On August 23, 1740, HMS Wager sailed from Britain as part of an armada headed for Cartagena, Colombia. On January 28, 1742, the survivors of that disrupted journey landed via raggedy raft on the shores of Brazil. What happened in between involved treasure-rich galleons, murder, starvation, a mutiny, and eventually an argument over the truth. The story of The Wager—as retold in author David Grann’s new book of the same name—may be a story about events at sea over 200 years ago, but the themes are strikingly similar to some of the most pivotal events in American politics.
Grann, a staff writer for The New Yorker and former senior editor at The New Republic, talked with me about the parallels between his new book and the present, and its echoes in fake news and January 6. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Daniel Strauss: There are a lot of themes that apply to the modern day in this book: mutiny, governments telling stories, the truth, race relations. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what the reader should take away from the book? Because so much of it is familiar to events today.
David Grann: There are so many surprising echoes of the present in this story. I first came across the story when I saw this eighteenth-century account written by John Byron who had been the 16-year-old midshipman on The Wager when it set sail, and it instantly struck me as this unbelievably gripping yarn and saga of survival. The crew and the officers had basically undergone everything from scurvy, the shipwreck, to this real-life Lord of the Flies on the island.
But what did compel me to do this as a book were these surprising resonances with what’s happening in our country. I would go to the archives and pull out these old journals and log books that were dusty and disintegrating, and you would read these competing accounts and this war over the truth and this disinformation. I was just so shocked that I came across allegations of fake journalism and then I would come back home and read the newspaper and turn on the news and people would be talking about alternative facts and fake news. Then I would go back to the archives, and I would be reading about how in the nineteenth century there was this great fight over who would tell the history of the story—who had the right to tell who tells our history?
And then there were these efforts by those in power to cover up the insurrection, the kind of scandalous truth that this mutiny had revealed and what it said about the British Empire and the folly of imperialism. And then I would come back home and be reading about what books can be taught in schools, books being banned because people didn’t want to reckon with the past, and efforts to manipulate and shape history. So it really, for me, was a story that informed the present in so many ways. I mean it was this little parable for our times. The echoes just kept coming.
D.S.: I came into the book thinking this was an adventure book, but in reading it, it didn’t feel that way. It felt very Lord of the Flies.
D.G.: Sometimes you see a story that just kind of seems what it is [initially], so this fits on one level with sea yarns and sea adventures, but for me the real interest is actually in the genre, peeling it back and showing that part of the genre that isn’t often told or is romanticized. So yes, this is as much about what happens when a kind of civilization—in this case a floating civilization on a ship that is very regimented, hierarchical—ends up disintegrating and these people are kind of thrown onto this island.
Bulkeley, the gunner, says, “In this state of nature, the old rules can’t govern us.” And then comes a real struggle on the island. Now they would never use the term “class struggle,” but it was obviously a class struggle. Again, these are these weird echoes to the present.
Bulkeley, because he was not born into the aristocracy but was from probably the lower-middle class, he never could have been a commander on a ship. But on this island, in this democracy of suffering, he suddenly has the possibility of emerging based on his abilities and [shows] leadership as a commander in his own right. So on that island, you have it all playing out.
You have: What is the nature of leadership, what is the nature of duty? You see a class struggle. You see the absolute insanity and destructiveness of imperialism and racism because you see this encounter with these Indigenous native Patagonians, the Kawésqar, [who] arrive in a few canoes on the island. They had adapted to this region over centuries. So they were a people who knew how to live there. NASA would later come to study them, years later, [to learn]: How did they adapt to this harsh environment? And so they get to the island and see these starving castaways, and they offer them a lifeline. They know how to find food. They know how to stay warm. And they begin to, you know, bring them back food. They go off in their canoes, and they bring them food. But the barbarousness and the view of some of the castaways who looked upon the Kawésqar, as they would describe them in their accounts, and I put it in quotes, is as “savages.” They mistreat them. And then the Kawésqar are like, “We’re out of here,” so it’s one of those rare cases where imperialism leads not only to the destruction of others but it actually fueled the destruction of the imperialists because they lost their lifeline, and after that they descend further into this Hobbesian state of depravity.
So what happened on that island also underscores the lie that had been used by the British Empire to justify its ruthless expansion: that its civilization was somehow superior to others. And yet on this island, these officers and crew, these supposed apostles of Western civilization, these vanguards of the empire, they basically get into this Hobbesian state.
D.S.: This was also a story about ambition. The Wager was chasing a galleon that was thought to be full of treasure. The people you talked about, some of them saw this journey as a way to gain advancement. That is what I found relatable in a lot of ways.
D.G.: Yeah, I think that’s why, while the captain sometimes behaves barbarously, you can at times understand him or understand his drive. I mean he was someone who was plagued on land by debts and chased by creditors. He has all these burning ambitions. He’s kind of monomaniacal on this mission, trying to attain things. Then, finally on this voyage, he gets what he’s always wanted, which was to captain his own ship, and then it wrecks, and it all goes to hell, and he’s desperately trying to prove to this crowd that he finally attained. So you understand it. You understand it even if you don’t absolve the things he did.
D.S.: In other interviews, you’ve talked about how a lot of your work is what I like to call the simmering tea kettle. It’s putting people in these extreme situations and seeing what they do. And I’m wondering what it takes for a mutiny to happen. Because I think that’s on the mind of everyone in D.C. these days. Under what pressures does that happen?
D.G.: [after a long pause] There are two kinds of rebellions. There can be the rebellions that are driven by insubordination, which can be less noble. And there can also be these larger insurrections that can be these military organizations. That can be driven by corruption or something rotten within the system or something unjust within the system. I think we also see [that] today.
Let me ask you this, because when you say mutinies, when you’re thinking of mutinies are you thinking of, like, January 6?
D.S.: I’m thinking of both January 6 and Ron DeSantis mutinying against Donald Trump, actually.
D.G.: Well, let’s use the term “mutiny” when it’s a deep, kind of violent rebellion or overthrow.
What was interesting on that island is that they did have this debate! They had this very debate about what is the nature of loyalty and duty. So they are wrestling with it. Must they honor the captain because of his status and because of loyalty to him? He has led them much of the voyage. What is their duty to this man? And then they are tempted by their own ambitions and their own desires and interests. They suddenly have competing visions of where they need to go. They need to lead. And you see, with Bulkeley and with [Captain David] Cheap, this play out: these competing visions driving these men and their own ambitions, to which echoes the politics that you mentioned.
D.S.: Do you still consider yourself a journalist or a historian or a writer or what? What is your tribe?
D.G.: Don’t pigeonhole me! [laughs] I don’t see the barriers that exist between each one of those forms. For me, what grips me is a story. So originally I was telling stories in the present because I worked for newspapers and magazines, so they were always contemporaneous for the most part. Sometimes they had a historical context. And then over time I started to realize—you know I’d just be reading, and I’d say, “Wait a second, this story in 1970 is unbelievably interesting,” and yeah, just because it’s not new, it’s no less fascinating, and perhaps we can even see with a fresh light. So then I was like, “OK, how do I research that?” I did have to learn new methods. And then, God help me, how did I end up with the eighteenth-century Wager? But the story was just so compelling. So it wasn’t like I was like, “I want to be a historian writing about the eighteenth century.” I just was like, “This particular story is so gripping and revelatory, it’s going to yank me into the eighteenth century. Now I’m in the eighteenth century. I’ve got to learn how to research and write this. So I had to learn to read these documents. I had to learn the language.