The Wager

by David Grann




Call number



, 352 pages


History. True Crime. Nonfiction. HTML:From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Killers of the Flower Moon, a page-turning story of shipwreck, survival, and savagery, culminating in a court martial that reveals a shocking truth. The powerful narrative reveals the deeper meaning of the events on The Wager, showing that it was not only the captain and crew who ended up on trial, but the very idea of empire. "A tour de force of narrative nonfiction.? ??The Wall Street Journal 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 nearly 3,000 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. The Wager is a grand tale of human behavior at the extremes told by one of our greatest nonfiction writers. Grann??s recreation of the hidden world on a British warship rivals the work of Patrick O??Brian, his portrayal of the castaways?? desperate straits stands up to the classics of survival writing such as The Endurance, and his account of the court martial has the savvy of a Scott Turow thriller. As always with Grann??s work, the incredible twists of the narr… (more)

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The wager

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LibraryThing member cathyskye
David Grann is one of my favorite authors, and his Killers of the Flower Moon is one of my all-time favorite non-fiction books. Since I have an interest in maritime history, I knew I had to read The Wager, which describes one of the longest castaway voyages ever recorded.

Grann set the stage so well
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that readers feel as though they're on board ship with the officers and crew. This was the time of press gangs when the British Navy had so much trouble finding enough sailors to man their ships that they'd send groups of men to roam the streets outside pubs at night to kidnap men and force them aboard ships for duty that could last years. This meant that not all the men on the Wager wanted to be there. As the voyage progressed, scurvy set in, and as men began to die, the Wager found itself with a new captain named Cheap, a man who would be called "Jobsworth" by the British (as in it was more than Cheap's job was worth to go against his orders). Cheap's bungling and indecision were instrumental in the Wager's unsuccessful attempt to round Cape Horn, ending with the ship being wrecked and the survivors being castaways on a desolate island in Patagonia. This isn't the first book I've read about the land, the seas, and the weather of the Tierra del Fuego, but Grann wrote of it so well that I felt seasick, wet, and frozen solid as I turned the pages. The months the castaways spent on that island, trying to survive and trying to escape, were brutal.

Grann immersed me in these men's lives-- one of whom would be the grandfather of the poet, Lord Byron. (Yes, Byron's experiences were important in light of one of his descendants, but the crew member who had the most impact on me was the free Black man on the Wager, John Duck.) Grann also reminded me of the integral part sailors played in the history of our clothing and our language. However, the one thing that I enjoyed the most was how he exposed what was really going on and how the Wager's original assignment and the proceedings of the court martial at the end actually fit into the much larger world stage.

Any reader with an interest in ships, the sea, human nature, and government machinations should read The Wager.

(Review copy courtesy of the publisher and Net Galley)
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LibraryThing member Hccpsk
If you needed any confirmation of the absolute misery of 18th-century sea travel look no further — David Grann’s The Wager delivers in spades. Pieced together meticulously through journals, sea logs, and accounts written after the fact, Grann recounts the misguided military campaign to sail
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from England around South America in search of a Spanish galleon loaded with treasure. Already struggling with disease and terrible weather, The Wager finally shipwrecks off the coast of Chile, and the hardship multiplies as the men must now deal with starvation and mutiny. Readers need to steel themselves for a lot of suffering and not a lot of plot, but a thoroughly researched account of historical ship life, tragedy, and unimaginable survival in the face of disaster.
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LibraryThing member cmbohn
England and Spain have never been best friends, to put it nicely. Occasionally they've broken out into actual war. This book centers around a time of such conflict, when in the 1740s England decided to commission a fleet led by a Commander Anson to go after Spanish galleons and loot them for their
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It was a disaster. By the time they actually set sail, they were headed for the worst weather of the year around the Cape Horn. There were already problems before they got there, including scurvy, but by the time they got to the bottom of South America, the fleet had broken up and one of the ships, The Wager, ran aground. Mayhem and mutiny ensued, along with starvation and murder.

