The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder

David Grann does it again in this naval-gazing adventure!

Page-turning history, filled with interesting trivia, exploration of the borders of the human capacity for greatness and darkness, and pontificating on what it all means. He’s the best at doing all of it at once.

This piece of non-fiction is mercifully paced – only 257 pages. Buy this book for all the history nerds and dads in your life. You are welcome; your holiday shopping is complete.

The Wager has two meanings – first, the eponymous ship was part of a fleet sailing to the Americas to challenge Spanish control of the waves and legendary treasure. Second, the title is also a wider observation about the agents of empire, “innocent or not, serving – and even sacrificing themselves for – a system many of them rarely question[ed].” 

They could make a fortune, win glory, or face anonymous and somewhat alien death.

These particular gamblers, agents of the British empire, left England in 1840 and headed to the Americas – sort of. The voyage was doomed from the beginning, with rotting wood, sick seamen, and internal power struggles complicating the journey. Many didn’t make it. The mission was scuttled from the inside out as scurvy, ambition, and giant waves shipwrecked The Wager on a desolate island off the coast of Patagonia.

The crew that survived the months-long journey from Portsmouth, England, to Patagonia, lived in a kind of surreal exile. Some clung to naval order, some clung to faith, some clung to casks of liquor and the promise of a good time. Eventually, fearing death more than the unknowable ocean, vying factions attempt to reconnect with European civilization. 

However, in many ways, the survivors could never truly leave the island behind.

Grann acknowledges that he wasn’t there to give a first-hand account of events, so some of the narrative is mere guesswork (even if it’s a good guess). However, his extensive research of journals, self-serving publications printed after the fact, and contemporary records of similar sea voyages help Grann make a dead reckoning of what really happened within the wreckage of The Wager.

The Devil & Sherlock Holmes will be my next Grann adventure.