The Wager by David Grann on ‘the mutiny that never was’ – review

The Wager by David Grann on ‘the mutiny that never was’ – review

by Suswati Basu
The Wager by David Grann beside a painting of water with a horizon, These Bodies of Water book by Sabrina Mahfouz, Stolen History by Sathnam Sanghera, boat on water by photographer Mitch Epstein, and Hokusai wave.
The Wager by David Grann. Credit: Suswati Basu.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

When I was just twelve-years-old, I found myself stepping into the eerie depths of the London Dungeon – an encounter that would leave me feeling both exceedingly exhilarated and terribly repulsed. Amid the dismembered and disembowelled statues that populated the chilling attraction, one display stood out, etching the grim reality of history into my young mind. It was a scene of sailors aboard a ship, tormented by the scourge of scurvy, a far cry from the swashbuckling adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow or the saccharine tales of buried treasure. Now, decades later, “The Wager” by David Grann brings forth a similarly bleak narrative of death and doom, and the difficulties of trusting unreliable storytellers.

We often feel the allure of mutiny conjuring up images of swashbuckling pirates à la “Pirates of the Caribbean.” However, the actuality of such events stands in stark contrast to romanticised portrayals. Grann’s epic looks at how history is told in the perspective of the victor, and in this case, shows how easy it is to sway public opinion.

This article contains spoilers and some content readers may find distressing.

The Wager author David Grann
The Wager author David Grann at the 2018 Texas Book Festival. Credit: Larry D. Moore.

Who is David Grann?

David Grann is an American journalist, staff writer for The New Yorker, and author. He is known for his nonfiction books, which have been praised for their suspenseful storytelling, meticulous research, and thought-provoking insights into the human condition.

His first book, The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, was published in 2009. The book tells the story of Percy Fawcett, a British explorer who disappeared in the Amazon rainforest in 1925 while searching for a lost city. The book was a critical and commercial success, and it was adapted into a film in 2016.

The writer's second book, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the F.B.I., was published in 2017. The book tells the story of the Osage Nation, a Native American tribe who were murdered in the early 1920s by white settlers who wanted to steal their oil wealth. The book won the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime and was a finalist for the National Book Award. It is due to be released later this year, directed by Martin Scorsese, and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, and John Lithgow. DiCaprio and Scorsese will reunite for his new book The Wager.

Grann's third book, The White Darkness: A True Story of Survival in the Extreme South, was published in 2021. The book tells the story of Henry Worsley, a British explorer who attempted to cross Antarctica solo and unsupported. Worsley died during his attempt, but his story is a testament to the human spirit of endurance.

His work has been praised by critics for its suspenseful storytelling, meticulous research, and thought-provoking insights into the human condition. He is a master of narrative nonfiction, and his books are sure to keep you hooked from beginning to end. In addition to his books, Grann has written numerous articles for The New Yorker, including "Trial by Fire," which exposed how junk science led to the execution of a likely innocent man in Texas. He has also won numerous awards for his journalism, including the George Polk Award and the Sigma Delta Chi Award.

What is book The Wager about?

“The Wager” by David Grann is an enthralling nonfiction work that unveils the gripping narrative of the ill-fated HMS Wager, a British man-of-war that met its tragic end off the Patagonian coastline in 1741, during an imperial conflict with Spain. This meticulously researched book delves into the harrowing experiences of the survivors, who endured months of isolation on a desolate island, grappling with hunger, illness, and the menacing presence of indigenous inhabitants. Their quest for salvation involved constructing a rudimentary vessel and embarking on a perilous journey to Brazil, fraught with life-threatening challenges. Regrettably, out of the initial crew of 195, only 30 emerged from this calamitous odyssey.

Rendered with literary finesse, the book seamlessly melds exhaustive research with eloquent prose. It’s a poignant and important tale that captures the human spirit’s resilience in the face of adversity. Offering a poignant glimpse into maritime history, the potency of survival sagas, and the intricate interplay of storytelling, this magnum opus is destined to resonate with readers across genres. The book was published in 2023 by Doubleday.

The subjectivity of truth

Through his masterful storytelling and beyond the heart-pounding survival narrative, “The Wager” by Grann serves as a poignant reflection on the nature of truth and the potency of narratives. Grann deftly delves into the kaleidoscope of survivor accounts, each moulding public perception of the calamity. His narrative traces the evolution of the Wager’s tale over centuries, each retelling breathing fresh life into its essence.

Read: Obama’s summer reading list revealed amid banned books outcry

Beyond the dramatic survival chronicle, “The Wager” brings together stories of enigma surrounding the events preceding the shipwreck. Divergent testimonies from the survivors lay bare conflicting perspectives, with some contending that the vessel was deliberately grounded by the captain in anticipation of a lucrative compensation. Conversely, others posit that the ship succumbed to the tempest’s fury, rendering salvation impossible. While the book refrains from delivering a definitive verdict on this conundrum, it adroitly narrates one of history’s most profound maritime catastrophes.

“We all impose some coherence—some meaning—on the chaotic events of our existence. We rummage through the raw images of our memories, selecting, burnishing, erasing. We emerge as the heroes of our stories, allowing us to live with what we have done—or haven’t done.”

