The sea and its horrors
Everything went wrong in this voyage, based on historical events
The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder David Grann Doubleday
Step from an airplane, and it's now ritual to boast of how cruelly you've suffered. Crying infants. Lost luggage. The indignities pile up. Yet for most of human existence, simply to leave the safety of hut or castle was to risk violent death. And nowhere was that truer than when humans crossed oceans on wooden ships.
When things went wrong, they often went very wrong, and David Grann's The Wager: A
Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder proves as much. The nightmare began in 1740 as HMS Wager set out from England among a flotilla of seven British warships carrying 2,000 men across the Atlantic, around Cape Horn and into the Pacific, there to intercept and take as prize a Spanish galleon, a floating treasure chest filled with South American silver, gold and precious gems.
Before the squadron got across the Atlantic Ocean, though, typhus hit. Soon, 160 were dead.
Trying to round the Horn, the Wager ran into storms, gale-force winds, waves and rain in frigid temperatures that damaged ships and wearied men. Then scurvy hit the warships. Of the Wager's original 250 men, fewer than 200 were left.
Separated in the storm from the rest of the flotilla, the Wager rounded Cape Horn at last but caught on a lee shore in another gale as its captain tumbled through a hatch, fracturing a bone that protruded from his armpit. The ship ran aground, stranding its crew on an uninhabited island off the coast of Patagonia. There was wind, rain, fog, near-freezing temperatures, tangles of trees and almost nothing to harvest or hunt.
The 145 remaining men were starving, freezing, unhoused and barely clothed. Thefts. Fights. Hoarding. Captain David Cheap descended into rigid authoritarianism and violence. The gunner, John Bulkeley, rose as Cheap tumbled. There was more death and vicious punishments, betrayal, mutiny, voyages of escape in makeshift craft. Years passed as the last few dozen men alive fought their way back to England, only to find themselves called to court-martial.
In few other situations were humans placed in such conditions against such forces, in isolation, often for years at a time, and nowhere else does the human animal become so revealed. Depravity, violence, hubris and cowardice, yes, but also ingenuity, brotherhood and steely will.
The Wager is a tightly written account that's hard to put down, even with some frustrating narrative gaps, a result of non-fiction grappling with 280-year-old events. Consider the end: after the court-martial of the Wager's survivors, the men largely vanish from the public record, and thus from the story. What were the long-term effects of such an ordeal on mind and body? On that, we are left to wonder.