‘The Wager’ Review: Shipwrecked and Worse
A British warship set out in pursuit of a Spanish treasure, but its crew found itself on a journey into a calamity that became maritime legend.
Photo: Jennifer Potter
I’ll confess. I can’t get enough disaster-filled sea tales. There are few reading adventures I like more than climbing aboard a ship awash with filth, disease, vermin and a welter of humanity—from scoundrels to drunks to heroic fools. If the vessel is visited by foul weather, mechanical failures and bloodthirsty enemies, well, that’s my idea of a rollicking time.
“The Wager,” David Grann’s account of the punishing travails of the 250 men aboard an 18th-century British man-of-war, shipwrecked on an island off the coast of Patagonia, is the most gripping true-life sea yarn I’ve read in years. Setting off for South America on a secret mission in September 1740, the Wager’s crew confronted one disaster after another—and those few who survived carried home competing narratives about what had happened and who was at fault. In 1746 the Admiralty convened a court-martial to determine who was telling the truth. A tour de force of narrative nonfiction, Mr. Grann’s account shows how storytelling, whether to judges or readers, can shape individual and national fortunes—as well as our collective memory.
The story of the Wager has the weight of myth. It inspired not only such Enlightenment philosophers as Voltaire and Rousseau, who grappled with reports of how the survivors “descended into a Hobbesian state of depravity,” but later writers including Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad and Charles Darwin. At one especially desperate moment after the Wager’s wreck, a group of castaways considered murdering one of their fellows and resorting to cannibalism to survive. Among the witnesses was midshipman John Byron—whose grandson, the poet Lord Byron, later cast the scene in verse: “The lots were made, and marked, and mixed, and handed,/In silent horror…”
Our celebration of the best of the season, featuring new selections in history, fiction, nature, cooking, sports, the great outdoors and more.
As it turned out, the castaways—at least in this instance—resisted the ghastly temptation and instead staggered up the hill they’d named “Mount Misery” to bury the body of a fellow crewman, whose spirit some thought had been haunting them. The landmarks on their journey—Deceit Rocks, the Island of Desolation, the Bay of the Severing of Friends—could have come from “Game of Thrones,” and Mr. Grann deploys these fabulous placenames with good effect: to build suspense and share in the crew and officers’ rising sense of dread.
Stories about ships often train their spyglasses on the frontiers of human nature. Mr. Grann, whose books include “Killers of the Flower Moon,” a true-crime story about racial injustice, and the archaeological adventure “The Lost City of Z,” writes historical narratives focused on such extremes. “The Wager” draws from an unusually rich trove of firsthand documents—including logbooks, correspondence, diaries, muster books, court-martial testimony and Admiralty reports. Many of the accounts are at war with each other—a circumstance Mr. Grann uses to illustrate his larger point about national narratives.
“Just as people tailor their stories to serve their interests—revising, erasing, embroidering—so do nations.” Stories swirled around the Wager disaster—both first-hand accounts of survivors as well as retellings by the growing press, derided by the old literary establishment as the “Grub Street hacks.” Despite the official silences that followed the apparent mutiny of its crew and a savage breakdown of naval authority, these stories became a maritime epic that would resonate for centuries.
Mr. Grann starts his tale by leading us on a tour of what he calls “the wooden world” of the fearsome navy of warships that helped Britain build and rule its expanding empire. This was a hierarchical realm of rigid regulations and harsh punishment for infractions. Mr. Grann describes these armed ships as “buoyant wooden castles . . . in a lethal, floating chess game, these pieces deployed around the globe.”
While some of the ships in the British fleet elicited awe—the Centurion, with its 16-foot wooden carving of a lion, was painted bright red—the Wager did not. It was a 123-foot “eyesore” of a merchant ship refurbished for war, hardly the kind of fighting vessel that inspired dread among Britain’s enemies. Both ships set off as part of a squadron, led by Commodore George Anson, whose goal was “outright thievery.” The Admiralty deployed the squadron during a disastrous and relatively short-lived conflict between Britain and Spain in the 1740s, which was later comically dubbed the “War of Jenkins’ Ear”—triggered by a British captain’s claim that a Spanish officer had sliced off his left ear.
