The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder

Image of The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder
Release Date: 
April 18, 2023
Reviewed by: 

David Grann, New Yorker staff writer and bestselling author of The Lost City of Z  and The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, offers what amounts to three page-turning narratives in The Wager. First, from logbooks and the disputing memories of sailors and officers, he recounts a sea adventure and tale of a shipwreck worthy of a collaboration between Herman Melville and William Golding. Next, from diaries and firsthand accounts he conjures a bloody sea battle that could fit neatly into the pages of a Patrick O’Brian novel. And, finally, Grann invokes a trial that has enough surprises for a reader of the courtroom dramas of John Grisham.

The Wager, however, has the added attraction of being stranger than fiction, a true story that reads like something imagined on a dark and stormy night. Grann’s harrowing tale of a mid-18th century British man-of-war and its hunt for a Spanish galleon laden with gold and silver may be the perfect story for our divided era, known for its attachment to “alternative facts.” Only a researcher with the diligence and skill of a David Grann could make one clear story out of so many competing narratives that the officers and crew had to tell to save themselves from the gallows.

In 1740, the British Empire mobilized for war against Spain, and the Wager sailed from Portsmouth, England, with 250 officers and crew as part of a fleet of English ships seeking “the prize of all the oceans.” Some men yearned for what they imagined were the romance and adventure of a sailor’s life, but most saw such a life, rightly, as dirty, cramped, dangerous, and not much better than prison. To solve the difficulty of manning its ships, the British Navy often relied on impressment, essentially kidnapping men in port cities to fill the ship’s quota. A typical crew like the Wager might consist of wizened old men in their eighties and boys as young as six or seven. Some of the men were seasoned sailors, men committed to a life on the sea and the goals of the British imperial strategy. Some were reprobates better suited to a jail cell than the rules of discipline and honor touted by the British Navy.

The captain of the Wager, David Cheap, ambitious and demanding, showed little inclination to listen to his subordinate officers or the fears of his crew. Eventually, Captain Cheap’s authoritarian manner, his drive to prove himself, and his sometimes-explosive violence led to a situation reminiscent of the one in Lord of the Flies. Many of the crew survived lice, rats, cockroaches, typhus, scurvy, and raging storms. However, their attempt to sail around Cape Horn sealed their tragic fate. The ship was wrecked on the rocks, and the men struggled to find a way to survive on an island. Some demonstrated the ingenuity of Robinson Crusoe, but eventually things fell apart. They splintered into competing groups. There was thievery and cannibalism. There were murders, too, even one by Captain Cheap, and after five months on the desolate island, one mutinous group of 81 men took a makeshift craft and sailed for the southern border of Brazil. After three and a half months, 29 of them reached Brazil, more skeletons than men.

Eventually, many of them returned to England to tell their story, one that may have been true or one that may have been polished to keep them from the gallows. Captain Cheap, with a few loyalists, was left behind on the island. Among the loyal crew was John Byron, who started the voyage as a 16-year-old midshipman, a man who eventually became an admiral with the nickname “Foul-weather Jack” for his bad luck. He also became the grandfather of Lord Byron, the paradigm of the Romantic poet.

The Spanish galleon, the Covadonga, was captured by Captain Anson, the commander of the British expedition, and the crew of the Centurion. The prize was considerable—$80 million in today’s terms—but a fraction of the cost of the expedition for the British crown. That might seem the logical end of this story of disaster and survival, this tale of courage and degradation, but two years after Anson returned to England, Captain Cheap, Midshipman Byron, and another crew member returned to England—five and a half years after they set sail in quest of the Covadonga.

The murder and mutiny trial offers a surprise, but it’s not the final one. There’s one more shock to make this Soap Opera of the High Seas a story that has to be read to be believed. And even after it’s read and considered, it will be up to the reader to uncoil some of the nautical knots of the narrative and find the line of truth that remains.