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The Wager
Cover of The Wager
The Wager
A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder
Borrow Borrow
#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • From the author of Killers of the Flower Moon, a page-turning story of shipwreck, survival, and savagery, culminating in a court martial that reveals a shocking truth. The powerful narrative reveals the deeper meaning of the events on The Wager, showing that it was not only the captain and crew who ended up on trial, but the very idea of empire.
A Best Book of the Year: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, TIME, Smithsonian, NPR, Vulture, Kirkus Reviews
“Riveting...Reads like a thriller, tackling a multilayered history—and imperialism—with gusto.” —Time
"A tour de force of narrative nonfiction.” —The Wall Street Journal
On January 28, 1742, a ramshackle vessel of patched-together wood and cloth washed up on the coast of Brazil. Inside were thirty emaciated men, barely alive, and they had an extraordinary tale to tell. They were survivors of His Majesty’s Ship the Wager, a British vessel that had left England in 1740 on a secret mission during an imperial war with Spain. While the Wager had been chasing a Spanish treasure-filled galleon known as “the prize of all the oceans,” it had wrecked on a desolate island off the coast of Patagonia. The men, after being marooned for months and facing starvation, built the flimsy craft and sailed for more than a hundred days, traversing nearly 3,000 miles of storm-wracked seas. They were greeted as heroes.
But then ... six months later, another, even more decrepit craft landed on the coast of Chile. This boat contained just three castaways, and they told a very different story. The thirty sailors who landed in Brazil were not heroes – they were mutineers. The first group responded with countercharges of their own, of a tyrannical and murderous senior officer and his henchmen. It became clear that while stranded on the island the crew had fallen into anarchy, with warring factions fighting for dominion over the barren wilderness. As accusations of treachery and murder flew, the Admiralty convened a court martial to determine who was telling the truth. The stakes were life-and-death—for whomever the court found guilty could hang.
The Wager is a grand tale of human behavior at the extremes told by one of our greatest nonfiction writers. Grann’s recreation of the hidden world on a British warship rivals the work of Patrick O’Brian, his portrayal of the castaways’ desperate straits stands up to the classics of survival writing such as The Endurance, and his account of the court martial has the savvy of a Scott Turow thriller. As always with Grann’s work, the incredible twists of the narrative hold the reader spellbound.
#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • From the author of Killers of the Flower Moon, a page-turning story of shipwreck, survival, and savagery, culminating in a court martial that reveals a shocking truth. The powerful narrative reveals the deeper meaning of the events on The Wager, showing that it was not only the captain and crew who ended up on trial, but the very idea of empire.
A Best Book of the Year: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, TIME, Smithsonian, NPR, Vulture, Kirkus Reviews
“Riveting...Reads like a thriller, tackling a multilayered history—and imperialism—with gusto.” —Time
"A tour de force of narrative nonfiction.” —The Wall Street Journal
On January 28, 1742, a ramshackle vessel of patched-together wood and cloth washed up on the coast of Brazil. Inside were thirty emaciated men, barely alive, and they had an extraordinary tale to tell. They were survivors of His Majesty’s Ship the Wager, a British vessel that had left England in 1740 on a secret mission during an imperial war with Spain. While the Wager had been chasing a Spanish treasure-filled galleon known as “the prize of all the oceans,” it had wrecked on a desolate island off the coast of Patagonia. The men, after being marooned for months and facing starvation, built the flimsy craft and sailed for more than a hundred days, traversing nearly 3,000 miles of storm-wracked seas. They were greeted as heroes.
But then ... six months later, another, even more decrepit craft landed on the coast of Chile. This boat contained just three castaways, and they told a very different story. The thirty sailors who landed in Brazil were not heroes – they were mutineers. The first group responded with countercharges of their own, of a tyrannical and murderous senior officer and his henchmen. It became clear that while stranded on the island the crew had fallen into anarchy, with warring factions fighting for dominion over the barren wilderness. As accusations of treachery and murder flew, the Admiralty convened a court martial to determine who was telling the truth. The stakes were life-and-death—for whomever the court found guilty could hang.
The Wager is a grand tale of human behavior at the extremes told by one of our greatest nonfiction writers. Grann’s recreation of the hidden world on a British warship rivals the work of Patrick O’Brian, his portrayal of the castaways’ desperate straits stands up to the classics of survival writing such as The Endurance, and his account of the court martial has the savvy of a Scott Turow thriller. As always with Grann’s work, the incredible twists of the narrative hold the reader spellbound.
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  • From the cover Chapter 1

