The Wager by David Grann

The Wager by David Grann. This book, published in 2023, offers a fascinating glimpse into the challenges of navigating the world in the 18th century. It uses details from 280-year-old logbooks to create a genuine account of the adventure. In my opinion, this story feels more like fact than fiction, as the author has done an extraordinary job of reconstructing the adventure through narrative. To some extent, this work resembles archaeology.

The book tells the story of the crew of a ship named “The Wager,” which was part of a seven-ship squadron with roughly 2000 members. Their mission was to travel from England to the Pacific to capture a treasure-filled Spanish galleon, with the promise of substantial loot. At this time, England was at war with Spain, which controlled most of the Americas. The Wager and the rest of the squadron, under Commodore Anson, were essentially pirates.

The Wager was not originally a warship. It was a trading vessel that the Royal Navy bought and converted into an armed ship when the war with Spain began. They reorganized the ship’s interior and added cannon ports. The squadron consisted of five warships and two cargo ships, although the cargo ships were only contracted to accompany the armed ships partway, returning to England before reaching the coast of Brazil.

Assembling a crew was another challenge. Due to the harsh conditions of long sea voyages, few people were willing to join. Press gangs were tasked with finding and forcibly recruiting seamen, often dragging them out of taverns and their homes. Most men on this mission were thieves, troublemakers, and society’s outcasts.

After leaving England, the squadron briefly stopped at an island off the coast of western Africa but had to leave quickly upon learning that the Spanish Armada, commanded by Don Jose Pizarro, was nearby.

The squadron then sailed for months, during which many crew members developed scurvy. In the 18th century, the cause of scurvy was unknown, but it resulted from a lack of vitamin C due to the absence of fresh fruits and vegetables. This deficiency undermined collagen production, essential for maintaining the integrity and strength of connective tissues. The effects of scurvy were devastating, causing hair and teeth loss, unhealable wounds, and brittle bones.

Hundreds of Anson’s crew died from scurvy and other health complications. Every day, several corpses were unceremoniously dumped into the ocean, and an even bigger threat loomed ahead.

The squadron attempted to navigate around Cape Horn to reach the Pacific. Violent storms separated the ships, leaving The Wager alone at sea. After weeks of battling bad weather, The Wager lost its main mast and all its sails, eventually being wrecked on the rocks  near an island.

Some survivors, including their captain, David Cheap, managed to reach shore. However, Cheap was suffering from scurvy and was injured from the storm. When Captain Cheap realized his ship had been wrecked, he was deeply worried about facing a court-martial to determine if His Majesty’s Ship had been lost because of his negligence.

This book offers a powerful lesson in humility. It is not just a historical account but a reconstruction based on numerous logbooks and journals from officers and a priest traveling with the crew. Two hundred eighty years ago, a group of people managed to travel across the globe on wooden ships without modern navigation or communication devices. In this wooden world, each man’s life depended on the performance of the others.

Traveling across continents was extraordinarily difficult, and death from illness and accidents was common. Reading this book reminded me of another I reviewed, “The Emigrants,” about a family traveling from Sweden to America in the 19th century under similarly harsh conditions.

To be continued.

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