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One Wager lost, but this Wager is a winner

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

David Grann is an author who doesn’t like to rush into releasing work—his last full-length book appeared in 2017—but he continually proves that whatever he writes is worth the wait. The bestselling author of Killers of the Flower Moon and The Lost City of Z has a knack for finding little-known but intense and compelling stories in the dustiest corners of history, and his latest is no exception. The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder recounts the harrowing tale of an obscure ship fighting in an obscure war and wrecked on a desolate stretch of Patagonia’s western shore.

If the story ended at the shipwreck, it would be interesting, but not especially unusual. The men of the HMS Wager knew as they left England in 1742, the chances of making it home were questionable. But the rewards could be beyond their wildest dreams--especially as the Wager was part of a squadron tasked with the capture of a Spanish galleon loaded with fabulous wealth. The journey would take the Wager around the southern tip of South America, into the most treacherous waters on Earth. Crewed by a mix of career Navy men and pressed—that is, kidnapped—unfortunates who knew little about seafaring, all under the complete authority of an untried captain, the Wager was not a happy ship. By the time it had battered its way into the Pacific, the crew was ravaged by scurvy, discontent seethed both above and below decks, and the ship was hardly capable of sailing, much less fighting. When the wreck finally happened on a seemingly unoccupied and inhospitable island in enemy territory, the crew could be forgiven for thinking it could not be worse. But really the story was only just beginning, and for some of the men it might end with a noose.

Grann writes the type of history that works on so many different levels. There’s the immediate ordeal of Captain Cheap and the Wager’s crew, brought vividly to life by the journals of survivors. These immediate stories are set against the larger accounts of life and death in the navy’s ‘wooden world’, and the overall picture of Britain’s push for empire and world dominance in parts of the world deemed ‘uncivilized.’ And while the Wager’s demise might seem irrelevant 280 years on, the issues around whose story is believed and how to manipulate public opinion makes it very pertinent to today’s readers. Grann works all these elements into a story that zips along like an adventure story but backed by pages of detailed notes and research making for the best kind of sea yarn. The Wager is recommended to history buffs of all sorts, and especially to military and British history readers. Travel and adventure readers may also enjoy the survival story and depiction of sailing the always-perilous waters of the Drake Passage.

May 15, 2023