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david grann's

reviewed by




Peter McMillan teaches English part-time and writes part-time. Several books (fiction and non-fiction) published under his name and a pen name (Adam Mac) are licensed under the Creative Commons and available for free download as PDF books.


Above fifty feet long and ten feet wide, it was a boat of some sort — though it looked as if it had been patched together from scraps of wood and cloth and then battered into oblivion. Its sails were shredded, its boom shattered. Seawater seeped through the hull and a stench emanated from within. The bystanders, edging closer, heard unnerving sounds: thirty men were crammed onboard, their bodies almost wasted to the bone. Their clothes had largely disintegrated. Their faces were enveloped in hair, tangled and salted like seaweed.

Thus did the H.M.S. Wager’s castaways appear to the townspeople in the Brazilian port of Rio Grande on January 28, 1742. The Wager, a British man-of-war, had been shipwrecked off the coast of Patagonia in May 1741, and this was the main body of survivors. Led by John Bulkeley, the ship's gunner, these men — what was left of the 81 who had set sail for Brazil from the Pacific coast of southern Chile — had traveled nearly 3,000 miles “through menacing gales and tidal waves, through ice storms and earthquakes” to make their way back to England. And that was not the end of their travails as they faced court-martial on returning home.

Grann’s account of the Wager shipwreck, mutiny and self-rescue is an excellent piece of storytelling and a much more entertaining read than Rear Admiral C.H. Layman’s The Wager Disaster: Mayhem, Mutiny and Murder in the South Seas (2015), which is a documentary. Yet, Philip Mountbatten, in his foreword to Layman's book, comments:

[But] what a tale! Told largely in the words of the participants themselves ... reveal[ing] a drama of misfortune, unimaginable hardship, super-human endurance, mixed with extremes in human behaviour, both heroic and despicable, and a small boat journey of epic proportions.

Grann might dispute the objectivity of the Admiral’s non-narrative account insofar as the facts underlying his own editorializing do provide a more fulsome account of the Wager’s adventures. For example, unlike Layman, Grann refers to Commodore Anson's continuation of the squadron’s journey after the Wager was lost rounding Cape Horn to illustrate the marked contrast in leadership and mission success between Commodore Anson and Captain Cheap and their respective ships, the Centurion and the Wager.

Grann also mentions the punishment of the mutineers on the H.M.S. Bounty in 1789 to highlight the extremely unusual outcome of the court-martial in the Wager case. No charges of mutiny were filed, and none were laid though mutiny could not have been more “conspicuous.” That no court-martial or other punishments were meted out to the Wager’s mutineers suggests that a double standard was in play. This might have been owing in part to Bulkeley's maritime journal — thorough and detailed, as early on he expected it to be put before the Lords of the Admiralty —and the publicity the Wager story commanded in what Grann describes as a period of an increasingly open British press.

As for the motives of Cheap, Anson and the British Admiralty, Grann does not hesitate to say that egoism and autocracy were inherent in the very structure of the Royal Navy and that elitist chauvinism was at the very foundation of the British Empire’s colonial and trade policies and practices. (Here it might be worth noting that David Grann is an American.) Referring to the London of the day, Grann asserts that “[it] was the pulsing heart of an island empire built on the toll of seamen and slavery and colonialism.” Significant responsibility for the high death toll — “Of the nearly two thousand men who had set sail, more than thirteen hundred had perished” — is laid at the feet of the senior officers and those they served, an attitude captured half a century later during the Napoleonic wars by the term ‘cannon fodder.’ Furthermore, in economic terms, Anson’s expedition had not been a success: “though Anson had returned with some 400,000 pounds’ worth of booty [Spanish treasure], the war had cost taxpayers 43 million pounds.” A protracted court-martial, publicized in the London papers would not likely have been a public relations coup for the Empire.

While Grann’s narrative offers compelling reading — the book is a page-turner — of equal or greater value is the author’s political commentary — the focus of this review.

Throughout the book, Grann maintains the thesis that the Wager disaster was symptom of a sick empire. He takes on the rigid hierarchy at sea: “As on land, there was a premium on real estate, and where you lay your head marked your place in the pecking order.” On the lowest deck were the young midshipmen, one of whom was the 16-year-old John Byron, grandfather of Lord Byron, the poet, and each was “allowed a space no wider than twenty-one inches in which to sling their hammocks,” though “this was still a glorious seven inches more room than was allotted to ordinary seamen—though less than what officers had in their private berths.”

