A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder

In 1741, during the War of Jenkins’ Ear, HMS Wager, a British man-of-war, was part of a squadron sent to capture a treasure-laden Spanish galleon. Separated from the fleet while rounding Cape Horn, the Wager wrecked and left its crew stranded on a desolate island off the coast of Patagonia. Facing starvation and harsh conditions, the crew splintered into rival factions.

In a daring escape, 80 men sailed nearly 3,000 miles to Brazil. Six months later, another group of three survivors landed in Chile, in even worse condition. These men accused the Brazilian survivors of mutiny. The ensuing court martial revealed a harrowing tale of warring factions, murder, and cannibalism among the Wager’s crew.

David Grann’s narrative is packed with fascinating details about life at sea and he draws on firsthand accounts and primary sources to deliver a riveting story of maritime tragedy, survival, and the brutal realities of 18th-century naval life.

I learned so much about sailing in the 1700s. Constructing a single large warship could require as many as four thousand trees, and a hundred acres of forest might be felled. Each ship in the fleet that included the Wager was loaded with tons of provisions, including some forty miles of rope, more than fifteen thousand square feet of sails, and a farm’s worth of livestock—chickens, pigs, goats, and cattle. Just imagine the smell!

One particularly interesting detail was the mention of the Minnesota Starvation Experiment during WWII, where 36 conscientious objectors voluntarily starved themselves for science.

I can see why this book won the Goodreads Choice Award for Best History & Biography (2023). There might have been a bit too much detail, but this true story was an interesting study in human nature. In some ways, it reminded me of Lord of the Flies. 4 stars.

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