In September of 1740, a British man-of-war called the Wager sailed from Portsmouth, England, as one of six warships in a squadron bound for South America. Their mission: to harass Spanish naval forces while seeking out a treasure-laden galleon on its way from Mexico to the Philippines during the colorfully named War of Jenkins’ Ear. The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder is bestselling author David Grann’s vivid account of that ill-fated expedition, revealing humanity at its best and worst, from heroism to cannibalism.
Grann focuses his attention on three of the vessel’s crew members: Captain David Cheap, who sailed as the first lieutenant of another ship and inherited his first command of a man-of-war after the death of the Wager’s previous captain; John Bulkeley, the ship’s gunner and a deeply religious man who kept a meticulous journal of the disastrous voyage; and John Byron, an ambitious 16-year-old midshipman whose grandson, Lord Byron, would one day incorporate elements of the Wager’s tragic story into his epic poem “Don Juan.”
Informed by the extensive documentary record and enriched by the experience of his own three-week visit to the site where the Wager, a former merchant vessel and therefore the “bastard of the fleet,” ran aground in one of the violent storms endemic to the area near Patagonia, Grann tells this story with a keen eye for arresting (and at times terrifying) details. Thanks to his sure-handed ability to create scenes with novelistic immediacy, it’s easy to feel the mounting desperation of the seamen as their numbers shrank in the face of relentless winter weather, disease and starvation. And yet, despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges, which pummeled the sailors as regularly as the towering waves that pounded their ill-equipped ship, a small remnant of the original crew was able to endure.
After 33 survivors improbably arrived in South America in two makeshift vessels, and then later sailed home to England, the British Admiralty felt bound to convene a court martial to address allegations of mutiny and the claim that Captain Cheap had murdered a member of the crew in cold blood. Grann writes that he has “tried to present all sides, leaving it to you to render the ultimate verdict—history’s judgment.” However, the trial’s outcome is less important than the way it demonstrates how “empires preserve their power with the stories that they tell,” as Grann writes. “But just as critical are the stories they don’t—the dark silences they impose, the pages they tear out.” His thrilling book is an admirable example of how that veil of ignorance can be pierced