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Cover of The Wager by David GrannThe Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny, and Murder

by David Grann

GENRE: Nonfiction, History, True Crime

On January 28, 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, a British vessel that had left England in 1740 on a secret mission during an imperial war with Spain. While the Wager had been chasing a Spanish treasure-filled galleon known as “the prize of all the oceans,” it had wrecked on a desolate island off the coast of Patagonia. The men, after being marooned for months and facing starvation, built the flimsy craft and sailed for more than a hundred days, traversing 2500 miles of storm-wracked seas. They were greeted as heroes.

But then ... 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 landed in Brazil were not heroes – they were mutineers. The first group responded with countercharges of their own, of a tyrannical and murderous senior officer and his henchmen. It became clear that while stranded on the island the crew had fallen into anarchy, with warring factions fighting for dominion over the barren wilderness. 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.

Discussion Guide

Headshot by David Grann Author Biography

David Grann is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and an award-winning staff writer at The New Yorker magazine.

His newest book, The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny, and Murder, will be published in April of 2023. With the twists and turns of a thriller, it tells the true saga of a company of British naval officers and crew that became stranded on a desolate island off the coast of Patagonia and descended into murderous anarchy. The book explores the nature of survival, duty, and leadership, and it examines how both people and nations tell—and manipulate—history.

Grann is also the author of Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, which documented one of the most sinister crimes and racial injustices in American history. Described in the New York Times as a “riveting” work that will “sear your soul,” it was a finalist for the National Book Award and a winner of the Edgar Allen Poe Award for best true crime book. It was a #1 New York Times bestseller and named one of the best books of the year by the Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Entertainment Weekly, Time, and other publications. Amazon selected it as the single best book of the year.

The book has been adapted into a major motion picture directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Lily Gladstone, Robert De Niro, and Jesse Plemons, which will be released in the coming months. For middle schoolers, Grann has also released Killers of the Flower Moon: A Young Reader’s Edition, which the School Library Journal called as “imperative and enthralling as its parent text.”

Grann’s first book, The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, was #1 New York Times bestseller and has been translated into more than twenty-five languages. Shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize, it was chosen as one of the best books of 2009 by the New York Times, Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, and other publications. The book, which the Washington Post called a “thrill ride from start to finish,” was adapted into a critically acclaimed film directed by James Gray and starring Charlie Hunnam, Sienna Miller, Robert Pattinson, and Tom Holland.

One of Grann’s New Yorker stories, The White Darkness, was later expanded into a book. Mixing text and photography, it documented the modern explorer Henry Worsley’s quest to follow in the footsteps of his hero, Ernest Shackleton, and traverse Antarctica alone. The story is currently being adapted into a series for Apple starring Tom Hiddleston.

Many of Grann’s other New Yorker stories were included in his collection The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, which was named by Men’s Journal one of the best true crime books ever written. The stories focus on everything from the mysterious death of the world’s greatest Sherlock Holmes expert to a Polish writer who might have left clues to a real murder in his postmodern novel. Another piece, “Trial by Fire,” exposed how junk science led to the execution of a likely innocent man in Texas. The story received a George Polk award and was cited by the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer in his opinion regarding the death penalty. Several of the stories in The Devil and Sherlock Holmes have also served as source material for feature films, including “The Old Man and the Gun” with Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek, and “Trial by Fire” with Jack O’Connell and Laura Dern.

Over the years, Grann’s stories have appeared in The Best American Crime Writing; The Best American Sports Writing; and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. His stories have also been published in the New York Times Magazine, Atlantic, Washington Post, Boston Globe, and Wall Street Journal.

In addition to writing, Grann is a frequent speaker who has given talks about everything from Killers of the Flower Moon and the importance of historical memory to the dangers of complicity in unjust systems, and from the art of writing and detection to the leadership methods of explorers, such as Ernest Shackleton.

Grann holds master’s degrees in international relations (from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy) and creative writing (from Boston University). After graduating from Connecticut College, in 1989, he received a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship and did research in Mexico, where he began his career in journalism. He currently lives in New York with his wife and two children.

