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The Wager: Summary and Characters Explained


The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny, and Murder is a true story written by David Grann.

The book explores various topics, including British colonial history. Grann, a journalist with a background in North and South American naval and crime history, delves into the 18th-century shipwreck of the British naval ship, the Wager, during the War of Jenkins’ Ear between Spain and Britain.

The Wager by David Grann

The survivors, along with their captain David Cheap, found themselves stranded on an island near Patagonia, later named Wager Island. The situation worsened as some survivors resorted to robbing and killing each other, and food supplies became scarce. Captain Cheap’s actions escalated tensions, leading to a mutiny led by John Bulkeley, a lower-ranking crew member. They attempted to return to England on their own.

Upon returning to England, the survivors faced a court martial trial. Despite the embarrassment caused to the British government, no one was held responsible for the shipwreck or the crimes on Wager Island.

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Summary | Chapter by ChapterCharacters Explained

The Wager Summary

In the 18th century, Britain and Spain were at war. Britain sent a group of warships, led by George Anson, to stop Spanish sailing ships called galleons from bringing treasure from South America.

The mission required the ships to go through a challenging route called Drake’s Passage, known for strong currents and storms. Unfortunately, one of the British ships, the Wager, got wrecked in a storm near South America.

The survivors, led by Captain David Cheap, ended up on an uninhabited island with little food and water. Captain Cheap, in a fit of anger, shot a sailor, leading to a mutiny. John Bulkeley, the ship’s gunner, took charge and built a shelter for most of the crew. While Captain Cheap wanted to attack a Spanish settlement, Bulkeley and his supporters chose a safer route to Britain.

The group split, with Bulkeley’s team making it back to Britain with the help of local Indigenous people. Captain Cheap and his followers stayed on the island, later called Wager Island. When they returned to Britain, Captain Cheap and the survivors were accused of murder and mutiny.

They faced a court martial, but no one was punished except for a mild reprimand for the ship’s lieutenant. The story of the mutiny on Wager Island was eventually forgotten because it reflected poorly on the British Empire and its navy.

The Wager Summary by Chapter

Part 1

In these initial chapters of “The Wager,” we get to know the main characters and perspectives. David Grann explores a central theme, “The Romance of the British Navy,” through the experiences of David Cheap and John Byron.

Both Cheap and Byron, being younger sons of aristocrats, lacked automatic claims to their family titles or inheritance. Many sons from aristocratic families sought careers in government, colonial administration, the army, or the Church of England. Joining the navy, however, carried a certain stigma among nobles.

Despite this stigma, there was a movement encouraging upper-class men to join the navy, fueled by stories of adventures from famous British explorers like Sir Francis Drake. These sailors were not only known for their contributions to European exploration and British colonies but also for their bravery in battles against the Spanish navy. With Britain at war with Spain again, the exploits of figures like Drake held a special significance.

The narrative also delves into John Bulkeley’s background, emphasizing his lower-class origin in a society that was highly hierarchical and class-focused. In the 18th century, it was uncommon for individuals from lower-class families to rise through the ranks of the army and navy to become senior officers.

However, growing literacy rates and increasing public opinion’s influence on politics were notable trends during this period. After the shipwreck and mutiny, Bulkeley’s journal stirred controversy because it lacked the stamp of an upper-class education.

Grann explores the tension between the British Empire, its navy, and colonial ventures, juxtaposed with the ideals of Imperialism and Colonialism. The upcoming chapters will delve deeper into events during the shipwreck and on Wager Island.

In these initial chapters, Grann highlights issues within the British navy that contributed to the shipwreck, such as administrative disorganization and insufficient funding. The romanticized view of life as a sailor contrasts with the reality that many sailors, including those on the Wager, were forcibly enlisted through press gangs.

Part 2

In Part 2 of the novel, Grann highlights a crucial point: ships like the Wager were not well-prepared for the tough conditions of places like Drake’s Passage and the challenges of life at sea. The British lacked readiness for common issues like scurvy, didn’t know what caused it, and had no effective treatments. Navigation and knowing their location were also problems.

