The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder

David Grann

Historical True Crime

From the #1 New York Times bestselling 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.

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.

-Excerpt taken from Goodreads.

Check Goodreads to see the book’s ratings.

My Opinion

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5) After two different small and broken vessels show up years after The Wager departed, people become suspicious. Men from both of the small vessels are near death and telling different stories. Initially, they all started on the Wager. The stories were outrageous and conflicting. What really happened?

The story brings you onto the ship, feeling what it must’ve been like for the rough life of sailors back in 1742. Food was scarce or ruined at times, fighting among the crew, and to make matters worse, there was no definite way to determine longitude, only latitude.

Realizing this was a true story had me surprised. I’ve always heard of the comradery of shipmates and how they become family. In this story, so much happened, they started to turn on each other. Or so some of them say.

Parts of it reminded me of Lord of the Flies, and the desperation they felt. Leadership gets questioned, people justify stealing food and more, but the men started turning on each other. When you throw in all the seamen’s superstitions, it became a place where mistrust and suspicion reigned.

“Was it a sin to want to live?”

While I had a difficult time getting into this one, I respected the story. Usually with books I’m here for the characters. This is a non-fiction story written in third person which takes out the personal aspects of the storytelling. I didn’t know these men, nor did I remember their stories. But the events happening were interesting and unpredictable. The story was enough to keep me listening but I would have preferred more personal aspects on each man.

AUDIO REVIEW: This is hard to judge. Because it was third person, the narrator was just telling a story; “he did this, they did that” where I lost that personal connection. However, his voice told the story well. Being such a questionable situation, the narrator did well to give equal weight to each side of the story.

General content summary: little to no language, many shipwrecked men in conditions of emancipation and more, typhus deaths, many seamen were taken captive, once two boys climbed the ship’s mast and fell to their deaths, blood and brains are seen during a ship battle, many deaths at sea from sickness and more), beheadings were punishments for traitors, many scurvy deaths (details), shipwreck (corpses, injuries, starvation, mental instability), whipping (details, multiple), gun death (details about injury to his face, surgery), cannibalism, battle (serious wounds, blood, decapitation, amputation, death), hangings (some details).

Thank you to Penguin Random House Audio for the copy!

**As an Amazon associate I earn from qualifying purchases. 

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