    The First Lieutenant

    Each man in the squadron carried, along with a sea chest, his own burdensome story. Perhaps it was of a scorned love, or a secret prison conviction, or a pregnant wife left on shore weeping. Perhaps it was a hunger for fame and fortune, or a dread of death. David Cheap, the first lieutenant of the Centurion, the squadron’s flagship, was no different. A burly Scotsman in his early forties with a protracted nose and intense eyes, he was in flight—from squabbles with his brother over their inheritance, from creditors chasing him, from debts that made it impossible for him to find a suitable bride. Onshore, Cheap seemed doomed, unable to navigate past life’s unexpected shoals. Yet as he perched on the quarterdeck of a British man-of-war, cruising the vast oceans with a cocked hat and spyglass, he brimmed with confidence—even, some would say, a touch of haughtiness. The wooden world of a ship—a world bound by the Navy’s rigid regulations and the laws of the sea and, most of all, by the hardened fellowship of men—had provided him a refuge. Suddenly he felt a crystalline order, a clarity of purpose. And Cheap’s newest posting, despite the innumerable risks that it carried, from plagues and drowning to enemy cannon fire, offered what he longed for: a chance to finally claim a wealthy prize and rise to captain his own ship, becoming a lord of the sea.

    The problem was that he could not get away from the damned land. He was trapped—cursed, really—at the dockyard in Portsmouth, along the English Channel, struggling with feverish futility to get the Centurion fitted out and ready to sail. Its massive wooden hull, 144 feet long and 40 feet wide, was moored at a slip. Carpenters, caulkers, riggers, and joiners combed over its decks like rats (which were also plentiful). A cacophony of hammers and saws. The cobblestone streets past the shipyard were congested with rattling wheelbarrows and horse-drawn wagons, with porters, peddlers, pickpockets, sailors, and prostitutes. Periodically, a boatswain blew a chilling whistle, and crewmen stumbled from ale shops, parting from old or new sweethearts, hurrying to their departing ships in order to avoid their officers’ lashes.

    It was January 1740, and the British Empire was racing to mobilize for war against its imperial rival Spain. And in a move that had suddenly raised Cheap’s prospects, the captain under whom he served on the Centurion, George Anson, had been plucked by the Admiralty to be a commodore and lead the squadron of five warships against the Spanish. The promotion was unexpected. As the son of an obscure country squire, Anson did not wield the level of patronage, the grease—or “interest,” as it was more politely called—that propelled many officers up the pole, along with their men. Anson, then forty-two, had joined the Navy at the age of fourteen, and served for nearly three decades without leading a major military campaign or snaring a lucrative prize.

    Tall, with a long face and a high forehead, he had a remoteness about him. His blue eyes were inscrutable, and outside the company of a few trusted friends he rarely opened his mouth. One statesman, after meeting with him, noted, “Anson, as usual, said little.” Anson corresponded even more sparingly, as if he doubted the ability of words to convey what he saw or felt. “He loved reading little, and writing, or dictating his own letters less, and that seeming negligence . . . ​drew upon him the ill will of many,” a relative wrote. A diplomat later quipped that Anson was so unknowing about the world...
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    March 20, 2023
    Bestseller Grann (Killers of the Flower Moon) delivers a concise and riveting account of the HMS Wager, a British man-of-war that ran aground on a barren island off the Chilean coast of Patagonia in 1741. Part of a squadron sent to capture a treasure-laden Spanish galleon during the War of Jenkins’ Ear, the Wager became separated from the other ships while rounding Cape Horn and wrecked several weeks later. The starving crew soon disintegrated into rival factions, including one led by gunner John Bulkeley, who became increasingly critical of Capt. David Cheap. Five months after they’d been marooned, Bulkeley and 80 other crew members commandeered the Wager’s longboat and two other small vessels and set sail for Brazil, abandoning Cheap and his few remaining loyalists to their fate. Fewer than half of Bulkeley’s group survived their nearly 3,000-mile journey through the Strait of Magellan and up the coast of Argentina, but he was treated as a hero, until Cheap miraculously appeared back in England and accused him of mutiny. Though the showdown between Cheap and Bulkeley is somewhat anticlimactic, Grann packs the narrative with fascinating details about life at sea—from scurvy-induced delirium to the mechanics of loading and firing a cannon—and makes excellent use of primary sources, including a firsthand account by 16-year-old midshipman John Byron, grandfather of the poet Lord Byron. Armchair adventurers will be enthralled.

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A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder
David Grann
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