David Grann returns to Westport to talk about his latest book, The Wager.
The #1 New York Times bestselling author of Killers of the Flower Moon and The Lost City of Z, delivers a mesmerizing story of shipwreck, survival, and savagery, culminating in a court-martial that reveals a shocking truth. The powerful narrative reveals the deeper meaning of the events on The Wager, showing that it was not only the captain and crew who ended up on trial, but the very idea of empire.
On January 28, 1742, a ramshackle vessel of patched-together wood and cloth washed up on the coast of Brazil. Inside were thirty emaciated men, barely alive, and they had an extraordinary tale to tell. They were survivors of His Majesty’s Ship the Wager, a British vessel that had left England in 1740 on a secret mission during an imperial war with Spain. While the Wager had been chasing a Spanish treasure-filled galleon known as “the prize of all the oceans,” it had wrecked on a desolate island off the coast of Patagonia. The men, after being marooned for months and facing starvation, built the flimsy craft and sailed for more than a hundred days, traversing nearly 3,000 miles of storm-wracked seas. They were greeted as heroes.
But then … six months later, another, even more decrepit craft landed on the coast of Chile. This boat contained just three castaways, and they told a very different story. The thirty sailors who landed in Brazil were not heroes – they were mutineers. The first group responded with countercharges of their own, of a tyrannical and murderous senior officer and his henchmen. It became clear that while stranded on the island the crew had fallen into anarchy, with warring factions fighting for dominion over the barren wilderness. As accusations of treachery and murder flew, the Admiralty convened a court martial to determine who was telling the truth. The stakes were life-and-death—for whomever the court found guilty could hang.
The Wager is a grand tale of human behavior at the extremes told by one of our greatest nonfiction writers. Grann’s recreation of the hidden world on a British warship rivals the work of Patrick O’Brian, his portrayal of the castaways’ desperate straits stands up to the classics of survival writing such as The Endurance, and his account of the court martial has the savvy of a Scott Turow thriller. As always with Grann’s work, the incredible twists of the narrative hold the reader spellbound.
“A new account of the Wager Mutiny, in which a shipwrecked and starving British naval crew abandoned their captain on a desolate Patagonian island, emphasizes the extreme hardships routinely faced by eighteenth-century seafarers as well as the historical resonance of the dramatic 1741 event. On a secret mission to liberate Spanish galleons of their gold, the 28-gun HMS Wager was separated from the rest of its squadron rounding Cape Horn in a massive storm. Beset by typhus, scurvy, and navigational problems, the ship struck rocks, stranding its beleaguered crew on a remote island in Chilean Patagonia. In the months that followed, harsh conditions and meager provisions would test storied British naval discipline. A few bedraggled sailors would find their way back to civilization, prompting high-stakes courts-martial and sensational accounts in the British press. Grann vividly narrates a nearly forgotten incident with an eye for each character’s personal stakes while also reminding readers of the imperialist context prompting the misadventure.”
—Booklist, starred review, starred review
“A brisk, absorbing history and a rousing story of a maritime scandal. Drawing on a trove of firsthand accounts — logbooks, correspondence, diaries, court-martial testimony, and Admiralty and government records — Grann mounts a chilling, vibrant narrative of a grim maritime tragedy and its dramatic aftermath. Recounting the tumultuous events in tense detail, Grann sets the Wager episode in the context of European imperialism as much as the wrath of the sea.”
—Kirkus Reviews, starred review