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David Grann’s ‘The Wager’ looks beneath the veneer of civilization in a tale of mutiny and empire

David Grann begins his propulsive, finely detailed seafaring saga “The Wager” with a caveat of sorts: “I must confess that I did not witness the ship strike the rocks or the crew tie up the captain. Nor did I see firsthand the acts of deceit and murder.” But you would scarcely know it from reading these pages. Grann, the author of thinking-person’s adventures including “The Lost City of Z” and “Killers of the Flower Moon” (soon to be a Martin Scorsese movie), has a rare gift for applying the rigors of narrative nonfiction to the stuff of myth and legend. Through tireless research and storytelling guile, he places the reader amongst a tempestuous collection of 18th-century British seamen, at war with the elements and, more fatefully, each other. As you read you feel the sting of freezing saltwater against the face, and the desperate pangs of hunger. This is a ripping yarn disguised as an acute study of group psychology, or perhaps the other way around. However you categorize “The Wager,” it is a remarkable book. Scorsese must agree: he and Leonardo DiCaprio are already slated to bring it to the screen.


In 1740 a squadron of six British warships and two transports, flush with dreams of riches and the blinkered pride of empire, took to the seas. Their mission was to capture a treasure-filled Spanish galleon and return home wealthy heroes. Things did not go well, especially not for HMS Wager, a man-of-war battered by weather and rocks and ultimately shipwrecked on a remote island off the south coast of Chile. There the men split into warring factions, grew deathly ill, and, in some instances, ate each other. No longer bound by fealty to their mission and the laws of the country they served, they descended into chaos and madness. Their veneer of unity and civilization, already chipped away by sundry resentments, collapsed entirely.

Grann guides us through this process, step by step, storm by storm, man by man, in prose that the writers he references, including Herman Melville and Joseph Conrad, would appreciate. The book invites landlubbers in with vivid descriptions of life at sea, peppered with explanations of phrases and idioms given us by that life. (One of my favorites: “When ailing seamen were shielded from the adverse elements outside, they were said to be ‘under the weather.’”) Grann plays off the famous opening line of Stephen Crane’s short story “The Open Boat” — “None of them knew the color of the sky” — with his own blunt salvo: “The only impartial witness was the sun.” The wild thing is that he earns the right. “The Wager” reads like enhanced literary naturalism; at times you have to blink and remember that you’re reading a true story.


The book patiently introduces the characters who will emerge as key combatants as the drama develops. There’s the ambitious Captain Cheap, loathed by many of his men, revered by others; he gains the helm of the Wager through a mid-voyage shakeup of personnel and struts his authority like a man who has waited too long for this opportunity. His prime adversary is John Bulkley, the pious gunner who proves to be a natural leader, or, as Cheap would have it, an opportunistic mutineer. The teen midshipman John Byron is an adventurous romantic at heart, much like his grandson, the poet Lord Byron, would be; his loyalties are divided, between the captain, whom he has sworn to serve, and the gunner, whose grave doubts about Cheap appear to be well founded.


Thrown together to complete a dangerous task, the men coexist. There are rules to follow, regimented responsibilities to meet, country to serve. When such organizing principles are removed, however, things fall apart; the center cannot hold. Grann never has to come out and say it explicitly, but “The Wager” is ultimately a reminder that we are all animals, kept under control and bound by fragile if well-established societal strictures, and, under ideal circumstances, human decency. Take away those ideal circumstances and it gets dark early.

“The Wager” is also a tale of imperialism’s folly. Early in the shipwreck the men encounter an indigenous tribe eager to help. Then the meaner, drunker, more entitled members of the shipwrecked party scare the tribe away; they are never heard from again. Grann is quite aware of the “White Man’s Burden” element of this story, the destructive arrogance of empire made even clearer as the few survivors straggle home to England and begin publishing their accounts. Then again, when cannibalism becomes an option, seeing the big picture can get difficult.

Here Grann deserves quoting at length. “The authors rarely depicted themselves or their companions as the agents of an imperialist system,” he writes. “They were consumed with their own daily struggles and ambitions — with working the ship, with gaining promotions and securing money for their families, and, ultimately, with survival. But it is precisely such unthinking complicity that allows empires to endure. Indeed, these imperial structures require it: thousands and thousands of ordinary people, innocent or not, serving — and even sacrificing themselves — for a system many of them rarely question.”


In this sense, the Wager fiasco was merely an extension of the system that spewed these unfortunate men into the sea.

THE WAGER: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder

By David Grann

Doubleday, 352 pages, $30

Chris Vognar, a freelance culture writer, was the 2009 Nieman Arts and Culture Fellow at Harvard University.