Read by Dion Graham
8 hours, 28 minutes
Published April 2023 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
On January 28, 1742, a ramshackle vessel of patched-together wood and cloth washed up on the coast of Brazil. Inside were thirty emaciated men, barely alive, and they had an extraordinary tale to tell. They were survivors of His Majesty’s Ship the Wager, a British vessel that had left England in 1740 on a secret mission during an imperial war with Spain. While the Wager had been chasing a Spanish treasure-filled galleon known as “the prize of all the oceans,” it had wrecked on a desolate island off the coast of Patagonia. The men, after being marooned for months and facing starvation, built the flimsy craft and sailed for more than a hundred days, traversing nearly 3,000 miles of storm-wracked seas. They were greeted as heroes.
But then ... six months later, another, even more decrepit craft landed on the coast of Chile. This boat contained just three castaways, and they told a very different story. The thirty sailors who landed in Brazil were not heroes – they were mutineers. The first group responded with countercharges of their own, of a tyrannical and murderous senior officer and his henchmen. It became clear that while stranded on the island the crew had fallen into anarchy, with warring factions fighting for dominion over the barren wilderness. As accusations of treachery and murder flew, the Admiralty convened a court martial to determine who was telling the truth. The stakes were life-and-death—for whomever the court found guilty could hang.
I hadn't really considered that it's, in the blogging world, Nonfiction November. But I've managed to read a couple of nonfiction books this month, one of which is David Grann's latest, The Wager, which is being widely touted as one of the best books of 2023. I actually started it almost six weeks ago, when the Big Guy and I were on a road trip; I knew it was the kind of thing that would appeal to both of us. But this was another one of those books that BG found hard to listening because he found it so troubling. So we didn't actually listen to more than about three hours of it on that trip; while waiting for another opportunity for the two of us to listen to it, my loan expired and it took weeks for me to get it back.
We hadn't even gotten to the worst of it. In any review of this book that you'll read, they will inevitably start at the point where life was hard on the journey around Cape Horn but the trials of tribulations of the crew aboard The Wager, and the other ships with which it set sail, began long before then.
We're accustomed to thinking of the British navy as one of the greatest military forces in history. What we don't read about it how difficult it was to maintain a wooden ship of that size, how prone they were to rot and hard it was to find sufficient crew to man such enormous vessels. It was, in fact, so difficult that many of the 2000 men in the squadron of ships that included The Wager, were impressed and either in poor health, elderly, or had no sailing or military experience. Before the squadron had even left the coast of Europe, typhus began to reduce their numbers. Life on the ships was miserable, especially if you were a regular seaman, and not an officer and the journey dragged on much longer than expected. Rations were already running low when The Wager became separated from the squadron as it was rounding Cape Horn so that when The Wager ran aground, the men were already feeling the effects of it. The island they landed on made it difficult to fish and offered little in the way of edible vegetation or animals. Almost as soon as the ship wrecked, there were men who began to defy the officer who had become captain when the original captain died at sea.
Yes, things just kept getting worse and worse. Men went off hunting and died. Men died of starvation and disease. One man died when the captain shot him. And when help, in the form of natives of the area who were experts in finding food, arrived, the men managed to frighten them off. Finally, the remaining group decided that they must make an effort to leave the island and the divide in loyalties reached a mutinous level. Some stayed with the captain, others left with a sailor who, it seemed, had a much safer plan, one more likely to get the men home. Most of both parties perished before they were finally able to return to England and face what had happened on the island.
It was, to say the least, a big deal, at the time. Which makes the fact that none of us have really heard of The Wager before surprising. Grann tells readers up front that The Wager will be shipwrecked, that there will be a mutiny, and that some of the sailors will return home, telling very different stories. We know all of that and it it still shocking to read about what happened to these men and how terribly they suffered. It's truly amazing that any of them survived at all. For my money, that isn't the most stunning part of the book. The highlight for me is in learning why The Wager is not a story any of us have heard before and it ties in so well with what we know about how the military, the press, and governments work today.
It's a tough read. BG wasn't wrong in his assessment that it was hard to listen to too much at once. Any book about human suffering is difficult to read, particularly one where the suffering was so unnecessary. But it's certainly a book that readers will sink into and not be able to pull themselves out of until you find out what happened to these men.