Unmasking the true nature of the Empire

David Grann’s book, which delves deeper into the “Wager affair”, distinguishes itself with a broad thematic scope.

Published : Mar 07, 2024 11:00 IST - 4 MINS READ

Captain Cheap shoots Midshipman Cozens in the face.

Captain Cheap shoots Midshipman Cozens in the face. | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In January 1742, a rickety boat drifted into the port of Rio Grande, Brazil. It brought 30 half-naked, emaciated, and nearly dead men back to the shores of “civilization”. Some eight months earlier, their ill-fated man-of-war—the H.M.S. Wagerhad wrecked on a remote “uninhabited” island off the coast of western Patagonia. These remnants of the crew had battled an unforgiving sea and worse in a ragtag boat for over a hundred days—voyaging nearly 4,800 km—to reach the port. They had pulled off the impossible. Their tale was fascinating, and it surely had everyone’s attention.

The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder
By David Grann
Pages: 352
Price: $30.00

Months later, on the southwestern coast of Chile, a wooden dugout washed ashore, bringing three castaways—the captain of the Wager, Cheap, and his two close associates. All were on the brink of death. When they healed and returned home, these foot soldiers of the British Empire accused the other group of castaways of mutiny. Allegations and counter-allegations ensued, leading to the Admiralty initiating court-martial proceedings. However, when the court handed down the verdict, it turned out to be unexpected.

The Wager affair

The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder, by David Grann, an award-winning staff writer at The New Yorker, delves deeper into the “Wager affair” and narrates a thrilling saga of yore. This 329-page immersive non-fiction is meticulously researched, with all its chapters neatly sourced in the endnotes. Besides relying on published works, Grann draws from eclectic “archival debris”—“the washed-out logbooks”, “the half-truthful journals”, “the moldering correspondence”, and more. The book adds to Grann’s impressive oeuvre: The Lost City of Z, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, Killers of the Flower Moon, and The White Darkness. While the trope of obsession appears yet again, The Wager distinguishes itself with a thematic scope broader than any of Grann’s previous works. This breathtaking read brilliantly unmasks the empire’s true nature and its war on the truth.

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The book’s opening line, “The only impartial witness was the sun,” sets the stage. With this intriguing caveat, Grann, a wizard of words, firmly grabs the reader by the throat, much like the ancient Mariner in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, who arrested an unsuspecting Wedding-Guest with his glittering eye. Soon, one finds oneself teleported to the age of sail, amidst that epic drama triggered by a passionate cry for blood—“an ear for an ear”—which ultimately upended the lives of 250 officers and ordinary crew of the Wager, and many more.

In 1739, the British declared war on Spain. Their apparent grudge: a Spanish officer had deprived a British merchant captain, Robert Jenkins, of his left ear. Hence, the name—the “War of Jenkins’ Ear”. In September next year, a squadron of seven ships, including the Wager, embarked from Portsmouth under the leadership of commodore George Anson to capture the “prize of all the oceans”, a treasure-laden Spanish galleon.

But before these men of the sea could lay eyes on that booty, a deadlier enemy— the lice and vermin prowling on their bodies—robbed them of their health and lives. The epidemic of typhus, then known as “ship’s fever,” was followed by the great enigmatic disease of the age of sail—“plague of the sea” (scurvy). “As the scourge invaded the sailors’ faces, some of them began to resemble the monsters of their imaginations,” Grann describes their predicament. “Their bloodshot eyes bulged. Their teeth fell out, as did their hair. Their breath reeked… as if death had already come upon them.” Soon, hundreds went to watery graves.

And then, the mighty sea tossed the ships like playthings, tearing the squadron apart, and eventually wrecking the Wager. However, it was a tiny inhospitable speck of land (later named Wager Island) off the coast of Patagonia, which drove the castaways to pilfering, to murder, to cannibalism, and to that forbidden recourse: mutiny. To captain Cheap, his men were mutineers; to them, he was a monomaniac, and worse: murderer.

Critical and alternative interpretations

Two years after the loss of the Wager (and several other vessels), and over 1,300 of its 2,000 men dead, the squadron finally seized a Spanish galleon. Back in London, the men received a grand welcome, and the enemy’s wealth was proudly paraded through the city’s streets. Commodore Anson earned acclaim as the “Father of the British Navy”. Places were christened in his honour, and literature propagated his “glorious” and “mythic” tale across time and space.

And what about the Wager mutiny? It was conveniently brushed under the carpet. “The trial threatened to expose the secret nature not only of those charged but also of an empire whose self-professed mission was spreading civilization,” reasons Grann.

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In his analysis of the Wager affair, Grann also tells us the story of the British Empire. Throughout, he intertwines various micro-stories around the Wager, providing critical and alternative interpretations of history.

In the end, Grann reveals that colonial history is the shadow of empire, and much like Coleridge’s Wedding-Guest, he leaves us “sadder” and “wiser”.

Ajay Saini is an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi. He works with remote indigenous communities.

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