A Shipwreck Tale for the Ages

In his latest book, David Grann, F92, tells the true-life story of desperation, mutiny, and astounding resilience

David Grann, F92, likes to go to extremes—at least once he leaves the archives and libraries where he does so much research for his books. For his latest, The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny, and Murder, published this week, he ended up hunkered down on the deck of a 50-foot boat so he wouldn’t get injured as the waves off the coast of southern Patagonia tossed his ship around.

Grann was sailing to the small, barren island where the survivors of the shipwreck of the British man-of-war Wager landed in May 1741, with barely the clothes on their backs amid cold raging storms. The Wager had been part of a military expedition against Spanish forces, heading to the Pacific coast of Chile via the treacherous Cape Horn at the tip of South America. A staff writer at the New Yorker since 2003, Grann had stumbled on the story of the Wager’s sinking and the amazing tale of survival amid a descent into starvation and savagery.

Grann is the author of bestsellers The Lost City of Z and Killers of the Flower Moon, which has been made into a movie directed by Martin Scorcese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, to be released this fall. His most recent book was The White Darkness.  

Tufts Now talked with Grann about the stories we tell, what living in extreme circumstances does to people, and the drive to live despite horrifying conditions.

Tufts Now: How did you hear about the Wager shipwreck and mutiny?

book cover for The Wager

David Grann: I was poking around looking at mutinies, one of my pet obsessions, and a reference led me to a copy in an archive of the account by John Byron—grandfather of Lord Byron—who’d been a midshipman on the Wager starting when he was 16 years old.

I found this document online, a digital copy, written in this very old English. I found myself spellbound by his descriptions of a typhoon coming around Cape Horn, a horrendous scurvy outbreak, the shipwreck, and then these castaways on an island who began to turn on each other in this kind of Lord of the Flies way.

I realized that this journal held the clue to one of the more extraordinary sagas of survival and adventure I’d ever come across. What ultimately really caused me to want to write the book was not only what happened on the island, but what had happened after several of these castaways managed to survive and make it back to England.

Since there was a mutiny, they were afraid they could be hanged. Many of them quickly published wildly conflicting accounts of what happened, trying to save their lives and sway public opinion and the opinion of the admiralty.

It caused a furious war over the truth, with disinformation and misinformation, even allegations of a kind of 18th century version of fake news. So even though this story took place in the 18th century, it really felt like this weird little parable for our own turbulent modern times.

I looked at your sources in the back of the book and was amazed how much material you had to wade through, and then create a narrative from all these disparate accounts. How long did that take?

It took about five years of intensive research and writing. There was a remarkable trove of primary resources. This story is virtually forgotten now, but at the time, it was a scandalous sensation. Logbooks on the ship had somehow survived typhoons and everything else, along with some accounts and journals. They are dusty and crumbling, but they are still legible, even if I needed a magnifying glass.

A man in a red life jacket standing on a beach holding a celery-like plant.

David Grann on the beach of Wager Island, holding a celery-like plant that the castaways survived on in 1741-42. Photo: Yolima Cipagauta Rodriguez

This is a war over the truth, over narrative. I hope the book shows the way each of us tells stories, shapes our stories, manipulates our stories, revises and edits and burnishes certain facts so that we emerge as the heroes of them, so that we can live with what we have done—or haven’t done.

I decided to structure the book around three fascinating members of the Wager crew: the captain of the ship, David Cheap; the gunner, John Bulkeley; and the midshipman, John Byron. I alternate from their perspectives as much as possible based on their accounts and the records, so that you can really see how they are shaping their stories.

Can you give an example of how their perspectives varied depending on who was telling the story?

The most glaring example of this is when in one account, the senior officer says, “I was forced to proceed to extremities on the island.” And then of course, you pick up the other account by John Byron, who says, “He shot him right in the head, and I had to hold my friend as he was bleeding out.”

By structuring the story that way, it became fairly easy to organize it based on these three different competing accounts. I think by doing that, I not only show how they shape their stories, but I let the reader be the ultimate judge.

One of the things that comes across in the book is your sympathy for these men, despite their descent into brutality. How did you come to that attitude?

This is less a story of pure good and evil—it’s about flawed individuals under extreme circumstances, who one moment might do some act of bravery or gallantry and then moments later might commit some shocking act of brutality.

An engraving of sailors on a rocky island shore with overturned canoes as shelters, and a larger shipwreck in the water off the island.

