The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder 
by David Grann.
Simon & Schuster, 329 pp., £10.99, January, 978 1 4711 8370 6
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In​ 1739, on the outbreak of war with Spain, the British government sent two fleets to attack its enemy’s possessions in South America. A huge armada of nearly two hundred vessels and almost thirty thousand men sailed for the West Indies under the newly promoted Vice Admiral Edward Vernon, hero of the recent taking of Porto Bello in Panama, to capture other key Spanish possessions in the region. Besides this main effort, a squadron of six warships and two supply vessels, led by Commodore George Anson, was to carry out a secret mission around Cape Horn, attacking Spanish ports on the Pacific coast and capturing one of their famed galleons full of silver en route from Mexico to the Philippines. From the outset, almost everything that could go wrong, did. Because of endless delays in fitting out the ships, Anson’s expedition didn’t set off until September 1740. One of the main problems was a shortage of sailors. So desperate was the navy for manpower that, in addition to kidnapping and forcibly enlisting hundreds of merchant seamen, many of whom promptly deserted, they also rounded up five hundred invalid, elderly Chelsea Pensioners. Nearly half of these men never made it as far as Portsmouth; some of those that did had to be stretchered aboard.

None of them made it back alive. Vernon’s massive expedition, the largest amphibious assault force that had ever been assembled, failed disastrously in its first major offensive, an attempt to capture Cartagena. After weeks of siege, about ten thousand of his men had perished, mostly of yellow fever, malaria and dysentery. Almost as many again had been injured in battle. Vernon retreated, and the naval war in the Americas lapsed into a stalemate, overtaken by events in Europe. Eventually, in June 1744, Anson’s ship, the Centurion, limped into Portsmouth. He had managed to capture a Spanish treasure galleon, and had heroically circumnavigated the globe, but at appalling cost. Every other ship in the squadron, after suffering horrific casualties from typhus and scurvy, had turned back or been lost at sea. Of the almost two thousand men who had embarked on his expedition, 188 returned home with him.

The smallest of the warships accompanying Anson had been HMS Wager, a broad-bottomed merchant vessel reconfigured by the navy as an armed freighter. It was named after Charles Wager, the first lord of the Admiralty and mastermind of the secret mission. In May 1741, having already lost dozens of its crew to disease, the Wager ran aground in the fearsome seas off the coast of Chile. Of the ship’s original complement of around 250 sailors and soldiers, only 145 men survived the wreck and made it to a desolate, uninhabited island. Almost all of them subsequently died, many of starvation. But between March 1742 and July 1746, after endless adventures and astonishing feats of open-boat navigation in the Straits of Magellan, a tiny number of survivors miraculously trickled back to England. Among them were the ship’s captain, David Cheap; his second-in-command, Robert Baynes; the chief gunner, John Bulkeley; the carpenter, John Cummins; and three young midshipmen, John Byron, Alexander Campbell and Isaac Morris. They returned home in rival groups, by different routes, telling conflicting stories of exactly what had happened in the months following the shipwreck – accusing one another of mutiny, murder and betrayal.

By the mid 18th century, tales of nautical adventure, shipwreck and survival were popular among the British reading public. Naval officers were supposed to keep accurate daily logs and journals: bestselling accounts of famous voyages often drew heavily on such first-hand materials. Among the books that the men of the Wager carried with them, and carefully preserved throughout their ordeal, was a narrative of Admiral John Narborough’s expedition to Patagonia between 1669 and 1671. They would also have known the story of Alexander Selkirk, the naval officer who spent more than four years living as a castaway on an island off the coast of Chile before being rescued in 1709 – Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe (1719) was partly based on this episode. Improbably enough, one of the Wager’s sailors was called William Robinson Cruzoe – if he hadn’t deserted ship before it sailed, there might have been a real-life Crusoe among those marooned in the South Seas.

Many of the Wager’s survivors later published detailed accounts of their experiences – for profit, to justify their controversial actions and in response to the huge public interest in their story. Others set down their versions privately, for the lords of the Admiralty. Cheap had shot dead an unarmed sailor. Other men had been found murdered. The captain had been imprisoned by his own marines, and then left behind on the island by most of the crew. Others had been killed or abandoned along the way. There had been some cannibalism. Under naval regulations many of these deeds were punishable, even capital, crimes. After Captain Cheap reached home, all the survivors were summoned to a court martial held on a warship off the south coast. Though in the end no one was hanged, this produced further records that survive today.

This extraordinary story has continued to be told ever since, and there are several fine modern studies that draw on the rich archival materials. But David Grann’s account is the best you’ll read – an epic, fast-paced narrative that puts you in the middle of the action, propels you through complicated and controversial events, and leaves you feeling like you understand not only what happened to these men, but how it fitted into the long and painful story of British imperial adventure in the 18th century.

