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


Review by George Yatchisin

A study of skullduggery and heroism, vainglory and stiff-upper lips, the unbelievable odyssey that is David Gann’s latest nonfiction work The Wager also manages to tear at the evils of empire, 18th century edition. That very direct subtitle makes clear the book won’t be a mystery: British vessels set sail hoping to bag a Spanish galleon loaded with treasure, all part of the now forgotten War of Jenkins’ Ear, endeavoring to sail around Cape Horn, a passage of unimaginable waves and wind, only to lead to…well, you just read the subtitle. But as a study of human will tested to its utmost, and beyond (eventually there’s even some cannibalism of corpses), The Wager (the all-too-perfect name of the ship that wrecks) fascinates. Gann (Killers of the Flower Moon) even gets to vividly paint a portrait of a roaring sea battle along the way.

To be honest, it’s a pretty critic-proof book. A page-turner thanks to the amazing twists and turns the ever smaller crew of the Wager suffers (passages about typhus and scurvy are particularly affecting), what’s most striking is how much Grann keeps writerly moves out of the way. Crucially, he’s an ace historian, digging through volumes of firsthand accounts of 1740-1746, synthesizing generally self-interested tales effectively. Central to that is an account written based on one of the perilous journey’s few logbooks, that of gunner John Bulkeley, devout Christian, experienced seaman, natural leader, reluctant mutineer. Alas, when those that survived the ordeal made it back to England, they were welcomed by the age of Grub Street, when “the loosening of government censorship and wider literacy” meant an insatiable appetite for what would not yet be called yellow journalism for several more centuries.

As versions of the harrowing tale proliferated, Grann points out, “Perception of the Wager affair varied from reader to reader. Bullekey, whose journal kept being pilfered by hacks, was incensed when he realized that it was increasingly being regarded with suspicion, as if it, too, might be fake.” Bullekey would no doubt be pleased with the judicious airing of his side of the story that Grann presents. Especially when Grann kicks the whole book off with the unsparing sentence, “The only impartial witness was the sun.”

Another account, penned from a much higher social register, comes courtesy of Grann’s Byronic hero. I mean that literally, as John Byron—grandfather of the famous poet—sailed aboard the Wager as a sixteen-year-old midshipman. His head stuffed with fanciful literary dreams of the romance of the sea, the harrowing experience didn’t keep him from a long naval career, rising to the rank of vice-admiral. Two decades after the court-martial case (I’m purposely avoiding spoilers as to what happened when “justice” was decided), he penned, The Narrative of the Honourable John Byron…Containing an Account of the Great Distresses Suffered by Himself and His Companions on the Coast of Patagonia, from the Year 1740, Till Their Arrival in England, 1746.

Grann, ever filling us in on the miserable, socially stratified life at sea, does point out an officer might be expected to sail with copies of Ovid, Swift, and Milton, so Byron’s erudition is easy for him to lean on as a source, trying to figure out all the motivations of the differing factions post-wreck. But Byron, even starving, is ever a gentleman, despite at one point having to eat “the rancid, foul-smelling sealskins covering his feet.”

Grann’s third well-honed character study is of David Cheap, ill-fated Captain of the Wager. Not really a blustering, demanding Bligh as much as a slave to duty, even after the wreck Cheap hopes to meet up with the rest of the squadron and hunt for the Spanish treasure galleon. When the uprising finally turns on him, Grann’s writes, “Here Cheap was, defeated, bound, humiliated, and yet he remained composed, steady, and courageous. He had finally, like a true captain, mastered himself.”

Months on an inhospitable island made clear that an empty stomach exposes hierarchical order for the no-calorie feast it is. Grann far from belabors the grinding gears of colonialism and imperialism but does conclude: “But it is precisely such unthinking complicity that allows empires to endure. Indeed, these imperial structures require it: thousands and thousands of ordinary people, innocent or not, serving—and even sacrificing themselves for—a system many of them rarely question.” It’s somewhat surprising that Grann never surmises that the struggle between those loyal to their however unstable captain and the mutineers desperate to survive might have primarily been an excuse to keep living—hate for another has accomplished far less.

The sailors’ encounters with nomadic tribes in Patagonia do reflect their blind sense of superiority over the “barbarians,” even if it was a group of the Chono who helped guide Cheap and others to eventual safety. And Grann in his voluminous notes, tucks away a lovely comment on the power of narrative that undergirds so much of this books’ struggle, let alone the power of empire to forge the tomes of history. The castaways also encountered a group called the Kawésqar, whose language was richly subtle. Grann quotes an article by Jack Hitt: “You can say, ‘A bird flew by.’ And by the use of different tenses, you can mean a few seconds ago, a few days ago, a time so long ago that you were not the original observer of the bird (but you knew the observer yourself) and, finally, a mythological past, a tense the Kawésqar use to suggest that the story is so old that it no longer possesses the fresh descriptive truth but rather that other truth which emerges from stories that retain their narrative power despite constant repetition.”

Grann’s The Wager is Kawésqar keen in its telling.