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The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder

15 Mar 24

368 pages

Capt. Andrew Welch (retd.)

This book has, as I write, been in the Sunday Times bestseller list for three weeks.  I am surprised. No doubt, as the author of the recently Hollywood-filmed Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann has a first-rate publicity team, but there are much better versions of the Wager story already in print.  I recently finished Patrick O’Brian’s pair of books covering the same voyage – The Unknown Shore (published 1959 – about HMS Wager and her crew) and The Golden Ocean (1956 – mainly about Commodore Anson and HMS Centurion). Both O’Brian’s books are a better read than Grann’s and RAdm Christopher Layman’s 2015 The Wager Disaster is recommended by other members. O’Brian’s first two books are not as fluent as his Aubrey-Maturin novels, but he uses the same literary trick of basing them around a pair of individuals. As in all fiction, both Grann and O’Brian have had to invent sections of dialogue to ensure that the narrative flows. Grann has made much greater use of the original sources[1] and, almost certainly, had to invent less, but, in my view, his narrative doesn’t flow that well. Whilst his sources are well documented, he states, without any evidence, that the winds around Cape Horn can reach 200mph (175kts), a claim that neither the Met Office nor the UKHO can substantiate.[2] He also states that “sailors chose their own messmates”. Whilst I cannot find anyone to authoritatively refute this claim,[3] I find it most unlikely that this is so, especially as a ‘mess’ also formed the crew of their gun. Finally, unfortunately, he regularly brings in his ‘progressive’ view of the British and, in particular, the Royal Navy in this period – “The authors rarely depicted themselves or their companions as the agents of an imperialist system.”[4] Needless to say, he also manages to bring the subject of slavery into the story. He is clearly unable to judge people by the values of their time.

The story itself, is compelling – of Commodore Anson’s ill prepared and under resourced voyage to the Pacific in 1742 via Cape Horn, with the aim of capturing that year’s Spanish treasure shipment, in which he succeeded. However, not before losing almost all his ships and most of his men. This book concentrates on the Wager and her crew. She ran aground on the southern Chilean coast, the survivors formed cliques, there was great hardship, starvation and cannibalism, Captain Cheap shot one of the crew in cold blood, there was a mutiny, led by Bulkeley the Gunner, who led 58 of the survivors to safety in Brazil (back round Cape Horn in an open boat) and then home. The Captain and two loyal officers,[5] having become prisoners of the Spanish in Chile for the duration of the War of Jenkins’ Ear, finally arrived home in 1746. The subsequent courts martial were obviously fixed, in that Captain Cheap was not found guilty of murder and the mutiny became “Disturbances and the Rectification of Morale”.

So, a great story of extraordinary endurance under truly terrible conditions. However, I believe that this is not the best telling of the Wager saga and, despite its obvious commercial success, I cannot recommend this book to members.

[1] As well as the official records, several of the survivors published their own accounts.

[2] Many thanks to both, but especially the UKHO, for their help over this claim.  The extract of the S Atlantic Pilot, provided by the UKHO, merely reports “gusts of over 100kn”, well below the 175kn claimed by Grann.

[3] In contrast, the NMRN were, sadly, most unhelpful.

[4] Referring to the survivors of the Wager who published their individual (and, inevitably self-justifying) narratives.

[5] One of them being Lt Byron, the grandfather of Lord Byron, the poet.