He also details the horrors of the Royal Navy’s recruiting: “Armed gangs were dispatched to press seafaring men into service—in effect, kidnapping them.” Still, Anson’s squadron was short of men, so the government sent 143 marines to support the anticipated land invasions and assist in ship duties, but “they were such raw recruits that they had never set foot on a ship and didn’t even know how to fire a weapon.” Then, the government forced 500 invalid veterans from the Royal Hospital, men who were “old, lame, or infirm in ye service of the Crowne.” A sizable number of crew members were unwilling sailors, but they were the necessary and expendable mass dispatched to the seven seas to extend and hold together Britain’s maritime empire. And then, in contrast to the oft-cited U.S. Marine code of conduct in battle to never leave a Marine behind, abandonment of seamen was all too common among the Wager’s officers and crew — both under Captain Cheap and Bulkeley, the de facto captain of the Speedwell, the only surviving boat of the Wager, which brought the castaways to Brazil. Only in the case of the marooning of Captain Cheap — the decisive act of mutiny — did serious concerns about consequences arise but these were primarily legal in nature.

Referring to the absolute authority invested in the captain of a ship and the limits at sea of English law hard won from the monarchy during the tumultuous 17th century, Grann describes a different Britain sans Bill of Rights.

At sea, beyond the reach of any government, [the captain] had enormous authority. “The captain had to be father and confessor, judge and jury, to his men,” one historian wrote. “He had more power over them than the King — for the King could not order a man to be flogged. He could and did order them into battle and thus had the power of life and death over everyone on board.”

And this unquestioned authority during the Age of Sail when combined with the hubris of men looking to their own legends and the gross deficiencies in contemporaneous navigational charts and technology (e.g., instruments to accurately measure longitude or how far east or west a ship was from a known underwater reef of rocks) led to many maritime disasters. For example, in 1707, inaccurate maps, the absence of instruments for measuring longitude and the exaggerated self-confidence of Admiral Cloudesley Shovell in the ‘familiar’ waters of England contributed heavily towards one of the worst British naval disasters in history. Just off the Cornish coast, a fleet of His Majesty’s ships returning from war in the Mediterranean smashed into the notorious rocks of the Scilly Isles during a vicious storm, sinking four warships and killing more than 1,300 men, with some estimates as high as 2,000 dead.

In 1741, Britain staged a two-pronged attack on Spain’s South American colonial holdings during the War of Jenkins’ Ear, a conflict that later merged into the imperial War of the Austrian Succession. The main attack was concentrated on the Spanish coastal city of Cartagena by a massive fleet of 186 British ships, which to that point in time was “the largest amphibious assault in history.” A much smaller operation was staged in the Southern Hemisphere. Commodore Anson’s squadron of five warships was given secret orders to attack Spanish forces in the Pacific and confiscate gold shipments passing from South America to the Philippines. Grann writing about the timing of the squadron’s southern passage around Cape Horn states that summer was not actually the safest time to round the Horn from east to west. Though in May and the winter months of June and July, the air temperature is colder and there is less light, the winds are tempered and sometimes blow from the east, making it easier to sail toward the Pacific.

Delays in outfitting the ships and raising the crew put the squadron off schedule from the beginning. The plan had been to sail around the fearsome Cape of Horn during the optimal weather season, such as it was at that far end of the world where the currents from the Atlantic and Pacific crashed together, with “waves of frightening magnitude . . . [t]hese ‘Cape Horn rollers’ [could] dwarf a ninety-foot mast.” Owing to the postponements, Anson’s ships met the ferocious winds and waves of Drake Passage, and it was there — at the southern tip of South America — that the foul weather scattered the ships separating the Wager from the rest of the squadron.

Because the far-southern seas are the only waters that flow uninterrupted around the globe, they gather enormous power, with waves building over as much as thirteen thousand miles, accumulating strength as they roll through one ocean after another. When they arrive, at last, at Cape Horn, they are squeezed into a narrowing corridor between the southernmost American headlands and the northernmost part of the Antarctic Peninsula. This funnel, known as the Drake Passage, makes the torrent even more pulverizing. The currents are not only the longest-running on earth but also the strongest . . . And then there are the winds. Consistently whipping eastward from the Pacific, where no lands obstruct them, they frequently accelerate to hurricane force, and can reach two hundred miles per hour.

The Wager never rejoined the squadron, but it nevertheless sailed on in determined hopes of a reunion — its captain, Cheap, refusing to abandon his first commission as ship’s captain for personal reasons (if he “prevailed, he would become a hero, his feats celebrated in the yarns and ballads of seamen”) as well as because the Wager was carrying the bulk of the squadron’s armaments. The Wager ultimately succumbed to the relentless storms and wrecked off the southwest coast of Chile in the aptly named Golfo de Penas (Gulf of Pain). The Centurion, the flagship under the command of Commodore Anson, eventually found itself alone in the South Pacific, and it too resumed its mission notwithstanding the long odds against it. In the Philippines, the Centurion engaged the Spanish gold ship, Our Lady of Covadonga, conveying its treasure from South America to Asia in a fierce sea battle and emerged victorious and in possession of the Spanish treasure, which it duly brought home to England after completing its circumnavigation of the globe.

The reader is left to speculate what might have happened if the squadron had crossed Drake’s Passage during June or July and whether a more judicious commander would have been less generous with the lives of his officers and sailors.

