The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder by David Grann

Just when you think you’ve already heard the most daring of castaway sea voyages from the historical record, comes now author David Grann to regale us with a remarkable chronicle of woe. In The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder, Grann weaves together a myriad of sources, recounting events with such vibrant prose they unfurl before the mind’s eye. These events, however, happened over 280 years ago. As revealed by his previous book, Killers of the Flower Moon, Grann’s talent is not just in narration, but also in finding historical narratives that turn the looking glass back around on us.

Mark Twain purportedly said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” During the 18th century, naval warfare was one such rhyme. In 1740, the Royal Navy dispatched a squadron from Portsmouth on a mission to seize the treasure aboard a Spanish galleon. Grann does capital work in describing the socio-economic profile of the crew, ranging from striving officers to men pressed into service against their will. Aboard these warships, pitiless hierarchy is the name of the game. For a ship to slice through the ocean, each crew member has to work with machine-like precision. Any dereliction is met with the lash—or worse. As we already knew, democratic these ships are not, for any glint of mutiny portends chaos.

On this voyage, typhus takes its toll. Also, as the squadron sails around Cape Horn, scurvy ravages the crew, rendering them near useless. Traversing the Cape’s furious waters is certainly an inauspicious time for a weakened crew. For centuries it bedeviled sailors. Grann notes that those who experienced it “strained to find a fitting name for this watery graveyard”: “Blind Horn’s hate,” “Dead Men’s Road,” or just simply “Terrible.”

Some of the squadron’s ships make it. Some turn back. One ship, a former merchant vessel (an East Indiaman) retrofitted into a warship, decidedly does not make it: the HMS Wager. Grann lays out, with great drama, how the ship runs hard aground just off a Chilean island. Water floods in, rats scurry up from the holds, and those well enough to flee scramble into smaller boats. Then there are those who break into the ship’s store of alcohol and go berserk in a mixture of revelry and fighting.

On that speck of land, later named Wager Island, commences the rest of the book’s subtitle. There is scant food on the island to sustain life. Celery grass, however, does alleviate the scurvy. A potential lifeline also manifests with the appearance of the Kawésqar.

Inhabiting the Patagonian archipelago for thousands of years, the Kawésqar people marvel the Wager’s crew with how they keep warm in constant near-freezing conditions, lathering their exposed skin with animal fat and tending small fires in their canoes. They extract sustenance from the sea and share it with the castaways. Eventually, an entire Kawésqar village relocates to the island. And then—and you knew this was coming—some of the crew promptly ruin it all. Quite often a group is only as good as its worst members. The worst of the Wager’s crew would, on occasion, take a boat to the ship’s wreckage, drink their fill of spirits, and then return to harass those on the island. One night, as the crew slept, the Kawésqar quietly gather their belongings and disappear.

Two crewmen’s journals supply much of the content on which Grann draws. One is John Bulkeley, a gunner. The other is from John Byron, a young midshipman and future grandfather to poet Lord Byron. Bulkeley is a savvy scribe, for he knows his journals need to reinforce the narrative he’s going to relay to the English admiralty.

Of course any relay is subject to a big-time fact conditional: getting off the blasted island. How this transpires is best left to the reader. But when the mutiny comes, the language used by the mutineers is similar in spirit to what American colonists will argue in the Declaration of Independence some 30 years later. Just as the mutineers name their despot, Captain Cheap, so will the Declaration’s signers name theirs: King George III. In essence, Enlightenment precepts were used, arguing that it’s not they who were in rebellion but their disgraced leaders, men who failed those they were charged to lead.

One faction makes it back to England before the other, commencing the race to peddle a narrative. There are plenty of London broadsheets more than willing to print the various stories from those on the Wager. For the crew, it’s more than an abstract winning of hearts and minds. It’s about solidifying a narrative that will be told to Royal Navy authorities. Under naval codes, punishment for dereliction of duty was already greatly feared by officers and sailors alike. Grann quotes Voltaire’s “Candide,” saying “that the English believed it proper to ‘kill an admiral from time to time in order to encourage the others.’” The admiralty’s ultimate decision is both unexpected and telling.

The Wager is every bit the historical thriller, deserving of the praise it’s garnered. But Grann is also asking the reader to consider larger questions. Why was it necessary to send out warships at all? The events happened under the auspices of the War for Jenkins’ Ear. And if—just by name alone—this sounds like a ridiculous undertaking, you’re not far off. Lives were lost, all in service of…what exactly? Quite a few of the Wager’s crew disappear from the historical record. Grann also mentions the many slaves lost (read: killed) in the Middle Passage during this time period. It’s no accident these nameless lives rarely entered any record at all, except perhaps as a ledger expense. Those responsible certainly had no interest in highlighting such barbarity. Says Grann: “Empires preserve their power with the stories that they tell, but just as critical are the stories they don’t—the dark silences they impose, the pages they tear out.”

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Reviewed by Jason Sullivan