 - Author's website

More titles by this author



The author of Killers of the Flower Moon and The Lost City of Z returns with a rousing story of a maritime scandal. In 1741, the British vessel the Wager, pressed into service during England's war with Spain, was shipwrecked in a storm off the coast of Patagonia while chasing a silver-laden Spanish galleon. Though initially part of a fleet, by the time of the shipwreck, the Wager stood alone, and many of its 250 crew members already had succumbed to injury, illness, starvation, or drowning. More than half survived the wreckage only to find themselves stranded on a desolate island. Drawing on a trove of firsthand accounts--logbooks, correspondence, diaries, court-martial testimony, and Admiralty and government records--Grann mounts a chilling, vibrant narrative of a grim maritime tragedy and its dramatic aftermath. Central to his populous cast of seamen are David Cheap, who, through a twist of fate, became captain of the Wager; Commodore George Anson, who had made Cheap his protégé; formidable gunner John Bulkeley; and midshipman John Byron, grandfather of the poet. Life onboard an 18th-century ship was perilous, as Grann amply shows. Threats included wild weather, enemy fire, scurvy and typhus, insurrection, and even mutiny. On the island, Cheap struggled to maintain authority as factions developed and violence erupted, until a group of survivors left--without Cheap--in rude makeshift boats. Of that group, 29 castaways later washed up on the coast of Brazil, where they spent more than two years in Spanish captivity; and three castaways, including Cheap, landed on the shores of Chile, where they, too, were held for years by the Spanish. Each group of survivors eventually returned to England, where they offered vastly different versions of what had occurred; most disturbingly, each accused the other of mutiny, a crime punishable by hanging. Recounting the tumultuous events in tense detail, Grann sets the Wager episode in the context of European imperialism as much as the wrath of the sea. A brisk, absorbing history and a no-brainer for fans of the author's suspenseful historical thrillers. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Publisher's Weekly

Bestseller Grann (Killers of the Flower Moon) delivers a concise and riveting account of the HMS Wager, a British man-of-war that ran aground on a barren island off the Chilean coast of Patagonia in 1741. Part of a squadron sent to capture a treasure-laden Spanish galleon during the War of Jenkins' Ear, the Wager became separated from the other ships while rounding Cape Horn and wrecked several weeks later. The starving crew soon disintegrated into rival factions, including one led by gunner John Bulkeley, who became increasingly critical of Capt. David Cheap. Five months after they'd been marooned, Bulkeley and 80 other crew members commandeered the Wager's longboat and two other small vessels and set sail for Brazil, abandoning Cheap and his few remaining loyalists to their fate. Fewer than half of Bulkeley's group survived their nearly 3,000-mile journey through the Strait of Magellan and up the coast of Argentina, but he was treated as a hero, until Cheap miraculously appeared back in England and accused him of mutiny. Though the showdown between Cheap and Bulkeley is somewhat anticlimactic, Grann packs the narrative with fascinating details about life at sea--from scurvy-induced delirium to the mechanics of loading and firing a cannon--and makes excellent use of primary sources, including a firsthand account by 16-year-old midshipman John Byron, grandfather of the poet Lord Byron. Armchair adventurers will be enthralled. (Apr.)


A new account of the Wager Mutiny, in which a shipwrecked and starving British naval crew abandoned their captain on a desolate Patagonian island, emphasizes the extreme hardships routinely faced by eighteenth-century seafarers as well as the historical resonance of the dramatic 1741 event. On a secret mission to liberate Spanish galleons of their gold, the 28-gun HMS Wager was separated from the rest of its squadron rounding Cape Horn in a massive storm. Beset by typhus, scurvy, and navigational problems, the ship struck rocks, stranding its beleaguered crew on a remote island in Chilean Patagonia. In the months that followed, harsh conditions and meager provisions would test storied British naval discipline. Captain David Cheap, who had spent a lifetime at sea but was new in his rank, ruthlessly managed the group's larder. A dispute with gunner John Bulkley over a risky plan to sail a makeshift craft back home through the Strait of Magellan turned violent. A few bedraggled sailors would find their way back to civilization, prompting high-stakes courts-martial and sensational accounts in the British press. Grann (Killers of the Flower Moon, 2017) vividly narrates a nearly forgotten incident with an eye for each character's personal stakes while also reminding readers of the imperialist context prompting the misadventure.HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Best-selling Grann is a top nonfiction author, and the drama of this tale along with an in-the-works major film adaptation, reportedly to be directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, will inspire even more interest.


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