Anatomy of a shipwreck
2023 BOOKS OF THE YEAR | The Wager is an engrossing indictment of human nature
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English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh said, “Whosoever commands the seas commands the trade of the world; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world.”
This was the goal of the 18th-century British Empire: to gain world dominance through its naval power.
Journalist David Grann (author of Killers of the Flower Moon) takes readers on a harrowing, seafaring journey in The Wager (Doubleday 2023). He painstakingly reconstructs events following an 18th-century shipwreck by examining logbooks, diaries, correspondence, and court-martial testimony (evidenced by 48 pages of endnotes).
The nonfiction narrative reads like a Patrick O’Brian novel but, in this case, real life is stranger than fiction.
On Aug. 23, 1740, during the War of Jenkins’ Ear, a seven-ship British squadron led by the man-of-war Centurion set sail in pursuit of a Spanish galleon loaded with silver.
While rounding the tip of Cape Horn, David Cheap, captain of the smaller warship Wager, lost sight of Centurion and wrecked off the coast of Patagonia. The shipwreck doesn’t occur until page 94. Before that pivotal event, Grann sets up the players—the hierarchy and personalities—who would tell conflicting stories about the wreck and its aftermath.
Already weakened by sickness, hunger, and the harsh elements, the castaways were doomed for more misery. And as basic necessities dwindled, the sinful nature of man grew.
Anarchy also threatened. Since they were no longer on a ship, was it every man for himself or were they still bound by the captain’s rule?
The survivors broke into factions—those supporting Capt. Cheap and those opposed to his leadership.
Eight months later, after managing to escape the barren wasteland, 30 emaciated men in a ramshackle makeshift boat reached civilization. They were celebrated as heroes until, six months later, three more survivors arrived home and accused the first group of mutiny. The Admiralty called a court-martial to determine the truth. But what was the truth? Every man had his own version, one that wiped his own slate clean even as he pointed fingers at others.
When survival instincts kick in, to what lengths—or depths—will a person go? The Wager is an engrossing mix of history and naval procedure, but mostly an indictment of human nature and the problem of original sin.
During the court-martial one young sailor was spared from testifying about “the horrors he had witnessed: those dark acts that he had learned men—supposed gentlemen—were capable of.”
Gunner John Bulkeley wrote copious notes and often referenced his faith. He believed that “the fact that a single one of them survived was proof of God, and any person who could still doubt this truth ‘justly deserves the wrath of an incensed deity.’”
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