25 June 2024
  • 25 June 2024

The Wager by David Grann book review

on 20 January 2024 0

Brian Hannan, local author and manager of Abbey Books in Paisley, reviews The Wager by David Grann

Just out in paperback The Wager is the latest book by the author of Killers of the Flower Moon, recently filmed by Martin Scorsese with Leonardo DiCaprio. That pair is reputedly circling this one and no wonder because it is the most astonishing story.

Not just as the cover explains “a tale of shipwreck, mutiny and murder” and, as it happens, an earthquake, and not one but two incredible journeys by raft, but also one that featured the grandfather of Lord Byron and ended up in court, in one of the most famous maritime legal cases of all time.

It’s 1740 and Britain, at war with Spain, and despatches a five-ship fleet on a secret mission to sneak round the Cape of Good Horn at the southernmost tip of South America and catch an enemy galleon, known as “the prize of the oceans” unawares.

The Cape was mostly unnavigable, the waves that battered through it could have building up a head of steam for thousands of miles, and the issue of determining longitude was not resolved for decades so, effectively, a captain had no idea where he was.

Crew already decimated by scurvy, the ships were separated during the torrential storms. Perhaps making an error of judgement (one of many points later disputed), The Wager’s Captain Cheap headed for safety only to be shipwrecked on the aptly-named Desolation Island.

By this point, the crew were already facing starvation, but there was little of sustenance to be found, a few vegetables, no animals, an occasional bird, but once the shore had been denuded of shrimps and seaweed, and whatever supplies were rescued from the sunken vessel, everyone was on a strict diet.

Ship’s gunner John Bulkeley led a mutiny ashore and took off with a longboat, most of the remaining crew, and some other tiny vessels with the bulk of the remaining supplies, avoiding the Cape, and heading for Chile, where, the party further decimated, they arrived many months later.

When they finally reached Britain, they were treated as heroes, wrote best-sellers about their epic voyages, writing out of the history books any mention of mutiny.

Imagine their surprise when some considerable time later, Captain Cheap and a smaller band, including the young John Byron, made their way back to England. So a legal battle royal was set, the losers almost certainly destined to be hanged.

This extraordinary story is matched by supreme research and writing. David Grann brings to life the seaman’s tale, not the kind glamorised by the Napoleonic Wars such as written by C.S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian, but the unvarnished truth.

And every now and then, just to leaven the tragic tale, recounting how many current words or phrases have their origins in the sea. You’ll probably be familiar with “dead reckoning” as a method of measuring the speed of a ship, but might be less acquainted with “under the weather.”

Sick sailors were stowed way below decks, well away from rain or wind or any kind of weather. The term “limeys”, attributed by Yanks to Brits, came about because of the quantities of limes British sailors ate to ward off scurvy.

To “toe the line” related to when young sailors had to stand still before a mark for inspection; “pipe down” was when the boatswain blew his whistle calling for quiet at night; “scuttlebutt” was a water cask round which men gathered while waiting to be fed; and a ship was “three sheets to the wind” when lines to the sails broke and it pitched around out of control.

But that’s all just in passing. The heart of The Wager, following the lives of individual sailors, from captain down to lowly newcomer John Byron, takes the reader on a voyage through the hearts and minds of those aboard, the precipitate danger of every voyage, while capturing the beauty of scenery and the comradeship of those thrown together.

A terrible tale, wonderfully woven.

The Wager by David Grann is available in paperback from Simon & Schuster, priced £10.99. (Abbey Books have one secondhand copy for £4).

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