When Thomas Pennant wrote his paper on the alleged giant natives of Patagonia, he called in evidence the experience of Commodore John Byron. He did not quote directly from Byron’s account of his experiences as a teenage midshipman in the 1740s, published in 1768, but relied on the report of Charles Clerke (Clarke) who was with Byron on his later voyage of 1766 and saw for himself these eight-foot people. (Clerke, by the way, took over Cook’s command after his murder, but died himself off Kamchatka, of tuberculosis contacted when he was briefly imprisoned in London as a surety for his brother’s debts).
Pennant was eager to counter the mockery with which earlier reports of the giant Patagonians had been received (especially by the French, who, he implies, believed nothing could be true unless Bougainville had seen it and recorded it). And he was delighted when Byron himself read his work, and was ‘much obliged to Mr Pennant for the perusal of his manuscript, and thinks his remarks very judicious’.
So who was John Byron, known to the navy as ‘Foulweather Jack’? He was the grandfather of the (to us) more famous Lord Byron, who, it is argued, used some of his grandfather’s accounts of storms at sea for the shipwreck in Don Juan. He joined the navy in 1737 at the age of fourteen, and in 1740 was posted to the Wager as a midshipman. Bound in squadron for the Pacific, the Wager was wrecked on the southern coast of Chile. Most of the survivors rebelled against the captain’s authority (in theory, such authority ceased to exist once there was no longer a ship to command, so it wasn’t quite a mutiny), but Byron and eighteen others remained on ‘Wager Island’ with the captain, while 81 went off in small boats with John Bulkeley, the master gunner. It took five years to get back to England, and only four of Byron’s party survived.
He published his account some twenty years later: Bulkeley had got into print in 1743 with his Voyage to the South Seas, Containing a Faithful Narrative of the Loss of His Majesty’s Ship the Wager on a Desolate Island, and Byron not only defends and justifies the behaviour of the ‘captain’s party’, but also states outright that Bulkeley’s narrative was ‘put together with the purpose of justifying those proceedings which could not be considered in any other light than that of direct mutiny’, and is obviously regretful that the law at the time (subsequently amended!) did not make it so.
Byron’s later career was not unspectacular: he got his nickname because of the regularity with which he encountered devastating storms, but the other voyage for which he is remembered is the one made, under secret orders, to claim the Falkland Islands for George III, thus setting off a dispute which shows no signs of being resolved today. The Wager book remained hugely popular, and it is worth noting that there was a copy aboard H.M.S. Beagle in 1831: ninety years after Byron’s first experience, reliable accounts of the Magellan Straits and Cape Horn were still hard to come by.