Book Review: The Wager-A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny, and Murder, by David Grann

Another of my amazing men's book club selections. The Wager, a non-fiction account of 257 pages, also includes copious notes, an extensive bibliography, an index, and illustrations in this 330-page book. I took eleven pages of notes in order to both follow the story and try to summarize my feelings.

The cast of characters is daunting, as is the list of ships in the British armada, which represented Britain's dominance of the oceans in the early 1900's.  The Spanish were the only maritime equal. At the peak of its power, the British Empire ruled 400 million people and represented a quarter of the landmass of the Earth. The Wager itself was the lowest ranking of a Man O'War ship and included 28 cannons. It is described as a "123-foot-long eyesore," compared with the three-masted, 1,000-ton main vessel of the captain as well as the other three warships. The British armada encounters bad weather just SW of the southern tip of South America. The description of the Drake Passage is as savage as the weather and pulverizing water. Several ships are lost and the Wager itself crashes on the rocks of a very small rocky island with no fruits or vegetables and few birds.

The crew of the Wager devolve into two groups, one led by the captain, and one led by a natural leader who was not an officer. They plan to rescue the remains of The Wager and its longboat and escape the island. They continue with two make-shift vessels they cobbled together and take different return approaches: one north along Chile and one back south around the southern tip of South America into the Atlantic.

At this point, for reasons unclear to me, the story segues to the ships that survived the weather and crashes, and deals with repairs to those ships in such far-away places as China. At that point, the original story suddenly reemerges with both surviving groups from the Wager, after they were rescued by local Indians, as they eventually (after five-plus years) make it back to England and deal with contrasting versions of the shipwreck and those responsible. The news is sensational as the two groups compete with different accounts as well as placing responsibility for the loss. A Court Martial ensues, and the resulting conclusion amidst the confusion and apparent valid stories is that no official blame is affixed, and no one is convicted of anything. The loss and upheaval on The Wager became "The mutiny that never was."

The book is fascinating and paints a vivid picture of almost unbelievably difficult circumstances, however it's almost "too complete" with names and details. All in all, this is not an easy book to read with all the pain and details.


9 Responses

  1. JK James George
    From Anon-1:Thanks as always for your good book reviews.
  2. JK James George
    From Anon-2:
  3. JK James George
    From Anon-3: I definitely wouldn’t read this one. That was my first thought Then I mentioned it to my husband… Being a Navy guy of course, he wanted more details. I read him your review. He was Very impressed. Perhaps I should let him write what he told me? We will see who writes you about your review?
  4. JK James George
    From Anon-4: Good stuff. Thanks.
  5. JK James George
    From Anon-5: On our book club’s calendar for January.
  6. JK James George
    From Anon-6: Thanks for the synopsis, Jim... It's what one might call "an unlikely adventure," probably due to having to keep track of too much detail.
    • JK James George
      Agree with the "too much detail" comment.
  7. JK James George
    From Anon-7 (who is a prominent ham radio operator who travels to far-away and hard-to-reach places to put signals on the air): Sounds interesting. Reminds me somewhat of the Shackleton biography I read earlier this year. Exploring (DX-peditioning) is a great adventure but sometimes more perilous than one expects: so far all I have lost is equipment. But think of Bouvet, where those who made it to the island were surrounded by disaster just to make us happy . . .
  8. JK James George
    From Anon-8: My husband is reading it now!

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