On Jan. 28, 1742, a derelict craft washes up on the coast of Brazil, carrying 30 hollow-eyed, emaciated men with a harrowing tale to tell. They claimed to be survivors of the Wager, a British warship that had left England two years earlier on a secret operation in connection with the British Empire’s war with Spain.
The Wager’s mission? A member of a stealth strike force tasked with intercepting a Spanish treasure-filled galleon known as “the prize of all the oceans” that was transporting a fortune in silver from Mexico to Spain. The Wager was wrecked on a desolate island off the coast of Patagonia and never completed its mission.
Finally in desperation, the survivors, marooned for months and facing certain death by starvation, jury-rigged the craft and sailed for more than 100 days, traveling nearly 3,000 miles across tempest-tossed seas.
The men were greeted as heroes, until, six months later, an even more woebegone vessel made land on the coast of Chile. On it were three survivors, in no better shape than the 30 who landed in Brazil, and their story contradicted the story of the others in every significant detail.
The passengers on the craft that washed ashore in Brazil were mutineers who had left the three to die, abandoned their mission and against all odds made a desperate attempt to reach safer shores.
The first group responded with counter-charges of their own, damning accusations about a tyrannical and murderous captain and his henchmen. It became clear that while stranded on the island the desperate and dying crew had devolved into anarchy, splitting into warring factions fighting for domination over the others and control over their fate.
As charges of treachery and murder flew, the British Admiralty convened a court martial to find out the truth. At stake were the very lives of the guilty parties via a one-way trip to the gallows.
What are we to make of this fantastical tale of survival and treachery on the high seas? Is it the product of the fevered imaginings of a hyper-caffeinated novelist? How about a meticulously researched and assembled chronicle of actual events by an author with a sterling reputation for ferreting out the truth and presenting it in a page-turner of a narrative that entertains, informs and leaves the reader with grave questions to ponder about the shaping of the truth to serve the Byzantine political machinations of the powers that be?
In the tale told in “The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder” (Doubleday), the latter is the case. David Gann, the author of the New York Times bestsellers Killers Of The Flower Moon and The Lost City Of Z has earned a reputation as a meticulous researcher with a talent for putting the results of his labor together in a way that reads like a page-turner of an entertaining novel while raising a number of serious political and social issues that continue to resonate today.
In his research for The Wager, Gann took a deep dive into the surprisingly extensive, and often conflicting, first-hand accounts of crew members, official records of the British Admiralty and other authoritative sources, and turns up some appalling statistics.
As to the capture of the Spanish galleon; the 400,000 pound “prize” pales in comparison to a war that cost British taxpayers 43 million. By the end of the mission, of the 2,000 men who left Portsmouth less than 700 survived.
More’s the miracle that any survived; Gann’s narrative puts us in the middle of the action; the appalling shipboard conditions, scurvy, freezing temperatures, damp, howling wind, monstrous waves. When it comes to the run-up to the court-martial and the verdict (and its broader implications), he wisely stands back and lets the discrepancies in the various accounts stand, leaving us to draw our own conclusions.
For, as Gann states in the opening sentence of The Wager’s prologue: “The only impartial witness was the sun.”