Slate Magazine has hailed David Grann as “a storyteller’s storyteller.” The award-winning, New York Times bestselling author and staff writer at The New Yorker has a knack for unearthing stranger-than-fiction tales of crime, exploration, and obsession.
His first book, The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, chronicled a British explorer’s doomed mission to find a fabled City of Gold. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, released in 2017, exposed one of the worst racial injustices in American history. It’s now a major motion picture directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro.
Grann’s new book is The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny, and Murder. With the twists and turns of a thriller, it recreates the ill-fated voyage of a British warship and the plight of the naval officers and crewmen stranded on a desolate island in 1741.
The book explores how discipline and leadership broke down under the strain of hunger and desperation – think Mutiny on the Bounty meets Lord of the Flies – as it reveals how people and nations alike reshape their stories.
How did you discover the story of The Wager?
I’ve always been obsessed with mutinies, and one day while researching the subject I stumbled upon an eyewitness account of the expedition by John Byron, who had been a 16-year-old midshipman on HMS Wager when it embarked in 1740. The account was written in archaic English, but I was riveted by the descriptions of how the crew had battled typhoons, tidal waves and scurvy, before being wrecked off the Chilean coast of Patagonia. The men, marooned on a desolate island, slowly descended into a real-life Lord of the Flies, with warring factions, murders, mutiny, and cannibalism. This old account introduced me to one of the most extraordinary sagas that I’d ever heard of – a saga that influenced Rousseau, Charles Darwin, and Hermann Melville. Moreover, John Byron became the grandfather of the poet Lord Byron, whose work was influenced by what he called “my grand-dad’s ‘Narrative.’”
What aspects of the story drew you in?
The story seemed to contain everything: Ahab-like characters, adventure, misadventure, and intrigue. But two aspects particularly drew me in. One was how the island became a kind of laboratory to test the human condition under extreme circumstances; inevitably it would reveal each person’s nature – both the good and the bad. The second aspect was what happened after some of the castaways made it back to England. After being summoned to face a court-martial for their alleged crimes on the island, they could end up being hanged. Many of the defendants, hoping to sway the opinion of the Admiralty and the public, published wildly conflicting versions of the events, which unleashed a furious war over the truth. Just like today, there were competing narratives and misinformation and even allegations of “fake” news. A massive struggle ensued over which version of history would prevail, and there were efforts by those in power to cover up the scandalous truth. So even though the story took place in the 1740s, it seemed like a parable for our own turbulent times.
One of the main characters you bring to life is the Wager’s captain, David Cheap, a Scotsman born in Fife. Tell us about him.
He was a fascinating character – brave, tempestuous, and consumed by obsessive dreams of glory. At home he had been plagued by debts and chased by creditors. But he had found refuge in the wooden world of a ship, and on this voyage, he had finally obtained what he had always longed for: a chance to captain his own warship – that is, until the wreck.
What was the ship’s mission and where was it headed?
After an imperial war had broken out between Great Britain and its rival Spain, the Wager had embarked with a squadron on a secret mission: to capture a treasure-filled Spanish galleon, which was known as “the prize of all the oceans.” The squadron planned to cross the Atlantic, round Cape Horn at the tip of South America, and then sail into the Pacific to intercept the galleon.
What happened to the ship and its crew?
Everything seemed to go wrong on the voyage. Around Cape Horn, where the winds can accelerate to 200-miles per hour and the waves can dwarf a 90-foot mast, the crew members battled what Byron called the “perfect hurricane.” And at that moment when they needed every sailor onboard to persevere, they began to suffer from one of the worst scurvy outbreaks ever recorded in maritime history. Eventually they were wrecked on a desolate island off the coast of Patagonia. And that’s where the ultimate test of their wits began.
What records did you consult and what are one or two key sources you uncovered?
A surviving trove of first-hand documents still exists; somehow, they survived tempests, naval battles, and even shipwreck. All of these records helped me to reconstruct what happened, but the survivors’ moldering journals proved especially helpful.
What surprised you the most as you researched the book?
The unpredictable nature of humans.
You undertook an extraordinary journey as part of your research. Tell us about it, and why you feel it is important for a writer to go to the places – even remote, inhospitable places – where the story took place?
After a couple of years of combing through archives, I feared that I could never fully grasp what the castaways had experienced unless I visited the place now known as Wager Island. So I hired a Chilean captain with a small, wood-heated boat to guide me on a 350-mile voyage to the island, which is situated in the Gulf of Sorrows – or, as some prefer to call it, the Gulf of Pain. The trip gave me a glimpse of the terrifying seas, and I was able to reach Wager Island. It remains a place of wild desolation: mountainous, windswept and freezing. What’s more, there is virtually no food. And I finally understood why one British officer had called the island a place where “the soul of man dies in him.”
The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder, by David Grann, is published by Simon & Schuster UK on 11 May, price £20.
Dean Jobb is the author of The Case of the Murderous Dr Cream: The Hunt for a Victorian Era Serial Killer (Algonquin Books), which tells the story of the Glasgow-born physician-turned-poisoner who murdered at least ten people in Canada, Chicago, and London.