The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder Book by David Grann

The Wager Book Cover

The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder Book by David Grann

The Wager Book CoverIntroduction

In his gripping new nonfiction book The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder, bestselling author David Grann (Killers of the Flower Moon, The Lost City of Z) unearths the harrowing true story of the British naval ship the Wager, which wrecked off the coast of Patagonia in 1741. Grann masterfully weaves together a tale of survival, power struggles, and conflicting narratives that sheds light on the costs of imperialism and the elusive nature of truth.

Drawing on a wealth of archival sources, including journals, court records, and other firsthand accounts, Grann reconstructs the doomed voyage of the Wager and the crew’s desperate attempts to return home after the shipwreck. The book has been hailed as one of Grann’s finest, displaying his signature flair for propulsive storytelling, meticulous research, and incisive analysis. The Wager was an instant New York Times bestseller.

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Plot Summary

“The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny, and Murder” by David Grann is a gripping nonfiction account that delves into a dramatic and largely forgotten episode in maritime history. The book is set in the 18th century during the War of Jenkins’ Ear, a conflict between Britain and Spain. The narrative focuses on the British naval ship HMS Wager and its ill-fated voyage.

The Wager, part of a squadron led by George Anson, was tasked with intercepting Spanish treasure galleons in South America. The ships set sail for Cape Horn, at the southern tip of South America, navigating the treacherous Drake’s Passage known for its severe storms and dangerous currents. As fate would have it, the Wager was wrecked near the coast of what is now Chile, stranding its survivors on an uninhabited island without adequate food or freshwater resources.

The situation on the island rapidly deteriorated. Captain David Cheap struggled to maintain order, but low on supplies and wracked by injury and disease, the men soon descended into mutiny and factionalism. Two groups eventually set off in makeshift boats in an attempt to reach civilization – one led by the ship’s captain David Cheap, the other by a charismatic gunner named John Bulkeley. Remarkably, some from each party survived the perilous open-sea journey. But upon returning to England, they told vastly different stories about what transpired, each accusing the other of treachery and murder.

Grann’s narrative not only recounts the harrowing survival tale but also explores the complex dynamics of leadership, loyalty, and survival under extreme conditions. The story also includes a court martial back in Britain, where the returning survivors faced accusations of mutiny and murder.

“The Wager” provides a vivid picture of life at sea during the 18th century, the perils of naval exploration, and the human capacity for both heroism and treachery in the face of adversity. David Grann, through meticulous research and compelling storytelling, resurrects this historical incident, showcasing his ability to weave a suspenseful narrative that is both informative and engaging.


Grann focuses his narrative on three key figures: Captain David Cheap, an ambitious but rigid disciplinarian; John Bulkeley, the competent and courageous gunner; and young midshipman John Byron, who kept a vivid account of the disaster.

Through these men’s eyes, Grann skillfully captures the physical and psychological toll of the ordeal, as well as the clash of personalities and shifting power dynamics among the survivors. While Cheap clings to the navy’s hierarchy and his own command, Bulkeley emerges as a natural leader to whom many men turn. The portrayals are nuanced and empathetic, revealing each character’s flaws, merits, and motivations.

Themes and Motifs

At its core, The Wager grapples with questions about the limits of human endurance, the tensions between order and anarchy, and the subjectivity of historical truth. Grann explores how the survivors’ accounts were shaped by their biases, self-interest, and notions of honor and duty.

The shipwreck also serves as a grim metaphor for the costs of British imperialism and colonialism. Grann situates the Wager’s mission within the broader context of Europe’s exploitation of South America and the destruction wrought on indigenous peoples. Notions of civilization and savagery are upended as the British sailors turn on each other in a Hobbesian struggle.

Writing Style and Tone

Grann is a master of narrative nonfiction, and his vivid, economical prose brings the story to life with gripping immediacy. Take this description of the ship battling a storm:

The sails convulsed and the ropes whipped and the hulls creaked as if they might splinter. The ships’ prows, including the Centurion’s red-painted lion, plunged into the deep hollows, before rearing upward pleadingly toward the heavens.

Grann also has a keen eye for the telling detail, from the rations of rancid cheese to the blood-soaked scraps of clothing. The tone is authoritative and evenhanded, but laced with a current of moral outrage at the cruelty and injustice on display.

