Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
David Grann has a knack for presenting history through an exciting framework, able to make virtually any true account as exciting as any work of fiction. In The Wager, he flexes his literary muscles once again, telling the story of the titular ship, which left England in 1740 on a secret mission and only reappeared on the coast of Brazil two years later. Its members had a hell of a story to tell, but a second group of survivors showed up six months later, with a very different story of their own to tell.
Table of contents
David Grann Takes to the Stormy Seas
Maritime travel has changed in innumerable ways since the advent of modern ships, technology, and navigational techniques, making it quite difficult for us to truly imagine what the process entailed hundreds of years ago. With no GPS, radio communications, refrigerators, satellite guidance, or proper medical knowledge, people still set sail for the high seas in search of treasure and glory. Sometimes they succeeded, other times they failed, an on rare occasions they faced a fate such as the crew in The Wager by David Grann.
Just to be perfectly clear, this is a work of non-fiction, but woven into a cohesive narrative which makes it into a story, rather than a history lesson. All the people and events portrayed here were real and documented, and if there are moments of speculative nature, the author always makes sure to point it out.
With these clarifications out of the way, let us proceed with the book itself. The real story essentially begins on January 28th, 1742, when a ramshackle vessel washes up on the coast of Brazil, carrying thirty emaciated men, survivors of The Wager, a British vessel which left England all the way back in 1740.
They were to carry out a secret mission relating to the imperial war with Spain, and ended up chasing a treasure-filled galleon, known back then as “the prize of all the oceans”. In the process, however, the crew shipwrecked on a desolate island off the coast of Patagonia, and after many months of trials, they finally built a ship and crossed three thousand miles of stormy seas. They were heralded as heroes when they returned back home.
Six months later, however, another ship landed on the coast of Chile, containing three British survivors, who also happened to belong to The Wager, and with a very different story to tell, one of mutiny and desertion. As the first group brought forth counter-charges against the supposedly tyrannical and murderous senior officer, the Admiralty decided to convene a court martial, to determine once and for all what really happened, and who was to be held at fault.
The Hell of the Seas in The Wager
As I’ve briefly touched upon it in the opening paragraph, a modern journey by ship is incomparable to what it was hundreds of years ago, even if we’re talking about a nation as advanced as the British Empire. This is David Grann‘s first objective in the novel: to properly set the stage, and ensure we properly understand the context of the journey we’re about to undertake.
From there on out, he essentially takes us through the two-and-a-half year journey, narrating it as it unfolded (to the best of our knowledge, of course), always taking care to describe in great detail the innumerable perils faced by the crew of The Wager from the very start, such as scurvy, disease, viruses, bacteria and rodents.
After that, Grann describes in slightly less detail the crew’s journey at sea, following the treasure-laden Spanish galleon, once again enlightening the reader about the vast dangers faced by Her Majesty’s sailors. Though I’ve seen it described a few times as well as captured on video, I thought David Grann did an absolutely remarkable job at immersing me into the supremely hostile and isolated world of these seamen, to truly make me feel what it’s like to be at the mercy of the elements and nowhere to turn to.
Whereas most non-fiction books dealing with the topic of seafaring and captain’s logs will tend to be dry and factual when discussing the reality of such an undertaking, placing the focus on concrete physical problems, in The Wager the author does things a little differently. He always pays attention to the human side of the equation, often relating how people felt, what they thought, and what they must have been physically experiencing at the time.
In turn, this human-focused approach makes the whole story a lot more relatable and poignant, a tale about real people I can imagine which, all things considered, didn’t happen all that long ago. In my opinion, this approach by Grann made it much easier for me to get immersed in this true account, to actually care about what really happened.
Of Courage and Cowardice
As much as The Wager is a story of what happened to the ship and its crew, it’s also a story which plunges us into the depths of the human psyche when placed under unimaginable strain. The crew aren’t just a bunch of faceless seamen, but people we all come to know and sympathize with (for the most part, at least) even if only for the struggle they all faced together.
Quite often, David Grann supplements his narrative with excerpts from the journals of a few people on-board, and they go a long way towards helping us not only connect with the crew, but understand their motivations and reasoning. Through the words of these people we get a glimpse of how differently people handled the strain of the voyage.
In addition to the elements, the men had to contend with scurvy, spoiled food supplies, intermittent starvation, and perhaps worst of all, each other. Stories of courage surrounding those who chose to be selfless are often contrasted with stories of brutal selfishness and deceit. While some maintained their decorum as much as was humanly possible, others shed it without a second thought once they felt themselves beyond the reach the Law.
I found the study of both extremes to have been absolutely fascinating, and ultimately, I came away from it carrying two pieces of knowledge: most people don’t know themselves as well as they’d like to think, and human beings can persevere so far beyond what most think possible, it’s nothing short of inspiring. Naturally, there’s a lot more to be gleaned from Grann’s writing, but I’ll leave the rest of it up to you.
If there’s one thing I’d like to commend the author on, it’s how impartial he remains from start to finish, even when he’s describing some of the more sordid events which took place. The only times his personal opinions shone through was when he described how the Wager’s crew perceived the natives they came across, and I must say, they’re completely warranted and necessary. Otherwise, he simply places the known facts before us, notes the unknowns, and leaves the rest up to us.
The Mystery of the Island
As riveting and informative of an account as The Wager might be in regards to seafaring (and the horrors which came with it), I think most of us will agree that the main point of interest lays in the mystery of what happened on the island where the crew had been shipwrecked. David Grann uses the two conflicting versions of events and the obvious drama they create with commendable skill, turning it into a central mystery which he pushes us to solve.
Needless to say, chances are that we’ll never know without a shadow of a doubt what happened back then for a number of obvious reasons. However, the information we do have access to is quite substantial, and as the author demonstrates it, quite sufficient to get a pretty good idea of what must have happened, especially if we take into account the constants in human nature.
Naturally, the author presents his own version based on the all of the research he has done and the official court martial hearing from back then, and uses it as an opportunity to turn the story into a dissection of the human spirit as it is plunged into desperation and extreme conditions. As much as it is a historical account, it’s a study of how different people behave when their survival is at stake.
Personally, as someone who wasn’t acquainted one single bit with the story beforehand, I had no trouble accepting the author’s version of events, and was especially intrigued to see the impressive depths of the human psyche he was able to delve into. He made every decision, even the illogical ones, understandable within the context they were taken in.
Finally, what really ties the whole thing together so well (as is the case with the last of book of his I’ve reviewed) are David Grann‘s narrative talents, his ability to turn pure facts into something which can be called a proper story, with all the twists and turns it entails. He plays up the drama and mystery where appropriate, skillfully enhancing the fears, joys, failures and triumphs of the sailors, even surprising us with the fascinating conclusion.
|352||Doubleday||April 18 2023||978-0385534260|
The Final Verdict
The Wager by David Grann is certainly a unique entry in the maritime history genre, giving us an engaging account of what the titular ship’s crew had to go through and the fascinating mystery which sprang from it, all through a narration reminiscent of an exciting adventure novel.
If you’re somewhat familiar with the story of The Wager and are looking to learn all there is to about it, or are simply searching for a good history book with a strong element of mystery to it, then I think you’ll find this work to be quite a special treat.
David Grann is an American journalist working for The New Yorker magazine, as well as a bestselling author with many notable works to his name, including The Lost City of Z, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, Killers of the Flower Moon and The White Darkness. He is the recipient of the 1989 Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, the 2009 George Pol Awards, as well as a finalist for a few others, such as the 2009 Samuel Johnson Prize and the 2017 National Book Award.