The Wager by David Grann
A sea disaster story of the first order, this is a tale of courage, cowardice, loyalty and treachery, of unwavering dedication to duty and desperate preservation of life in spite of commitments to an imperial military power. It is a “cracking good tale”.
In the year 1740 a military expedition left England with the purpose of intercepting a Spanish ship carrying a vast treasure. England and Spain were at war and this was seen as a noble cause in aid of the war chest and the greater glory of the realm. What occurred, however, was a terrific loss of material and life although the targeted vessel was eventually captured and the wealth brought home to Britain. The cost was exorbitant, in money and human life. The story was written about and produced bestselling books at the time in various versions according to who was telling the tale, but this is a careful examination of the facts without the personal agendas that propelled the contemporary accounts.
Clearly a work of extensive scholarship, this is from the author of Killers of the Flower Moon, a gripping tale of oppression of native Americans. Here again we find a detailed look at human courage and cowardice, great generosity and crass selfishness. As with many accounts of tragedies at sea, the suffering and sorrow were colossal.
While rounding Cape Horn the fearsome and legendary storms caused the loss of many sailors and ships and the wrecking of one in particular, The Wager, named after a British military man of the previous century. Driven onto the rocks, the men of that doomed vessel managed to straggle ashore and even to salvage a quantity of goods from the wreck. Food, weapons and supplies were brought onto the rock which became known as Wager Island, but only barely enough to maintain meager life. As more unrest among the crew burgeoned, stores diminished and disease ravaged them, the most desperate among them began planning an escape from what would surely be their graves if they did not act with bold moves. The captain, a rigidly orthodox naval officer would not abandon the mission with which they had been charged, the seizing of a Spanish prize. He further would not countenance a return to safety which many of the survivors favored. With a display of fortitude that was impressive, the ship’s gunner prodded the weak and sick men to salvage enough timber, canvas and supplies to cobble together a craft that could, if handled with courage and skill, bring them to relative safety in a Brazilian port. Because of his recalcitrance, the captain was left with a few loyal crew members on the island as the desperate band braved once again the fierce seas and an uncertain fate.
These men, after numerous misadventures, were returned to England and resumed their lives there. But some years hence the captain returned, having himself inspired a flight from the desolate isle and a long and dangerous return. Then the inevitable court martial that was to decide whether the “mutineers” would hang or go free was convened. The outcome is history.