David Grann, The Wager

At its core, “The Wager” also embarks on an introspective exploration of the nature of veracity and the potence of narratives. Grann’s probing examination unveils the manner in which disparate survivor accounts profoundly shaped the collective understanding of the incident. The author’s adept portrayal illustrates the evolution of the Wager’s saga across centuries, evolving and morphing in significance with each retelling.

Author David Grann talks about The Wager at The Westport Library.

Their narrative, though nearly unbelievable, was confirmed upon reaching England. In an era when survival was a gamble, this group of eighty-one souls had braved overwhelming odds. They endured a heartrending test of survival—grappling with hunger, disease, and the hostility of indigenous inhabitants. Their makeshift vessel, born from the wreckage of the Wager, carried them to the shores of Brazil after a treacherous passage. Yet, the miraculous survival came at a cost; over fifty of their brethren perished on the journey, leaving just thirty to testify to their harrowing odyssey—a castaway voyage unparalleled in history.

The paradox of reality and survival

Although many of the defendants had written accounts in attempts to clear their names, they were rife with glaring omissions. Among the central characters, David Cheap was the primary officer of The Wager after the original commander had died along the way. But what happens to societal hierarchies when it comes to survival? What we see is a “Lord of the Flies” scenario play out in reality, as the line between groupthink and individuality, rational and emotional reactions, and morality and immorality become blurred.

“But these men believed their very lives depended on the stories they told. If they failed to provide a convincing tale, they could be secured to a ship’s yardarm and hanged.”

David Grann, The Wager

Cheap attempted to keep control of the situation, forcing rations and maintaining some level of order. However, this does not last for long as starvation sets in, and the rules of military engagement no longer seemed consequential. Among the chief characters and survivors was the ship’s former gunner, John Bulkeley. But this is no tale of heroes; instead, it’s a saga of mutiny, misery, and murder that Grann encapsulates with haunting precision. While Cheap was left stranded on the island with three of his former officers, they were captured by Spanish authorities, and arrived back in Britain years after Bulkeley. By this time, Bulkeley had already published an account of the voyage that showed Cheap in a poor light.

The mutineers justified their actions based on other events, including Cheap’s shooting of a midshipman named Cozens. Cheap heard an altercation outside his tent, came out in a rage, and shot Cozens in the face at point blank range without any warning. Cheap’s report never explicitly acknowledged this shooting—it merely noted that their altercation had led to “extremities.” Bulkeley’s journal described his abandonment of Cheap on the island as if he had been dutifully complying with his captain’s wishes.

Read: Truth is stranger than autofiction: examples like Bret Easton Ellis

A survivor from one party composed what he described as a “faithful narrative,” insisting, “I have been scrupulously careful not to insert one word of untruth: for falsities of any kind would be highly absurd in a work designed to rescue the author’s character.” The leader of the other side claimed, in his own chronicle, that his enemies had furnished an “imperfect narrative” and “blackened us with the greatest calumnies.” He vowed, “We stand or fall by the truth; if truth will not support us, nothing can.”

This was very much a circumstance of ‘he said, he said’, but at times of war, omission is a necessity to avoid destabilisation. Grann writes that a mutiny “can be so threatening to the established order that it is not even officially recognized as one.” He refers to an instance in the First World War, where French troops in various units on the western front refused to fight, in one of the largest mutinies in history. But the government’s official account described the incident merely as “Disturbances and the Rectification of Morale.” The military records were sealed for fifty years, and it wasn’t until 1967 that an authoritative account was published in France.

The official inquiry into the Wager affair was permanently closed. Cheap’s deposition detailing his allegations eventually disappeared from the court-martial files. And the upheaval on Wager Island became, in the words of Glyndwr Williams, “the mutiny that never was.”

Key takeaways from The Wager by David Grann

Encompassing more than survival, “The Wager” serves as a meditation on the mutable nature of truth and the influence of narratives. Grann traverses the chasm between divergent survivor accounts, each transforming public perception of the calamity. His pen traces the voyage of the Wager’s story across time, metamorphosing with each retelling. For Grann, much of the actions of the crew was changed into a story “allowing us to live with what we have done.” This included murder, marooning, and at times, even resorting to cannibalism. It brings me back to those grotesque mannequins I saw that day when I was 12. What we see as repulsive, is another person’s gratification – much like the stories that were gleaned from this incident in history.

This narrative isn’t merely a chronicle; it’s a profound exploration of survival’s essence, the malleability of truth, and the storytelling’s indomitable force. A symphony of suspense and introspection, “The Wager” beckons to those captivated by humanity’s unyielding tenacity and prose by David Grann reverberates—a lingering testament to his storytelling virtuosity.

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Lia August 29, 2023 - 8:07 pm

Like I’ve said, this is a well written review. I’m not into historical fiction but you made this book sound appealing. I’m excited to see what other books you’ll review or have reviewed!

Suswati Basu August 29, 2023 - 8:08 pm

Thanks so much Lia, really appreciate your thoughts and your kind words. If anything in the nonfiction book sector takes your interest let me know! I’ll take a gander.

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