Notwithstanding the perils of the sea — foul weather, enemy ships, scurvy (“there were so many corpses, and so few hands to assist, that the bodies often had to be heaved overboard unceremoniously . . . ‘Without a grave, unknelled, uncoffined, and unknown” as Lord Byron put it) — mutiny is a high crime on the high seas. Under the British Articles of War, ““No person in or belonging to the fleet shall utter any words of sedition or mutiny . . . upon pain of death.” And there was historical precedent from the Spanish Navy as well as the British Navy.

St. Julian [a harbor on the southern coast of Argentina] was not just a place of desolation; it also stood, in the eyes of Cheap and his men, as a grisly memorial to the toll that a long, claustrophobic voyage could wreak upon a ship’s company. When Magellan anchored there, on Easter Day in 1520, several of his increasingly resentful men tried to overthrow him, and he had to quash a mutiny. On a tiny island in the harbor, he ordered one of the rebels beheaded—his body quartered and hung from a gibbet for everyone to see.

Fifty-eight years later, when Francis Drake paused at St. Julian during his round-the-world voyage, he also suspected a simmering plot, and accused one of his men, Thomas Doughty, of treason . . . Doughty pleaded to be brought back to England for a proper trial, but Drake responded that he had no need for “crafty lawyers,” adding, “Neither care I for the laws.” At the same execution site that Magellan had used, Doughty was decapitated with an axe. Drake ordered that the head, still pouring blood, be held up before his men, and cried out, “Lo! This is the end of traitors!”

All knew the severity of the punishment for mutiny, which explains why Bulkeley, often referred to as a ‘sea lawyer’ for his knowledge of the ‘laws of the sea,’ laboured with unflagging resolve to document with meticulous care the events of the Wager’s voyage and in particular the behaviour of Cheap who from the start had shown himself to be a questionable leader. Bulkeley’s journal, published after his return to England, was an influential and damning indictment all the way up the chain of command. And it is not unlikely that the Board of the Admiralty factored that into its calculations in deciding not to prosecute the mutineers. In fact, Grann adds that “C. H. Layman, a British rear admiral and an authority on the Wager case, later concluded there was ‘an uncomfortable whiff of justification’ in the Admiralty’s decision not to prosecute a conspicuous mutiny.”

Returning to Grann’s critique of imperial Britain, the book’s epigraph contains a passage from Lord of the Flies — “Maybe there is a beast . . . Maybe it’s only us” — which suggests that Grann, despite his social criticism, was somewhat ambivalent about human nature itself. After all, the tale of the Wager was not entirely summed up as a class struggle between the officers and crew. There was abundant disharmony among the sailors, too. And as for motives, the lure of Spanish treasure — the goal of Anson’s squadron having been to intercept and raid a Spanish ship carrying gold from Cartagena to the Philippines — tempted many a seaman to sign up, unsurprisingly, as a common seaman could expect this act of imperial piracy to net “some twenty years’ worth of wages” — a paltry amount relative to Commodore Anson’s take of “the equivalent today of $20 million.” As for the ultimate crime of murder, though Captain Cheap could have been so charged in the death of Midshipman Henry Cozens, that was not the only murder. During the anarchy that ensued after the shipwreck, violence and murder occurred among men who had trusted one another with their lives during their dangerous sea voyage thus far.

Faced with starvation and freezing temperatures, they built an outpost and tried to re-create naval order. But as their situation deteriorated, the Wager’s officers and crew—those supposed apostles of the Enlightenment—descended into a Hobbesian state of depravity. There were warring factions and marauders and abandonments and murders. A few of the men succumbed to cannibalism.

One is left wondering just how the quote from Lord of the Flies squares with the author’s social critique of the 18th century British Empire and the Royal Navy. Would he be maintaining something along the lines of the historian, Lord Ashton, who asserted that “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely?” What room is left for a middle ground between the tyranny of the all-powerful sea captain and the anarchy of a shipwrecked crew of cold and hungry men? Perhaps, the relatively well-led flight of the Wager Island ‘mutineers’ led by Bulkeley, described at length by the author, through the dangerous shallows and narrows of the stormy Strait of Magellan to the Atlantic and then up the coast to Brazil and safety? But doubtless those abandoned on the Speedwell's difficult passage home would not agree, e.g., Midshipman Morris, one of the eight men put ashore to gather provisions and then left on the uninhabited Atlantic Patagonian coast south of Buenos Aires, on returning to England, called the desertion "the greatest act of cruelty."

Finally, to the question of whether what these men did was mutinous. The decision of 81 men, nearly naked, frozen and starving, choosing to follow the ship’s gunner — who was not even a commissioned British naval officer — on a dangerous trip that might eventually lead home to England rather than a captain who no longer had a ship to command but nonetheless intended recommencing his mission of finding and reuniting with Anson’s squadron somewhere off the unruly waters of Pacific Patagonia by means of a craft of dubious seaworthiness and with the very real risk of encountering well-armed, well-fed and well-clothed Spanish soldiers. Why but for glory, riches and empire?










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