The Oldest College Weekly in America. Founded 1868.

The Colgate Maroon-News

The Oldest College Weekly in America. Founded 1868.

The Colgate Maroon-News

The Oldest College Weekly in America. Founded 1868.

The Colgate Maroon-News

‘The Wager’: Pursuit of Glory Turned Barbaric

Graphic: Valeria Reyes

Drawing on firsthand accounts, David Grann presents a suspenseful story of shipwreck, anarchy and survival. Set in 1740, Grann’s nonfiction book, “The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder,immerses readers in the wrath of the sea and the power of a historical narrative.

Grann uses archival documents — logbooks, journals, diaries and more — to recontextualize and reinterpret prior events and figures. The detailed narrative, woven together by precise evidence, transported me to the scene of the shipwreck. I felt panicked and hopeless alongside John Byrnn and Captain Cheap. 

Grann unveils the hidden world of mariners, using the published accounts from three notable figures: the amiable midshipman John Byron, the responsible gunner John Bulkeley and the haughty, deeply ambitious Captain Cheap. Reading their personal accounts, I was able to imagine myself in their world and reflect on what decision I’d make if I was in their shoes. What would I have put in my sea chest? Would I have been a carpenter, cooper or sailmaker? Each sailor contributes a unique skill to power the ship and together their cooperation fuels the expedition.

During an imperial conflict with Spain, a British naval squadron set sail to capture a treasure-filled Spanish galleon. When a hurricane engulfed the squadron, one british-man-of-war — the Wager — separated from the fleet and was shipwrecked on a desolate island.

My history classes breezed through European imperialism, condensing the centuries long quest for territory into names, dates and statistics. By zooming in on one expedition, one ship and a few characters, I was able to put faces to this history and understand it on a more intimate level. Reading about the scurvy epidemic, I saw through the statistic of 900 dead, feeling the sadness and fear behind each death.

Grann untangles the rich history by balancing historical facts with vivid descriptions. Captivated by the imagery of a sailor’s life — living in the cramped orlop deck, tending to the sails, working at battle stations — I not only understood the events but visualized them happening. 

On land, the castaways tried to follow naval law and the discipline of the British Empire. Soon, however, harmony and order unraveled. Overwhelmed by hardship, the men reached a Hobessian state of depravity. Witnessing my favorite characters descend into murder and cannibalism, I felt the characters’ tug of war between morality and survival. What would I have done in their position? 

Ultimately, most of the men mutinied against Cheap, hastily retreated to their makeshift boat, the Speedwell, and embarked on a 2,500 mile journey, leaving Cheap behind. 

Battered and leaking, the Speedwell traversed daunting gales and tidal waves. The sailors navigated treacherous passageways in cacophonous darkness, with roaring waves and howling winds. Bulkey expressed the peril of sea life in his journal.

“I believe no mortals have experienced more difficulties and miseries than we have,” Bulkey said. 

On Jan. 28, 1742, the waterlogged and shredded Speedwell miraculously reached a port in Brazil. The surviving 30 castaways were hailed as heroes. Six months later, an even smaller boat washed ashore in Chile, carrying Cheap, Byron and marine lieutenant Thomas Hamilton. The men charged the 30 castaways as mutineers. Enraptured in a literary battle, Bulkeley and Cheap each published their own narrative. Their lives depended on the stories they told.

The conflicting perspectives, with remnants of truth and fiction, reminded me of the media today. Everyone has a bias and a motive, and therefore the reader must use all the evidence at their disposal to make informed decisions and choose, if you will, a final verdict.

A gripping page-turner, “The Wager” is worth the buy. Despite the length of 352 pages, its fascinating plot makes it a quick read. Grann presents a praise-worthy commentary on the dangers of sea life, the manifestation of imperial ambitions and the enduring problems of fake news. A tide of constant and unmitigated suffering, the sea proved perilous for many sailors. Less tangible is the chronicle of events. Fraught with controversy and tangled facts, the sailors’ stories blur the lines between reality and fiction. Grann leaves it to the reader to determine the hero and the villain. 

While historical nonfiction may seem geared for older adults, I believe this genre can resonate with college students. The best of both worlds, “The Wager” synthesizes mystery, suspense and action with historical facts and figures. If you want to learn more about history in a digestible and stimulating way, pick up “The Wager.”

Rating: 5/5

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