The reason why Leonardo DiCaprio bets on the story of HMS Wager

Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese

DiCaprio will star in a film about the HMS gamble, directed by Scorsese (Image: Getty)

It started with a severed ear, a shipwreck, and a mutiny. It ended with dozens dead amid charges of treason and murder in one of Britain’s most barbaric naval atrocities. Now to be made into a thrilling film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Martin Scorsese, he will go to sea on the shocking true story of HMS Wager.

The film unites the Oscar-winning Hollywood duo in a drama drenched in blood and betrayal as gripping as their collaborations on the hit films Gangs Of New York and The Departed. It is about “castaways stranded on a desolate island descending into lawlessness and murder,” says David Grann, whose book The Wager, due out in April, is the inspiration behind the film.

The horror of the voyage was only revealed when a ramshackle wooden ship washed ashore in Brazil in 1742 carrying 30 ragged and emaciated British sailors, barely alive.

They were all that was left of some 200 souls that set sail from England aboard The Wager. They told an extraordinary story of shipwreck on an inhospitable island off Cape Horn, months of starvation and how dozens of comrades perished as they desperately sailed for more than 100 days through frigid and stormy seas to safety.

They returned to Britain hailed as heroes. But 16 months later, three more of the shipwrecked crew of The Wager limped to England, claiming that the surviving heroes had been mutineers who left the captain and officers to die.

The Admiralty launched a court martial that captivated the Empire. “They should be hanged,” declared the man arresting the rioters. “For God’s sake what for?” asked riot leader John Bulkeley. “For not being drowned?”

Scorsese’s film will exhume from forgotten naval archives the misadventures of HMS Wager in 1741, almost 50 years before the most infamous mutiny on HMS Bounty, which has seen the tough Captain Bligh and rebellious Lieutenant Fletcher Christian immortalized in numerous books and films, the most famous with Marlon Brando as Fletcher.

Yet while Wager’s mutiny remains virtually unknown, his crew demonstrated amazing feats of human endurance and ability to overcome overwhelming privations and extraordinary acts of cruelty. The Wager sailed during the bizarrely named War of Jenkins’ Ear, sparked after British Captain Robert Jenkins claimed that the Spanish coastguards looted his ship and left it adrift in 1731 in the West Indies.

The Wager, a square-rigged, three-masted, 28-gun former warehouse ship, was carrying her crew and nearly 100 marines as part of a six-ship squadron sent to South America to seize Spanish treasure ships and attack Spanish settlements. Only one ship made it home, and of the squadron’s 1,980 crew and Marines, only 188 survived.

Marlon Brando in navy blue uniform

Marlon Brando played Fletcher Christian in Mutiny on the Bounty (Image: Getty)

The Wager was in pursuit of a Spanish galleon hailed as “the prize of all oceans” in May 1741 when a hurricane trapped her for days, breaking a mast. She was washed into an uncharted bay off the coast of Chile, but as the crew struggled to turn her around, Captain David Cheap fell down the quarterdeck ladder and dislocated his shoulder.

He was confined to his cabin and drugged as the ship sank on the rocks, drowning many off the coast of what would become known as “Wager Island.”

Shirking responsibility, Cheap blamed dehydration, disease, starvation, and hypothermia for decimating the crew.

“My ship’s crew at that unfortunate juncture were almost all ill, having not more than six or seven sailors and three or four marines who could keep deck,” he later wrote. Even those crewmen were so exhausted that they could barely “do their duty.”

Many of the British marines on board were elderly, invalids and amputees dragged against their will from Chelsea Hospital; They were among the first to die. Captain Cheap later claimed that, after the wreck, several crew members broke the ship’s alcohol rations, got wildly drunk and dressed in officer’s uniforms, partying and fighting for days. A boatswain fired the ship’s cannon at the captain, twice.

Confronted with a drunken sailor, the captain shot him in the face in a futile attempt to restore order. “I even went to extremes,” confessed Cheap, who left the midshipman out in the cold to die.

Captain Cheap was determined to sail north in small open boats to join his squadron fighting the Spanish, but most of the surviving crew wanted to head south and return to England. Claiming that since the Wager was destroyed they were no longer paid by the British Navy, the crew rejected Cheap’s authority, as did the Marines.

They stole the ship’s supplies and attempted to kill Cheap by blowing up his store with gunpowder. Barely getting by on wild celery, molluscs, crows and an island dog, he found a cabin boy salivating over the liver of a dead sailor washed ashore.


The wreck of HMS Wager (Image: Jim Boyd)

Emaciated, some blind from malnutrition, the mutineers stalked the island armed with machetes and pistols. Captain Cheap cruelly punished the misconduct, whipping the crewmen who died of their injuries.

The island descended into anarchy, with the sailors splitting into two warring factions fighting for dominance.

Five months after the wreck, 81 desperate crewmen, under the command of the maverick ship’s gunner John Bulkeley, robbed the three largest surviving boats and the ship’s stores “taking with them all our guns, ammunition, what little clothing we had saved, ” according to Cheap, who was left tied to a tree with a few loyal crew members.

The fugitives sailed south into a hell of storms and suffering: many died of starvation and disease. Eight were sent ashore to hunt and then abandoned: four were killed by natives, and the survivors sold into slavery.

Eleven took a chance in the jungle and they were never seen again.

Only 29 held out to make an epic 2,500-mile journey over 107 days in an open boat through some of the most treacherous waters in the world.

Arriving in the Portuguese colony of Brazil, they found help and ships back to England and fame in 1743, omitting to mention their rebellion and abandonment of the captain. Bulkeley’s book on his trials became a bestseller.

Cover of the book The Bet

David Grann’s book, The Wager, helped inspire cinema (Picture: )

But his glory was short-lived.

Six months later, three men, the last skeletal and flea-infested survivors of the 17 men stranded on Wager Island, arrived in Chile in an even more dilapidated and unseaworthy boat, having navigated rivers through the interior. of South America, surviving on seaweed and eating their sealskin shoes.

Among them were the poet Lord Byron’s grandfather, John Byron, and the indomitable Captain Cheap. Captured by the Spanish, it would take them five years to finally return to England, after a prisoner exchange.

They told a very different story than previous survivors. The Admiralty called a court-martial, hoping to hang the culprits from the highest staff in the Navy. But the accusations were so mortifying that the Board decided to rule only on the events that led to the shipwreck. Captain Cheap was excused for the loss of the wager and promoted.

His loyal midshipman John Byron later became a vice admiral. Bulkeley went on to command a 40-gun privateer. Cheap’s brutal behavior led the Board not to press mutiny charges, preferring instead to let the British Navy enjoy the crew’s epic journey of survival. In the end, the captain was grateful that he was not charged with murder.

The wreck of The Wager was discovered in 2006: all that remains is a piece of the wooden hull and some external planking.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese, however, will resurrect the horrors and feats of resistance of HMS Wager when filming begins later this year, ensuring this remarkable story will be remembered for generations to come.

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