Author David Grann talks to the Glasgow Guardian about his latest book, The Wager.
After completing Killers of the Flower Moon — which has been adapted by Martin Scorsese, and is coming out later this month — David Grann knew he wanted to write about mutiny. It was whilst exploring this theme that he came across an account by midshipman John Byron (grandfather of the poet) of his time aboard a ship called the HMS Wager. Though the document was written in very antiquated prose, “I kept pausing over these arresting descriptions and by the time I finished it I realised that this was one of the more extraordinary sagas I’d ever come across.” The Wager, which was published earlier this year, tells the story of an 18th century naval expedition gone horribly wrong. Supposed to capture a Spanish ship filled with silver, the Wager instead sinks, and its men swim to a deserted island off the coast of Patagonia. What follows is what one of the survivors would later call a “dark and intricate affair”.
Having found the story he wanted to tell, Grann had to answer a question. “This took place in the 1700s. There’s no one to speak to. How the hell am I going to tell it?” To his astonishment, however, he found a “surprising trove” of first-hand journals and logbooks. “Some of these documents survived tidal waves, shipwrecks; it’s kind of mind boggling. And you go get them out of the archives, and they emerge from a box in a cloud of dust, the colours are disintegrating and the prose is fading, but sure enough you can read them.” The next question he had to answer was why tell this story? “I’m not an 18th century historian, I just kind of stumbled into this world.” And yet, The Wager feels strangely prescient. When a handful of survivors eventually made their way back to England, they all entered into a race to be the first to tell their side of the story. Meanwhile the question of what had really happened on that island hung over them – not least because they were called to a court martial, and whoever was found guilty could, after facing death at sea, be executed on land.
In the archives, Grann found competing versions of their voyage. “I was reading about truth, disinformation, misinformation and then I was coming home in the US and we were in this great battle over the truth and so called fake-news. And so the more I leant into the story, the more I felt it was a parable for our times.”
One part of the tale quickly became celebrated in Britain: an expedition did eventually steal that Spanish silver. But The Wager reveals the forgotten part: “the underbelly and the dark side of the story.” A central image throughout Grann’s book is the disparity between how the British Empire presented its men, and how they actually behaved. “What happened on that island undercuts the claim that the British Empire used for so long to justify its rule.” Described by Grann as a “real-life Lord of the Flies,” the castaways quickly break into two groups, with two distinct leaders. There’s Captain Cheap, “tempestuous, insecure, flawed” and, much lower down in the navel hierarchy, Bulkeley, the gunner, “forceful, ingenious, a bit cunning.” The British “gentlemen” fall apart, and the result is pure gore: mutiny, murder, cannibalism. Grann positions the reader as the jury, but he himself tries not to “judge them, or justify them, or mythologize them.” Before we can give our verdict, we’re encouraged to empathise with “the brutes.” As Grann puts it, “The island in many ways becomes an experiment, like a laboratory, testing the human condition under extreme circumstances. How would you have behaved? Who would you have been?”
There is something so appealing about stories set in water. Throughout The Wager, Grann returns to famous sea tales: Robinson Crusoe, Moby Dick, The Ancient Mariner. The men themselves were obsessed with navel adventures. John Byron reads sea romances whilst shipwrecked and years later Lord Byron writes poetry based on his grand-father’s account. Coming around the infamous Cape Horn, the men are “thinking about, dreaming about Robinson Crusoe’s island.” Defoe was, in turn, inspired by the logbook of castaway Alexander Selkirk, while Melville was inspired by the story of the Wager itself. “You get to see how stories radiate out, how they inform us, how they change, how certain parts get covered up. Not only are they shaping their own stories, they’re shaped by stories.”
Byron, Cheap, Bulkeley, were all determined to “emerge as the hero of their story.” It is impossible to be a hero in the nightmarish world of the island. And yet, The Wager demonstrates that there are still moments of “bravery and courage and sacrifice.” Grann is careful to show us both, “the extreme, the worst, and in moments some of the good.” And against all the odds, the survivors build, from the wreckage, a castaway vessel. In the end, “it’s a real testament to the will to survive, and the triumph of endurance.”