After you finish reading David Grann’s latest #1 best seller The Wager, about the tragic shipwreck of a British Navy vessel during the early 1840s and its aftermath, there is one dominant impression that you get: this is like Mutiny on the Bounty, but gone very wrong.
This three-year maritime saga wouldn’t be so morbidly fascinating if it wasn’t so true; however, this book is fascinating to read because the story is chillingly true.
Grann, whose previous #1 best seller Killers of the Flower Moon will have its film version — directed by Martin Scorsese — released this fall, uses his ability to diligently dog through contemporary accounts and documentation, has produced another piece of hidden history that richly deserves our attention.
This horrifying story takes place during a three-year period (1740-43), when Britain and Spain were involved in a pitched battle for the supremacy of the seas. A three-ship British Navy armada, which included the Wager, was sent on a secret mission along the Atlantic coast of South America in pursuit of a Spanish naval galleon that reportedly was filled with a king’s ransom worth of treasure and riches.
However, something went terribly wrong during this expedition. After surviving the treacherous crossing of both the Strait of Magellan and Cape Horn, the Wager encountered stormy waters along the coast of the Patagonia region and ended up being shipwrecked. The survivors made their way to a rather uninhabitable island located in the Spanish held territory of South America that they named Wager Island.
And life for the survivors on Wager Island was just as hellish as it was aboard its namesake ship. The men were ravaged by starvation and disease (especially scurvy, which Grann describes it’s harrowing effects in graphic detail), and under the command of the incompetent David Cheap, whose was the executive officer of one of its sister shops the Centurion, proved to be less an effective leader on land as he was at sea. When he shot and killed one of the members of the Water’s crew, it proved to be too much for the rest of the men, who rallied together to mutiny against Cheap, leave him stranded on the island as punishment, and then craft a longboat from the damaged remnants of the Wager and make the long, arduous journey back home to England.
When the boat arrived on the coast of Brazil on January 28, 1742 — about a year-and-a-half after the Wager set sail from England — the colonists found 30 men who were emaciated from starvation and near-death from a terrifying ordeal with an even more terrifying story to tell. That story was countered six months later, when another ramshackle boat — this time containing three castaways — arrived on the coast of Chile to say that the 30 survivors from the Wager were actually mutineers, who should face an Admiralty court martial and be hanged from the highest ship yard arms for their crimes.
But made the wreck of the Wager and the nightmarish situation faced by these survivors such a cause celebre in England was the publication of a book by John Bulkeley, one of surviving members of the Wager’s crew. It was called A Voyage to the South-Seas, in the Years 1740-1, which gave a detailed account of the doomed voyage based on the thorough notes he entered in his logbook. Although the book became a best seller in England and was praised for its honesty as a first draft of history (which helped to sway public sympathy towards the crew), it was vehemently condemned by the Admiralty for defaming the character of Captain Cheap to a public audience.
The Wager is another fine example of revealing a piece of history that has been left buried and forgotten for so many decades, and then is dug up for new generations to learn about the lessons and long term effects that a tragic event can have upon the future of a country or society. In the case of the HMS Wager, it’s how a lack of discipline and leadership almost scuttled Britain’s reputation as a naval power. The course of British history might have changed — and not for the better — if those lessons had not been learned during that chase for a treasure-laden Spanish galleon back in 1740-41.