"The Wager" | Reviewed by William Winkler
In 1740, the 28-gun man-of-war HMS Wager, one of a small flotilla of British naval vessels, departed Portsmouth harbor. Their mission was to track and capture a Spanish galleon laden with treasure as it sailed around the southern tip of South America and into the Pacific Ocean. Wager did not achieve its goal; instead, it ran aground off the western coast of southern Chile and broke up on the rocks.
David Grann’s recent book “The Wager” details the ship’s journey, its demise, and the fate of its crew. Drawing from multiple journals kept by many of the officers and men aboard the Wager, as well as archived admiralty documents, Grann paints a portrait not only of the journey itself, but also of the centuries-old traditions of the British navy, its customs and regulations.
The narrative centers on the story of David Cheap, a first lieutenant at the beginning of the expedition. Early in the journey two captains asked to be relieved of their commands, and Cheap was elevated to captain of the Wager.
After a relatively calm voyage to the eastern coast of South America the British fleet, under the overall command of Commodore David Anson, planned to transit from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Despite his knowledge of the existence of the more direct Strait of Magellan with its frequent narrows and unpredictable winds and currents, Anson chose to navigate the open sea route around Cape Horn despite its frequent gale force winds and occasional icebergs.
The crossing proved challenging. Some of the British vessels turned back and others were lost to the tempestuous seas. Prior to the attempted passage, Commodore Anson had directed that should the ships become separated they were to rendezvous near a town on Chile’s southwestern coast, where they would attack a Spanish settlement.
Captain Cheap was determined to follow the commodore’s orders, even though it exposed his ship and crew to ever greater dangers. The Wager ran aground off a desolate, uninhabited island, where it broke up and sank.
Cheap and his crew were stranded, managing to salvage only minimal provisions from their wrecked ship. The remainder of the book describes their attempts at survival in the face of increasingly hostile conditions. Many of the crew perished by starvation. The imperious Cheap insisted on maintaining the same order on land as he had at sea, leading to insurrection among the dwindling number of survivors.
With the assistance of indigenous tribesmen, the remnants of the Wager’s crew were able to find their way to civilization, and ultimately back to England. In 1744, four years after they left England, a number of the officers and crew faced charges before a court-martial of the British Admiralty.
Author Grann’s meticulous research and careful attention to detail have produced a book that captures the dangers of 18th century maritime travel, as well as the bravery and skills of those who made it their life.