The Wager by David Grann
2023 Frenzied Bibliophile Challenge Category: Mass Center for the Book Challenge
Rating: 4/5 stars
Will you like this book? You might if you like:
High seas adventures
Epic tales of survival
Fast paced narratives
I love me a good shipwreck book (last year I read a great one, Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton) and I enjoy a fast-paced narrative, and this book checked both of those boxes. Grann is an excellent storyteller, this book moved right along and introduced the reader to quite the cast of characters. If you are a bit squeamish, this might not be the book for you though, there is a lot of discussion about diseases, death, starvation, and a little bit of cannibalism.
The Wager was a British ship that was part of a larger flotilla that left England in 1742, traveling towards South America in order to capture a Spanish Imperial galleon that would be transporting goods back to Spain from the far reaches of her empire. At the time of the Wager’s sailing, Britain and Spain were fighting a war (The War of Jenkins Ear, who names these things?) so taking the galleon would also hamper the Spanish war efforts.
Grann gives an excellent overview of how the British Navy was operating in the early 1700s; there were not enough sailors, so press gangs were sent out to basically kidnap men to work the ships. Much like British society, a strict social hierarchy existed on the sea, with officers and midshipmen coming from the higher classes and the gunners and seaman coming from the lower classes. Not unlike the modern military, the noncommissioned sailors could be some of the most experienced men on the ship. It was the gunner on the Wager, John Buckeley, a man the captain considered quite beneath him, that ended up leading one group of men back to England after the ship was wrecked off the coast of Patagonia. Much of what was taking place on the ship and on the island where the crew were stranded, could be seen as a microcosm of what was starting to happen in the American colonies; when you are so far from the place that enforces a set of standards but those standards prop up people not particularly suited for a task, qualified people begin to wonder why the rules are there in the first place.
The men that sailed on the Wager were a varied group and Grann does an excellent job of animating men that have been dead over two hundred years. Since not all of them kept records, Grann is hindered slightly in his retelling but there are at least four accounts so he is able to provide the reader with varied viewpoints. Grann is very much aware of this limitation and mentions in his introduction that though he is trying to write a full account, some things will never be known. I appreciate that in an author, especially one describing historical events that took place centuries ago.
As I mentioned, this is a fast-paced book, Grann does not linger over any one event. The largest part of the book focuses on the time the men spent on Wager Island. But this really is a quick read for a nonfiction book (at least for me) and comes in at under 275 pages. But, and my little historian heart loves this, there are many, many pages of citations and notes. This is not a work that was just thrown together, there is a lot of great research in here.
If you are someone who doesn’t think you like nonfiction, this might be a great book for you. Or Grann’s book, Killers of the Flower Moon, which was made into a movie and coming out soon. It’s a great way to read some history that feels very alive. And I am pretty sure this one will be a movie too!