that they wear no waistcoats. A couple of sailors wear caps, and at least one wears a cocked hat reversed.

In the detail depicting Captain Cheap shooting Midshipman Cozens, there is one fellow in the immediate background wearing a bob wig. I am inclined to think he is a warrant officer or commissioned officer, given how the cuffs on his coat contrast with the cuffs on the sailors jackets throughout the image.

Even when stranded thousands of miles from home, sailors still carry their trusty sticks! It is worth noting the open slit cuffs of the sailor in the foreground here.

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