Evaluation and Conclusion

The Wager is a spellbinding and thought-provoking read that cements Grann’s reputation as one of our finest nonfiction writers. By excavating this forgotten episode of maritime history, Grann sheds light on enduring truths about human nature and the myths nations tell about themselves.

While it lacks the contemporary resonance of some of his previous books, The Wager is still an engrossing, deeply researched work that will appeal to fans of narrative history, survival stories, and true crime. It’s an incredible tale of shipwreck and savagery that lingers long after the final page.

Favorite Quotes

“Each man in the squadron carried, along with a sea chest, his own burdensome story.”

This opening line beautifully encapsulates the book’s central theme of competing narratives and subjective truth.

“Although the dispute centered on a simple matter of which way to go, it raised profound questions about the nature of leadership, loyalty, betrayal, courage, and patriotism.”

Grann frames the survivors’ power struggle as a microcosm of larger moral and political quandaries.

“The powerful narrative reveals the deeper meaning of the events on The Wager, showing that it was not only the captain and crew who ended up on trial, but the very idea of empire.”

The book exposes the dark underbelly of British imperialism and the human toll of colonization.


With The Wager, David Grann has crafted a gripping and resonant work of narrative nonfiction that ranks among his finest books. This harrowing tale of shipwreck and survival offers a bracing glimpse into the best and worst of human nature under extreme duress. Meticulously researched and masterfully told, it’s an unforgettable story that will leave readers pondering questions of truth, power, and moral culpability. Highly recommended for fans of Grann’s previous work and readers of narrative history.

Spoilers/How Does It End

After returning to England, the two groups of Wager survivors tell contradictory stories at an Admiralty hearing. Captain Cheap portrays Bulkeley and the others as mutineers, while they accuse Cheap of murder and tyranny. In the end, no one is seriously punished, as the Admiralty is reluctant to publicize the embarrassing affair. The survivors go their separate ways, forever marked by their ordeal.

Young John Byron, who sided with the Captain, goes on to have a notable naval career, keeping the story alive through his written account. But the Wager incident fades into obscurity, a shameful reminder of the human cost of Britain’s imperial ambitions. The book suggests that in the end, the real villain is not any one individual, but the system of power and exploitation they served.

About the Author

David Grann is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and an award-winning staff writer at The New Yorker magazine. His previous books include Killers of the Flower Moon, The Lost City of Z, and The White Darkness. Grann’s stories have appeared in several anthologies and been translated into over 30 languages. Before joining The New Yorker in 2003, he was a senior editor at The New Republic and The Hill.

Grann is known for his exhaustive research, immersive storytelling, and ability to uncover buried truths. Many of his stories center on obsessive quests and moral reckonings. He holds master’s degrees in international relations from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and creative writing from Boston University. Grann lives in New York with his wife and two children.

Publication History and Reception

The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder was published in hardcover by Doubleday on April 18, 2023. It debuted at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list and has garnered rave reviews from critics. The book was selected as one of the best books of 2023 so far by outlets including Amazon, Goodreads, and Barnes & Noble.

Film rights to The Wager were acquired by New Regency and Plan B Entertainment in 2022, with a feature adaptation to be directed by Martin Scorsese and star Leonardo DiCaprio. This will mark the second Grann book adapted by the Oscar-winning duo, following Killers of the Flower Moon (2023).

Bibliographic Details

Title: The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder
Author: David Grann
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication Date: April 18, 2023
Edition: First edition
ISBN: 978-0385534260 (Hardcover)
Pages: 352 pp. (hardcover)
Subjects: Wager Mutiny, Shipwrecks, Survival
Genre: NonfictionAdditional details:

  • The book focuses on the 1741 wreck of the British ship the Wager off the coast of Patagonia and the crew’s harrowing attempts to survive and return home.
  • It draws on archival sources including journals, court records, and firsthand accounts to reconstruct the events.
  • The book debuted at #1 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list.
  • Film rights were acquired by Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, who plan to adapt it as a feature film for Apple.
  • It is Grann’s fifth nonfiction book, following bestsellers like Killers of the Flower Moon and The Lost City of Z.
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