Despite these challenges, Captain Cheap insisted on following his orders to attack Spanish colonies in South America, driven by a strong sense of duty to his country, even at the cost of many crew members’ lives.

Grann emphasizes the contrast between the difficult realities of navigating the seas and the romanticized view of the British Navy. Sailors, including less-educated ones like Bulkeley, idealized life at sea, drawing inspiration from stories of famous captains and explorers like Magellan, Selkirk, and Drake. The importance of storytelling is evident, showing how narratives can influence people to join dangerous causes.

However, the crew of the Wager didn’t experience the exotic adventures and camaraderie they had envisioned. Instead, they faced conflicts among themselves and with Captain Cheap. Sickness, hardships, and death became the harsh reality, revealing the stark difference between the romanticized ideals of life at sea and the actual challenges encountered by the Wager’s crew.

Part 3

Despite Captain Cheap representing the British aristocracy and the senior officer corps of the British Navy, his leadership was faltering. John Bulkeley, a lower-ranking member from a lower-class background, demonstrated better leadership skills. He took charge in organizing a shelter for all survivors and represented their interests in discussions with Cheap.

Simultaneously, some survivors rejected Cheap’s authority and the civilized norms of British society. They resorted to theft and even murder, disrupting the established hierarchies on Wager Island. Despite Cheap’s attempts to impose justice and create a British outpost, disorder prevailed. Cheap himself committed violent acts, including shooting one of his own men. British culture and the authority of the empire were insufficient to maintain order and uphold naval hierarchy.

On Wager Island, Bulkeley began documenting the survivors’ experiences as a deliberate strategy. His goal was to create a well-organized record of eyewitness evidence, anticipating potential trials for mutiny or the need to provide evidence against Captain Cheap upon their return to Britain. This highlights the importance of storytelling; Bulkeley sought to control the narrative, initially writing for personal satisfaction but later aiming for truthfulness and detail.

Stowaways encountered the Kawésqar, an Indigenous population. Grann portrays this as a negative impact of colonialism. Despite the Kawésqar people adapting to survive in Patagonia, the British maintained a sense of superiority over Indigenous Americans.

Grann explores the broader theme of colonialism, highlighting historical instances of violence against Indigenous populations, such as the forced placement of Kawésqar individuals in a human zoo in Paris during the 19th century. The narrative reflects on the perceived innate superiority of European civilization.

Part 4

The mutiny led by Bulkeley’s crew challenged the romanticized view of the British Navy known as “The Romance of the British Navy.” Even Byron, initially drawn to the navy by heroic stories, betrayed Captain Cheap. However, completely abandoning his commander, despite Cheap’s flaws, threatened Byron’s romantic self-image, which he clung to despite the hardships of the journey.

The men on the journey, including Cheap and Byron, weren’t truly united as comrades. They faced tough choices between their mission, personal honor, and survival. Both groups had to abandon their own men—Bulkeley’s mutineers left members on the South American mainland, while Cheap’s crew left four marines on an island. The circumstances and the mutiny made choosing between survival and maintaining honor and obedience to authority seem impossible.

Similar to previous chapters describing struggles to maintain order on Wager Island, these chapters reveal flaws in Imperialism and Colonialism. Europeans often believed they were superior to Indigenous groups, thinking that cultures like the Kawésqar survived by practicing cannibalism. Now, in desperation, the men on Wager Island resorted to cannibalizing corpses.

Grann mentions other failed colonial ventures, like the Wager’s journey, including the unsuccessful Spanish colony Port Famine where settlers perished in harsh conditions. In this era, it was crucial for not just the British but all European nations with overseas colonies to believe in their moral, industrious, and culturally superior societies.

However, the failures of European colonialism to overcome challenging climates like Patagonia or prevent exploitation and brutality challenge the myth of heroic and efficient European colonialism.

Part 5

In these final chapters, the significance of storytelling takes center stage. Different parties tried to control the narrative after the Wager sank. There were attempts to steal Bulkeley’s journal, and Bulkeley and Lieutenant Baynes raced to return to England. Essentially, it became a race to see which story—whether the mutineers’ or Captain Cheap’s—would reach the authorities in Britain first.

