• The Good: Reads like fiction; shipwrecks and mayhem!
  • The Bad: Lots of characters who are difficult to keep track of
  • The Literary: Extended research and references

His Majesty’s Ship the Wager left England in 1740 with a fleet of vessels on a secret mission to find “the prize of all the oceans.” Instead of winning prizes, the Wager wrecked off the coast of Patagonia, marooning the sailors for months. In 1742, 30 emaciated men (of the 140 originally shipwrecked) made it home to England and were greeted as heroes. But six months later, a boat carrying 3 more castaways arrived, telling a story of mutineers and treachery.

David Grann returns with another harrowing true story that seems like fiction. Having recently read The Killers of the Flower Moon, it’s clear Grann can spin a yarn, and he does it again, with more characters, all of whom are guilty. The book is painstakingly researched, presenting the most likely account of what actually happened. But in no way is this story straightforward.

Grann sets the stage for what life was like on a naval ship, including who joined and why, and the line of successions. One wealthy fourteen-year-old, John Byron—grandfather of the poet Lord Byron—joined the navy and the Wager as a step in his path to become an officer. Riches and glory adventures seemed to be in the minds of anyone of who sought the high seas.

Unfortunately, conditions aboard seem a lot less romantic. The ship and the men were filthy, infested with vermin and insects, and often went hungry. There were many deaths from scurvy, tetanus, and other infections. Many of the crew were often too sick to work, putting even more pressure on those who remained healthy. Weather, poor seamanship, and rampant scurvy were the real causes of the shipwreck.

Once stranded on the harsh island, it’s clear the crew fell into anarchy, with warring factions fighting for supplies in the wilderness. Hunger and cold turned the men into savages, stealing, mutinying, murdering, and even cannibalizing. Luckily, several native peoples stopped to help, but it was only temporary. After months and months of disagreement about what to do, the crew separated and went in two different directions.

The surprises don’t stop there. Once back in England, all of the men are put on trial so that the full story could be determined. The two factions blamed each other, on the one side, mutiny and abandonment, on the other, murder and treachery.

For the most part, this is a story of a disaster at sea and what can be learned about human nature under duress. Grann manages to find a story that is not very well known but was also highly documented first-hand, albeit with contradiction. But it’s those contradictions that make the story even more interesting, and I’m thankful Grann did the research.

Highly recommended fans of naval adventures,  for a suspenseful page-turning nonfiction that reads like fiction!