The voyage of a squadron under Commodore George Anson to the far side of the world in 1740 to capture Spanish treasure has rightly been said to hold a unique and terrible place in British maritime history. Of the six ships and two supply vessels that sailed on this venture of war and plunder, only one reached the Pacific and returned. The rest were wrecked, scuttled or forced back. Of the 1,900 men who sailed, almost 1,400 died, mainly of disease and starvation.
The story has been told before, notably by Glyn Williams in The Prize of All the Oceans. David Grann’s account narrows in on the most ill-fated of the ships: the Wager. The vessel sailed as part of the squadron on its much-hindered passage of six months to Tierra del Fuego, where the ships separated and all hell descended.
For nine weeks, the Wager’s company battled winds and storms, freezing snow and sleet. Men died of dysentery, typhus and scurvy. All the while, faith in their officers eroded. An ailing captain, David Cheap, was confined to his cabin, drugged with opium, and neither of his juniors showed ability. Having finally rounded Cape Horn, the Wager crashed ashore in Patagonia. The survivors washed up in the Gulf of Sorrows.
Shipwrecks provide rich narrative material. Castaways add drama, for there is little so unpredictable as endangered humans left to fend for themselves in an unregulated world. Once the strict discipline that prevailed on board was lost, the earlier ruptures among this band of seafarers resurfaced and the group was