Bulkeley realized that publishing his journal and making it available to the public was his best option. His story succeeded in the court of public opinion, partly because his journal had a “bracing new voice” that was more modern than the older, more elaborate logbooks. In the 18th century, with rising literacy rates and the emergence of modern mass media, Bulkeley’s journal had a better chance of influencing public opinion.

The story of the Wager’s shipwreck and mutiny on Wager Island was suppressed to preserve the romanticized image of the British Navy. Instead, the tale of George Anson’s successful capture of a Spanish galleon near the Philippines was promoted, despite Anson’s mission being a “catastrophe” in terms of lives and money lost.

The authorities handling the court martial against the Wager survivors chose to forget the mutiny and its consequences rather than punish the mutineers or find Captain Cheap guilty of murder. Either outcome would have tarnished the reputation of the British Navy.

Imperialism and Colonialism played a role in the rescue of Cheap and Bulkeley. Both were saved by Indigenous populations. Even though the Chono people of Patagonia helped rescue Cheap, Byron, and other survivors, Europeans still considered them “savages.” Grann contrasts the Spanish treatment of Indigenous peoples, portraying the Chono as generous towards the survivors. The text discusses how the Spanish enslaved Indigenous people and sold the Black freeman John Duck into slavery.

Throughout “The Wager,” Grann emphasizes the toll exacted by colonialism. The cost was borne not only by colonized and enslaved peoples but also by individuals from the colonizing nation, like the Wager’s crew who lost their humanity, or those who died in Britain’s war with the Spanish.

The Wager Characters Explained

David Grann

David Grann, originally from Connecticut, is a journalist who has focused on United States and South American history, crime, and European colonialization of the Americas. He has also taught creative writing at Boston University and contributed to various publications like The New Yorker, The Washington Post, and Slate.

Grann has written several books, including The Wager, The White Darkness, The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.

Captain David Cheap

Captain David Cheap, a younger son from a minor Scottish noble family, joined the navy for a career, quickly rising to the rank of lieutenant. Motivated by being estranged from his older brother and seeing himself as a “knight-errant of the sea,” Cheap had ambitions to become a captain. He eventually captained the ill-fated ship, the Wager.

Known for his reputation of being “stubborn” and “vainglorious,” Cheap tried to maintain strict order even after the Wager’s shipwreck. He resorted to violence, shooting and killing a rebellious crew member, Cozens.

Despite these actions, Cheap was not charged with murder or discharged from the navy upon their return to England. He retired from the navy and purchased an estate in Scotland, but the mutiny on Wager Island forever marred his career.

John Byron

John Byron hailed from distinguished nobility, belonging to “one of the oldest lines in England.” Despite the aristocratic stigma against naval service, he joined the navy because he wasn’t in line to inherit his family’s aristocratic title, and he was drawn to the romanticized life at sea. His grandson, the poet Lord Byron, incorporated some of John’s experiences as a stowaway into his poetry.

John Byron left a detailed account of the events on the Wager and Wager Island, publishing it as The Narrative of the Honourable John Byron (1768). He briefly joined the mutiny against Captain Cheap but later chose to stay with the captain on the island. After the survivors returned to Britain without facing charges, Byron advanced in the navy and became a vice admiral.

John Bulkeley

John Bulkeley, a lower-ranking officer known as a gunner on the Wager, had a challenging job, but he was a devout Christian. Hailing from a lower-class background, he didn’t have much hope for promotion. Despite lacking an upper-class education, unlike most officers who wrote about their sea experiences, Bulkeley was a diligent worker, completing his tasks with ruthless efficiency.

On Wager Island, Bulkeley emerged as a natural leader. He played a crucial role in constructing a shelter for survivors using the Wager’s wreckage. When dissatisfaction with Captain Cheap reached a breaking point, Bulkeley took charge of the mutiny.

He led his supporters to the Strait of Magellan to return to Britain. Despite facing a court martial, Bulkeley was cleared of mutiny charges. Eventually, he moved to Pennsylvania and faded into obscurity.

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