Dunedin Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute

Book: The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder (August 2023) – Athenaeum Book Club 2024

By David Grann

August 29, 2023

From the international bestselling author of Killers of the Flower Moon, a mesmerising story of shipwreck, survival and savagery, culminating in a court-martial that revels a shocking truth.

On 28 January 1742, a ramshackle vessel of patched-together wood and cloth washed up on the coast of Brazil.  Inside were thirty emaciated men, barely alive, and they had an extraordinary tale to tell.  They were survivors of His Majesty’s Ship the Wager, which had left England two years earlier on a secret mission during an imperial war with Spain and had been wrecked on a desolate island off the coast of Patagonia.  The men, after being marooned for months, built the flimsy craft and sailed for more than a hundred days, traversing nearly 3,000 miles of storm-wracked seas.  They were greeted as heroes.

Six months later, another even more decrepit craft landed on the coast of Chile.  This boat contained just three castaways and they told a very different story.  The thirty sailors who had landed in Brazil were not heroes – they were mutineers.  As accusations of treachery and murder flew, the Admiralty convened a court-martial to determine who was telling the truth.  The stakes were life-and-death – for whomever the court found guilty could hang.

The Wager is a grand tale of human behaviour at the extremes told by one of our greatest non-fiction writers.  As always with Grann’s work, the incredible twists of the narrative hold the reader spellbound.  Most powerfully, he unearths the deeper meanings of the events, showing it was not only the Wager’s captain and crew who were on trail – it was the very idea of empire.

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