British authorities had devised a plan to launch an attack on the Caribbean port of Cartagena, a hub of Spain’s colonial wealth. Anson’s squadron, made up of the Wager, four other warships and a scouting sloop, was charged with a secret mission: to snatch a Spanish galleon loaded with silver. The officers and crew were lured by the prospect of sharing in the plunder. It was a blatant (if conventional) scheme of state-sponsored piracy.
The squadron’s plan unraveled in the most horrific way possible, a tale of woe replete with gory twists and turns that Dickens himself would have enjoyed, including delicious cliffhangers: “No longer were they prowling the sea in secret. They were themselves being hunted.” Part One ends with a captain’s deathbed prophecy that the expedition “would end in poverty, vermin, famine, death and destruction.”
The sea itself is an ever-present antagonist. Mr. Grann renders vividly the furies of the waters around Cape Horn, “where winds routinely blow at gale force, waves can climb to nearly a hundred feet, and icebergs lurk in the hollows.” Plus a few other surprises from the natural world, including lightning, tempests, even an earthquake. Human nature is just as violent, with Lord-of-the-Flies behavior among the castaways and at least two murders. Mr. Grann has a finely tuned ear for details that reveal character—the Wager’s rigid and increasingly isolated Capt. David Cheap wields a silver-headed cane “which clacked like a pirate’s wooden leg.”
Mr. Grann delights in the arcane expression of the nautical lexicon. When ordered to pull sheets, a sailor had “better seize the ropes instead of his bedding. He must not speak of the privy but, rather, the head” and the boys who delivered explosives from below deck to the guns were known as “powder monkeys.” Who knew that so many common expressions come from shipboard life? For example, “under the weather” comes from the practice of putting ailing seamen belowdecks.
The story of the Wager’s disastrous fate leads into an equally riveting story of what happened to the castaways when they straggled back to England in ragged groups, armed with often conflicting stories of who was to blame for the series of epic catastrophes and reversals of fortune. Mr. Grann unspools their narratives against the backdrop of the Admiralty’s high-stakes court-martial, in which surviving crewmembers and officers faced possible execution. “No matter which story prevailed, the trial would surely expose how the officers and seamen—as part of the vanguard of the British empire—had descended into anarchy and savagery.”
Mr. Grann relies heavily on the perspective of the ship’s gunner, John Bulkeley, who kept a contemporaneous, if somewhat skewed, record of events. Many stories, such as those of the free black seaman John Duck and the indigenous people the castaways encountered, were not recorded in surviving diaries or letters. “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,” writes Mr. Grann.
The various tellings of the Wager disaster reverberated far beyond the Admiralty courtroom. Commodore Anson’s account, for instance, became a bestseller that offered Rousseau examples of men in a state of nature, acting only in the interest of self-preservation. Capt. James Cook carried a copy of Anson’s book on his ship Endeavour during its first expedition around the world, as did Charles Darwin aboard the Beagle.
Two decades after the court-martial, John Byron published his own account. By then, he’d gained the nickname “Foul-Weather Jack” for his bad luck in encountering nasty meteorological conditions over his long career as a ship’s officer. While his book never gained a wide readership, Mr. Grann notes that “it cast a spell on Byron’s grandson, whom he never met”—the poet wrote that his hero Don Juan’s “hardships were comparative / To those related in my grand-dad’s ‘Narrative.’ ” “The Wager” is likely to cast a powerful spell on modern readers as well.
Ms. Siler is a former WSJ staff reporter who recently returned from an expedition aboard a wooden barquentine sailing ship above the Arctic Circle.
Copyright ©2023 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8
Appeared in the April 1, 2023, print edition.