In this engraving, the castaways are shown building their encampment on Wager Island. Image: From “The Loss of the Wager Man of War, one of Commodore Anson’s Squadron . . . and the Embarrassments of the Crew, Separation, Mutinous Disposition, Narrow Escapes, Imprisonment and Other Distresses,” 1768. Photo © Michael Blyth

My approach is never to absolve anyone for their deeds, but to render them as accurately as I can and to understand them, especially when I’m writing from their perspective, because it’s how they understood themselves. Then it’s up to readers to decide if they want to judge them.

The island becomes this perfect laboratory for testing the human condition under extreme circumstances. Slowly and gradually, it begins to peel the exterior away from these men and reveal their true nature, both the good and the bad.

I’m amazed that anyone survived.

I know. It is one of the great stories of survival, and amid all the brutality that the story contains, it also shows a remarkable level of resilience and endurance.

Before the shipwreck, the expedition goes around Cape Horn, which has some of the most violent seas on Earth—waves that can dwarf a 90-foot mast, winds that can accelerate to 200 miles per hour. The novelist Herman Melville, who went around the Horn in the 19th century, compared it to the descent into hell in Dante’s Inferno.

On board the ship, they survive one of the worst outbreaks of scurvy in maritime history—their hair fell out, their teeth fell out, their cartilage became glued together, some went raving mad, and countless of them perished. On the island, they had to battle starvation and the horrors unleashed by some of their fellow seamen upon each other.

And after that, some castaways managed to leave in a little boat, where they were packed so tightly they could barely stand, and they had no provisions, living only on fish and seaweed they could gather. They traveled some 3,000 miles over more than three months in this little boat, to the coast of Brazil. On this one vessel, about 30 of them made it. It is unbelievable that anyone came back at all.

I realized while reading the book that you had gone to Patagonia, to Wager Island. What was that like?

I spent the first couple years just doing research in archives, and I thought that’s how I would tell the story. But after a couple years, I was just being eaten away with this doubt about whether I could really know what it was like to be on this island if I never went there.

So I made the rather foolish decision to organize my own little makeshift expedition to get to Wager Island. It’s an extraordinarily remote part of the world—the coast is barren, there are no settlements.

I found a Chilean boat captain to take me to the island. In the picture he sent, his boat looked pretty big. I flew to Santiago, and then took another flight farther south, and a car and a ferry to Chiloé Island, which is where we were going to depart from. Then I saw the boat—I was like, wow, that boat’s a lot smaller than it looked in the photograph.

But you got on board and took it to Wager Island?

Yes, early on we followed the channels of Chilean Patagonia, which are sheltered by islands along the coast, which are covered with trees bent at 45 degrees because of the unrelenting wind. After several days, we had to head into the open ocean. That’s when I got my first glimpse of these terrifying seas.

The waves dwarfed the boat, which was tossed about violently. I had to hunker down on the deck. You couldn’t stand or you’d break a limb. I’d just sit there for about 10 hours a day. I took about every seasickness medicine one could take.

But the captain got us to Wager Island, and we were able to explore it. I was bundled up with long johns and multiple layers and thick jackets and a wool hat and gloves and boots, and I was still really cold—and it was summer. It was winter when the castaways were there—they had always described being freezing; they must have been suffering from hypothermia the whole time. It’s a damp, wet cold, and the wind just eats at you. And there’s hardly any food.

I began to understand why one British officer later described it as a place where the soul of man dies in him. It gave me insight into why they gradually descended into these warring factions, how they began to starve, to turn on each other, and ultimately spiral into chaos, into a state of depravity.

You seem to specialize in books set in extreme conditions—expeditions from the Amazon to Antarctica. What is it about these kinds of stories that attracts you?

When we tell stories, we are trying to make sense of the somewhat bewildering world in which we live. I seek out stories that might illuminate something about the human condition, about society.

These expeditions end up stripping people to their essence. I often write about people in these claustrophobic circumstances, and in those situations, they have to live with each other, suffer with each other. They either help each other or hurt each other.

These stories become a very vivid way to hold up the light to human nature and to the human condition. That’s why I’m drawn to them. They also obviously make better stories.

What’s next for you?

I’m thinking about a magazine piece for the New Yorker, and then I am looking for my next book idea. That’s always the hardest part, finding something that will get its hooks into me and propel me for several years. If anybody has any ideas, please let me know [laughs].

I’m a quintessential generalist. I’m always looking for something new. I write about stories in the present and the past. I go where the story is. But when I find these chapters of history, I realize how much they inform the present and how much we’re shaped by our past.

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