April 24, 2024

I wager “The Wager” will keep you spellbound

By Curt Swarm

From the first sentence, Each man in the squadron carried, along with a sea chest, his own burdensome story, to the last, Nothing else remains of the ferocious struggle that once took place there, or of the ravaging dreams of empires, “The Wager” by David Grann is perhaps the finest book I have ever read. I know, I’ve said that about other books, but I base my claim on the fact that I read the bulk of the book, all 328 pages, in one day, and I’m a painstakingly slow reader. It was Sunday of Labor Day weekend, there was no church, I had a two-and-a-half-hour workout on the elliptical machine, it was more than 90 degrees outside, and I felt like being lazy. Ginnie let me get away with it, fixing me breakfast, then chocolate sheet cake with pecans, then stuffed peppers for supper, using our own garden peppers. Yes, I’m spoiled and pleasantly stuffed.

David Grann, a voracious researcher of narrative non-fiction, actually investigates the locations where his stories take place, like the Amazon for his first book, “The Lost City of Z.” It gives him a better feel for the story (“there are voices in archives”) and enhances his prose.

The Wager is a man-of-war ship of the British Royal Navy in the eighteenth century. It’s named, if you’re wondering, after Sir Charles Wager, a First Lord of the Admiralty. “The ship’s name seemed fitting: weren’t they all gambling with their lives?”

There are three main characters in the book, maybe four, which is unusual in historical non-fiction, where the story typically revolves around one central figure. The characters are, Captain of the Wager, David Cheap (no kidding); gunner of the Wager, and main antagonist (if you don’t count the sea), John Bulkeley; and young John Byron, a midshipman and my favorite character. John Byron will later become grandfather to famed poet Lord Byron, who wrote “Dante,” “Don Juan” and other epic poems. The fourth character, Admiral George Anson, was known as “Father of the British Navy” for that time period. Midshipman John Bryon would go on to name his second son after Admiral Anson, Geoge Anson Byron.

An intriguing side feature of “The Wager” is how many of the nautical terms of the day slipped into everyday language and are still being used. For example: to “toe the line” came from when sailors were forced to stand at attention with their toes on a deck seam. My mother was fond of the term “pipe down” which was the boatswain’s whistle for everyone to be quiet at night. “Piping hot” was the boatswain’s call for meals. “Scuttlebutt” was a water barrel that the sailors huddled around and gossiped. If the ropes to the sails broke in high winds, and the ship pitched about drunkenly, it was said she was “three sheets to the wind.” It was reported that Vice Admiral Nelson placed his telescope against his blind eye so that he couldn’t see the signal to retreat. This became known as “turn a blind eye.”

As the flu killed more soldiers during World War I than fighting, scurvy killed more sailors than fighting or shipwreck. In a man-of-war, with a typical crew of 700 men, it was not uncommon for 350 or more to die of the dreaded scurvy before the ship’s destination was reached. And in those days, it was legal to kidnap innocent civilians off the street of London, and force them into service for years at a time, regardless of family. His loved ones may never see him again or know what happened to him. Scurvy was so debilitating and emaciating that skin would peel from the bone. It was not known that a better diet of fruit and vegetables, something that was hard to preserve aboard ship, was the cure for scurvy. Bodies were dumped into the sea while a cannon fired.

But the story of what happened to the Wager, and the roles that Cheap, Bulkeley, Byron and Anson played is a seafaring tale I wager will captivate you. Ginnie agrees.

Contact Curt Swarm at curtswarm@yahoo.com