Human beings surviving (or otherwise) in extreme situations is a recurring area of fascination for the American journalist and author David Grann. A virtuoso storyteller with a talent for archival research, he has tracked explorers through mosquito-ridden Amazonian swamps in The Lost City of Z, and across the howling wastes of Antarctica in The White Darkness, an outing that involved frostbite, broken teeth, bacterial peritonitis and eventually death.
Now he’s taken to the high seas with The Wager – and you can see why Grann was attracted by the tale of a scurvy-ridden British warship foundering on the shores of Patagonia during a spectacularly ill-conceived mission to round Cape Horn in the early 1740s.
HMS Wager was part of a fleet that set off from Portsmouth under Commodore George Anson, ostensibly to destroy Spanish ships and other holdings in the Pacific during the War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739-48). Its real objective was far more mercenary: to raid a Spanish galleon loaded with treasure en route to the Philippines. Nearly 2,000 men set sail, many of them unwilling conscripts pressed into service by armed gangs. Fewer than 700 returned.
In addition to scurvy, which gave rise among the men to what one ship’s chaplain describes as “a luxuriance of fungous flesh”, the expedition was beset by pulverising storms, acute food shortages and internal dissent, which grew more pronounced after the Wager hit a rock, disgorging its crew on to a desolate island in Chile’s Golfo de Penas (Gulf of Pain). Here the story of survival warps into a tale of mutiny, albeit a slow-motion one with numerous false starts.
Grann, who spent five-plus years working on the book, is expert at stitching together the available facts so deftly that we hardly notice the gaps. He draws on other contemporary seafaring accounts to round out the narrative and splices in his own atmospheric descriptions of quaking seas and creaking hulls (Grann travelled to the site of the shipwreck as part of his research). In fact, there is so much historical account of the Wager’s demise as to suggest a surfeit of testimony. The mutineers kept detailed journals, hoping to convince future courts martial that they were justified in usurping the ship’s glory-hungry captain, David Cheap. When the opposing factions finally made it back to England, weathering even more abject hardships on the return, a flurry of books were published to back up their stories. It’s through these often conflicting accounts that Grann has to navigate, and he does so with skill and evenhandedness, finding humanity in all but the most debased participants.
But even the more sympathetic figures, he notes, were complicit in a far greater crime than mutiny: upholding the structures of empire as Britain expanded itself across the world, murdering, looting and dehumanising as it went. The cruelties and distortions of imperialism are Grann’s main targets here, and he shows how mythic tales of glory can be salvaged from even the direst misadventures, while the shameful facts – the squandering of 1,300 lives, the waging of a pointless war – are quietly scratched from the record.
The Wager provides a valuable corrective, then, but not at the expense of a cracking yarn, with no shortage of jeopardy to bedevil its characters. Grann’s taste for desperate predicaments finds its fullest expression here, and it’s hard to think of a better author to steer us through the extremes.
The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder by David Grann is published by Simon & Schuster (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply