The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder
- By David Grann
- 352 pp.
- Reviewed by Mariko Hewer
- May 11, 2023
A rollicking yarn with more swells and dips than the ocean itself.
We’re accustomed to thinking of mutineers — those who break the sailor’s code and turn on the captain to achieve their own dastardly ends — as the villains of any seafaring story. In David Grann’s The Wager, however, conventional tropes are flipped on their heads when a meager band of mutinying survivors struggles to stay alive. As two separate groups of shipwrecked sailors tackle seemingly insurmountable odds, you may find yourself surprised by which men you end up rooting for.
In September 1740, five warships, a scouting sloop, and two transport vessels left England with a daunting mission: to “sail across the Atlantic and round Cape Horn, ‘taking, sinking, burning, or otherwise destroying’ enemy ships and weakening Spanish holdings from the Pacific coast of South America to the Philippines.” Commodore George Anson, in charge of the expedition, was given an additional, secret task: “to snatch a Spanish galleon loaded with virgin silver and hundreds of thousands of silver coins.” This galleon traversed the seas twice a year, and its cargo “provided crucial links in Spain’s global trading empire.”
The squadron encountered difficulties almost at once. Frequent illness-related deaths meant the command had to be shifted from person to person, creating tenuous and unstable hierarchies. The “bacterial bomb of typhus,” brought aboard by sick sailors press-ganged into service, “was now erupting throughout the fleet.” By Christmas, 160 of the 2,000 voyagers had died.
Scurvy also dogged the men. Unaware of its cause (vitamin C deficiency), the sailors neglected to treat it when they had a chance: The ships had stopped at a waypoint where “there had been an abundance of limes. The cure — the unforbidden fruit which decades later would be furnished to all British seamen, giving them the nickname Limeys — had been right within their grasp.”
As the numbers of able-bodied seamen plunged precipitously, they were faced with a new threat: The weather around Cape Horn, at the southernmost tip of Chile, grew increasingly dangerous, with massive storms wracking the vessels and making it almost impossible to navigate their way. One ship, the Wager, faltered and ran aground on jagged rocks off the coast of an island, forcing its crew to abandon ship and swim to shore.
Almost immediately following this disaster, a different tribulation reared its head: mutiny. A hardened group of dissenters initially refused to come ashore, preferring to ransack the beached Wager for salvageable supplies. Eventually rescued by their compatriots, they settled into an uneasy detente in the small “town” of shelters built by the survivors.
Yet this peace was so tenuous, it was threatened nearly every day. The captain, David Cheap, “ill and hobbling, had to cope with his own torments. Yet he domineered. He hated consulting with other officers…[he] believed the castaways needed binding rules and rigid structures — and their commander.”
Eventually, a significant number of the sailors realized they’d never get home by relying on Cheap, who had become increasingly erratic and tyrannical. Instead, they rallied around the Wager’s gunner, John Bulkeley, a natural leader who was in the midst of planning an escape from the island via the ship’s salvaged longboat and small transport crafts.
Five months after being stranded, most of the men set sail under Bulkeley’s command, with one chief omission: They left Cheap, and a few others loyal to him, behind. Three-and-a-half months later, a portion of these men arrived at Rio Grande in Brazil, where they recounted their ordeal, told a somewhat selective tale of Cheap’s abandonment, and eventually made their way home to England.
This might have been the end of the tale, except that four years later, “a boat arrived in Dover, carrying a thin, stern man with eyes fixed like bayonets. It was the long-lost Captain David Cheap, and accompanying him were the marine lieutenant, Thomas Hamilton, and the midshipman John Byron.” And Cheap was furious.
The men who had returned earlier were, he insisted, mutineers who had betrayed the sacrosanct naval code and left him and others to die. The British Navy, realizing that this conflict had taken place under extraordinary circumstances, waffled when doling out consequences. Luckily for readers, many of the survivors penned and published their own version of events, leading to the wealth of information author Grann drew on to write The Wager. His resulting narrative is as harrowing as it is enthralling.
Mariko Hewer is a freelance editor and writer. She is passionate about good books, good food, and good company. Find her occasional insights at @hapahaiku.