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Losing the Wager

In his gripping new book, David Grann reveals the imperial rivalry and hubris that lay behind an 18th-century mutiny.

By Erica Wagner

You may think that the saga of Prince Harry’s frostbitten todger – the Duke of Sussex, in his memoir Spare, recounted how a charity trip to the North Pole in 2011 resulted in what sounds like an awfully uncomfortable situation – was simply the result of one callow young man’s sartorial oversight. Yet reading David Grann’s gripping narrative The Wager, one might perceive that Harry’s misfortune was simply the latest instance of a long and ignoble chain of needless injury sustained thanks to a peculiar breed of arrogance. For centuries the British have believed their pluck protected them from the elements; for centuries they have suffered or perished as a result.

Grann’s is a true-life tale of 18th-century shipwreck and mutiny, peopled by vivid characters and stark rivalries. In its day the story was as much tabloid fodder as Harry is in ours: it has now been revived in thrilling and scholarly style. The Wager was a naval vessel that sailed from England in 1740 chasing Spanish gold; wrecked on a desolate island off the coast of Patagonia, her men survived for months in what was, to them, the worst of conditions. The crew split into factions and when, nearly two years later, survivors reached safety, a battle began for narrative control. Where did the border lie between a fight for survival and wilful mutiny? The Wager is a double narrative: the perilous adventure itself followed by the search for the truth.

One sequence stands out as representative of the cost and the blindness of what we have called the Enlightenment. The freezing and bitter weather on what is now known as Wager Island, where the Wager was wrecked in May 1741, swiftly began to deplete the company of officers and men, who struggled to feed themselves or find any shelter. Then, some weeks into their ordeal, canoes appeared out of the freezing mist, paddled by men unfazed by the cold, with long black hair and bare chests. “Their clothing was nothing but a bit of some beast’s skin about their waists, and something woven from feathers over the shoulders,” one of the English sailors recorded. These were the Kawésqar, an indigenous group whose territory spanned hundreds of miles along the coastline of southern Chile.

Perfectly adapted to the landscape they inhabited, these nomadic hunters – whom European explorers had called “cannibals” for no reason at all – sought to help the stranded mariners, bringing food and building shelters. They did so until some of the men tried to “seduce” the Kawésqar women, which, as midshipman John Byron later wrote, “gave the Indians such offence”. Once the native visitors had left, the British were as badly off as they had been before.

At this point the reader may recall John Franklin’s men, who were poisoned by lead, frozen and starved as they hunted for the Northwest Passage in 1845. Or Captain Scott, who thought ponies would be able to drag sledges to the South Pole in 1911. The men of the Wager paid a bitter price for imperial rivalry and the thirst for conquest, the conviction all the world would be better off under European rule. Grann demonstrates the breakdown of society in microcosm, as scurvy, disease, starvation and flat-out murder take their toll on these men fighting to survive.

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Grann is an American author of striking panache, best known for The Lost City of Z and Killers of the Flower Moon – the film of the latter, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, is due to be released in the autumn. He understands that it’s not just an exciting story that makes a fine book: it’s the examination of who gets to tell the story in question.

In The Wager, survival is only half the battle. David Cheap was the Wager’s captain, intent on sticking with Naval discipline; his opposition was John Bulkeley, the ship’s gunner, who ended up leading a faction of men. Byron was the grandfather of the poet; Lord Byron would allude to his ancestor’s hardships in Don Juan. This is a tale that has echoed down the ages.

Grann’s book is a non-fiction thriller: it wouldn’t do to give too much of the story away. If you loved Ian McGuire’s The North Water or were gripped by The Terror (either Dan Simmons’ original novel or the stunning television adaptation), The Wager is for you. Patrick O’Brian was inspired by this tale; Herman Melville too. Yet beneath the excitement runs a current of bitterness, of sorrow for a planet exploited by greed and the savagery of “civilisation”.

The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Murder and Mutiny
David Grann
Simon & Schuster, 352pp, £20

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[See also: The best non-fiction books to read in 2023]

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This article appears in the 14 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Over and Out