How does Grann do it? There are three elements to his secret. The first is research. He spent years reading all the printed primary and secondary sources, and ferreting out manuscript material from the archives. He conducted lengthy interviews with modern experts, picking their brains on how 18th-century warships were built, and what life was like for their crews, on board them and off. He even travelled to Wager Island, the site of the wreck, to witness the story’s inhospitable physical setting.

Second, structure. Each short chapter is centred on a single event or protagonist, usually seen through their eyes – cleverly quoting and paraphrasing contemporary sources. It invariably starts with an arresting image or a dramatic scene, and often ends on a cliffhanger. What’s more, every chapter is itself made up of even briefer episodes, lasting only a few paragraphs each. This constant cutting between scenes makes for an almost cinematic experience. That sense is heightened by the final ingredient, Grann’s skill as a writer. Just as in a movie, he’s able to control the tempo of the narrative. At some points, we pass over years in a sentence or two; at others, things slow right down, so that we find ourselves living through a ferocious storm, or an outbreak of deadly contagion, or the last moments of a group of abandoned marines facing certain death – watching their comrades sail away, yet bravely cheering ‘God Bless the King!’ It’s no surprise that The Wager is being made into a film by Martin Scorsese: it already reads like one (Killers of the Flower Moon is based on an earlier book by Grann).

These impressive effects rely on some writerly liberties. The demands of the book’s narrative structure result in continual small rearrangements of chronology. For example, the original sources make clear that, on being cast away, the crew almost immediately organised themselves to retrieve as much food and other supplies as they could from the nearby wreck. Before long, too, some Kawésqar indigenous people, who lived in canoes and travelled up and down the coast, arrived and supplied them with meat and fish. But in Grann’s book these incidents are treated separately, because each chapter must have a singular focus, and stringing them out heightens their individual impact. So, first, we get a couple of chapters on the castaways desperately searching for food on the island, hitting emotional rock bottom. Only after that is there a chapter about their retrieving supplies from the wreck and settling into a domestic routine. And, finally, in a fresh surprise, as if this happened later, we are told of the sudden appearance of the Kawésqar, given the story of their history in the region, and told of their interactions with Cheap and his crew.

Grann also fleshes out inferences. One source mentions that, on their first morning on the island, the hungry men managed ‘to kill one seagull and pick some wild sellery … [which, with some flour] were immediately put into a pot, with the addition of a large quantity of water, and made into a kind of soup, of which each partook’. In Grann’s hands, this becomes a characteristically vivid scene, full of entirely plausible but nonetheless fictive details:

Finally, somebody shot a seagull, and Captain Cheap ordered that it be divvied among the group.

The men assembled branches and struck together pieces of flint and metal from a tinderbox, struggling to ignite the damp wood. At last, a flame crackled upward, the smoke twisting in the wind. The old cook, Thomas Maclean, skinned the bird and boiled it in a large pot, sprinkling in some of their flour to make a thick soup. The steaming portions were doled out, like sacred offerings, in the few wooden bowls they had salvaged.

Such reasonable extrapolation constantly shades into outright invention. Picking his way among the corpses of his drowned crewmates on the shore, the starving John Byron stumbles across a washed-up cask of salt beef. John Bulkeley, seeing Byron ‘wandering aimlessly about’, welcomes him into a snug shelter he’s just constructed, and warms him by his fire. Swimming ashore with a party of men to find supplies, during the castaways’ long voyage home, the marine James Greenham ‘grew tired and began to flail. Morris tried to reach him, but the marine drowned.’ All of these scenes are movie-like, and all are wholly or partly made up for dramatic effect. Such minor fabulations help to bring alive the characters, to suggest the emotional bonds between them and to create empathy – difficult challenges for any historical writer.

One of Grann’s larger themes is that, then as now, history itself is a fabrication. People’s tales conflict; their perspectives differ; they make things up to suit themselves. The stories of the powerful are always more likely to prevail than those of their inferiors. That was so for the survivors of the Wager, and it’s also true of history generally, which tends to silence the powerless and the defeated. Killers of the Flower Moon provides a vivid illustration of this. Like all the other indigenous nations, the Osage Indians of Oklahoma had been forcibly dispossessed of their ancestral homelands by the settler state, and made to move elsewhere. In the 1920s, after oil was discovered under their new lands, the two thousand remaining members of the tribe became fabulously rich. Before long, they began to die mysteriously – shot, poisoned, firebombed in their beds. It’s possible that more than a hundred men, women and children were killed; no authority cared enough to keep records. This campaign of mass murder was orchestrated for profit by white businessmen, and covered up by a wider culture of settler indifference and complicity in violence against Native Americans. It was also facilitated by the unapologetically white supremacist policies of 20th-century American lawmakers and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which imposed a corrupt system of ‘guardianship’ on the tribe after they became rich; Osage could be certified ‘incompetent’ and their assets subject to external control.

