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The Wager

by David Grann

David Grann’s The Wager is exhilarating as both scholarship and narrative. From the outset, we hear the perspectives and aspirations of each of the major players in turn, as each prepares to board the ship. These threads conjoin as the fleet departs from England, only to fully unravel later in the dangerous seas between Antarctica and the tip of South America. Although events from the 1740s probably don’t need spoiler alerts, this tale of shipwreck, mutiny, murder, survival, and returning home beggars belief – and that’s just half the story.

Once the various factions return to England, what follows is a masterclass in eighteenth-century media battles as each tries to control the narrative. Several survivors published their own accounts, designed to document their motivations and paint themselves in the best light. Maritime diaries were wildly popular in England at that time, and these travelogues captured the public imagination. It’s fascinating to note that even though these sailors went months without proper food, clothing, or shelter, some were almost more preoccupied with establishing a paper trail to legitimize their actions than with meeting their basic needs.

Grann uses this event to justly criticize Europe’s imperial powers as they jostled for global prominence. The Wager and other ships were dispatched to attack Spain’s armada and claim its ill-begotten colonial treasures. The flimsy justification was retaliation for the alleged assault of a British captain by Spanish coast guards eight years earlier, later named the “War of Jenkins’ Ear”. Grann similarly criticizes the English shipwreck survivors for their attempts to claim Patagonia for the British crown, noting the officers’ arrogance and sense of superiority even while Indigenous groups were saving their lives.

While reading this, I listened to A Sea Symphony by Vaughan Williams (available through Richmond Public Library’s Hoopla app), a setting of Walt Whitman’s poetry. This piece, which captures the beauty and terror of the ocean, and the character of the mariners who explore it, is an excellent companion to this book.

With a historian’s eye for detail and a storyteller’s sense of drama, Grann paints a vivid, captivating picture of horrific and exhilarating events. The Wager is a must-read for anyone who enjoys their history with a tang of salt.