In The Wager, the dark undercurrent beneath all the derring-do is that of European racism and imperialism. Yet though Grann mentions in passing that the British navy protected the transatlantic slave trade, the book’s heroes are left innocent of this. We are not told that, before the war, Anson had spent a decade stationed in Charleston, South Carolina, the capital of British North American slavery, where he was a popular member of the local elite and a substantial investor in local property, or that, immediately before embarking on his secret mission, he and the Centurion had spent two years protecting British slave ships off the West African coast and on their passage to the West Indies. (Selkirk spent the last months of his life on exactly such a mission.)

TheWager’s name lived on in later decades in a way that was equally enmeshed in the politics of transatlantic slavery. In 1744, the Royal Navy launched a new 24-gun warship with the same name to replace the wrecked vessel. Two years later, in Jamaica, this reborn Wager was helping to police the enslaved population and safeguard the trade in kidnapped Africans. Its captain, Arthur Forrest, who had seen action at Porto Bello and Cartagena, was from a local planter family. Among the slaves he bought to work his land was a West African military leader called Apongo. Forrest renamed this man ‘Wager’, after his new ship, and had him serve on it as a crewman for more than a year, alongside other Africans. Then he sent him to work on his sugar plantation in the far west of Jamaica. In 1760, Wager became a leader of the largest slave rebellion the British Empire had ever seen – the uprising now known as Tacky’s Revolt.*

The limits of Grann’s approach to these broader vistas is most clearly illustrated by his treatment of the only sailor on the Wager who is recorded as a person of colour (there may well have been more: naval crews in this era were famously heterogenous). This was a native Londoner called John Duck. Grann tells us at the outset that Duck ‘faced a threat that no white seaman did: if captured overseas, he might be sold into slavery.’ At the end of the book, he duly meets this fate:

he had managed with Morris and two others to trek to the outskirts of Buenos Aires. But there … he suffered what every free Black seaman dreaded: he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Morris didn’t know where his friend had been taken, whether to the mines or the fields – Duck’s fate was unknown, as is the case for so many people whose stories can never be told.

It’s a poignant tale, a seemingly fitting peroration to Grann’s argument about the inequities and silences of history. Before this, we’re told, Duck, Morris and their two companions, Samuel Cooper and John Andrews, had been rescued by friendly indigenous Patagonians, who for two and half years ‘led them from one village to another, staying for months in one place’, until they reached Spanish territory. Only then did things go wrong: Duck was enslaved, while the merciless Spaniards imprisoned the other three.

Except that’s not what happened. In this case, perversely, Grann’s neat narrative ends up compounding the problems to which he’s trying to draw attention. In fact, Duck and his crewmates had already spent years as slaves, being bought and sold and made to work – not by the Spanish but by the Tehuelche people. The Tehuelches were used to treating captives this way: they also had among them many Spanish women whom they’d kidnapped during raids in the colonial borderlands. It was long into this captivity, after they persuaded their captors that the Spaniards would pay handsomely to redeem them, that the British sailors had been taken a thousand miles across Indian country to Buenos Aires and exchanged for money. Their enslavement was a very different kind of bondage from that inflicted by European colonists on Africans and their descendants in the Americas. Slavery among Native Americans, as in Africa itself, was largely a form of involuntary household servitude. It didn’t mean being worked to death on a large plantation or down a silver mine, or being horrifically maltreated, as enslaved Africans in America routinely were. Morris acknowledged this in his account: ‘Our Work was chiefly to fetch Wood and Water, and Skin all the Horses which they killed; and tho’ we were their Slaves, we were treated very humanely, and they would suffer no one to use us ill.’

What actually happened to John Duck? His companions were careful to note that he was, in their terms, a ‘mulatto’, in other words that his father or mother had been white. Perhaps he was the son of Captain John Duck, master of the Ann, who was active near London around 1709. Morris and the others later claimed that the Patagonians had refused to let Duck be redeemed, because he was ‘too near of a Complexion with those Indians’ – ‘insisting upon his being an Indian, and therefore they would keep him’. What does this mean, beyond giving us some sense of his skin colour? It’s hard to speculate about the Tehuelches’ motives, but it’s curious all the same – especially as they got good money for the three other British sailors. After all they had been through together, would Morris, Cooper and Andrews have left Duck behind had he been white? Did they somehow double-cross him to win their own freedom? It’s impossible to know.

It’s even possible that his crewmates were covering for him in the way they later described his fate to people back in England. When the others reached Spanish territory, the man who paid their ransom was the local English agent of the Asiento – a trader in enslaved Black people. Then they were all imprisoned for more than a year, during which time they were ‘treated more like Slaves than Prisoners of War’. Maybe Duck didn’t fancy his chances under such conditions; it’s conceivable that, for him, the risks of entering hostile colonial territory as a dark-skinned man outweighed the drawbacks of servitude among the Patagonians. Soon after they were freed, his companions briefly let slip that, during their years of bondage with the Tehuelches, each of them had ‘a Spanish Woman given him to Wife, and that some of them had left Children behind’. Perhaps Duck, far from home, had made a new life. Even the unrecorded and the enslaved, whatever the extremity of their predicament, are actors in their own stories. Perhaps he himself chose to stay behind.


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