I don't know why I love these nautical disaster books so much. I'm a total landlubber. I can't even swim. I didn't even see the ocean until I was an adult. But for whatever reason, I love reading these books. This one definitely did not disappoint. It was full of drama and emotion, and the best part was that it was all true and taken from the accounts written by the actual survivors. If you like tales of shipwreck or disaster, add this one to your list. I raced through it and I'm so glad I did.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for providing a free copy of this book. This did not affect my review.
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LibraryThing member santhony
I enjoy reading non-fiction accounts of exploration, including early seafaring voyages. While this work isn’t necessarily an account of exploration, trans-oceanic sea travel in the early-mid 18th century was still in its infancy.

This book chronicles the adventures of the HMS Wager, and its crew,
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as it sought to round Cape Horn as part of a British fleet seeking Spanish plunder. The Wager was shipwrecked off the coast of southern Chile and what followed was a mixture of Robinson Crusoe and Lord of the Flies.

The author paints an absolutely horrid picture of the experience aboard the Wager, and this was even before the shipwreck. Life aboard an 18th century sailing ship seeking to round the cape was certainly no picnic. Weeks of nonstop gale force winds and mountainous seas, coupled with freezing temperatures and monsoons added to the fun. Oh, and toss in widespread scurvy among the crew.

Once shipwrecked and marooned, starvation became a distinct possibility and claimed many crew members. Factions developed and mutiny ensued. I won’t spoil the ending, but only say, there were survivors.

The book is actually very short, only 260 well-spaced, large margin pages. Easily read in 3-4 sittings. A few photos are included.
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LibraryThing member tymfos
An armada of British Man-o-War ships sets sail, after much delay and some shoddy preparation, on a mission that is to take it around the world, including navigation around treacherous Cape Horn. Given the subtitle of the book, it's not a spoiler to say that it doesn't go well. There is scurvy,
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there are vicious storms. The ship Wager navigates too close to the rocks, and its surviving crewmembers are stranded on an incredibly desolate island. What happens after that eventually becomes subject of fierce debate and a court-martial.

I was eager to read this because I loved Grann's "Killers of the Flower Moon." Once again, Grann creates a meticulously researched work, with copious notes, which reads almost like a suspense novel. This book didn't grasp me quite as quickly as the previous work, because British history of that era is a little less close to my heart than 20th-century American history. However, once I acclimated myself to the maritime culture of the time, it became quite a compelling read, with a rather surprising ending. Recommended for readers who enjoy history and/or maritime tales.
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LibraryThing member JulieStielstra
Dazzling, absorbing, appalling. I am in awe of what Grann has achieved in this narrative and research: finding, accessing, reading, and digesting the details from 18th-century primary sources is a towering achievement. Weaving it all together into a vivid, propulsive, highly literate tale is a
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whole 'nother level of skill. For not only does he simply tell an amazing tale well, he adds insight to just *how* stories like this are told to others, to ourselves, what societies do with the facts, how the "facts" are presented, spun, twisted, burnished to different audiences with different agendas. All of which are sharply relevant down to this day. A brilliant piece of work, and a breathtaking tale of the sea, of war, of history, leadership, violence, courage, selfishness, endurance, and survival.
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LibraryThing member brianinbuffalo
[3.75 stars] Having never been enthralled by maritime adventures, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this exhaustively researched tale. True, it tried my patience a bit as preparations were being made for the ill-fated voyage. But once the action began and the tensions intensified, it presented
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a stark portrait of human resiliency. I wasn't surprised to learn that "The Wager" has inspired Scorsese and DiCaprio to reunite for yet another film collaboration.
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LibraryThing member KallieGrace
I love disasters. I learned so much in the book, from the geography of the coasts around the tip of South America (terrifying) to the intricacies of surviving on a ship (impossible) to the insane greed of governments willing to throw away thousands of lives for the idea of fortune. I hate water, I
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love being on solid ground, and this just makes me more sure of that. There are so.many.ways to die at sea. None of them are good.
I really enjoyed the little information about the indigenous people in that area too, and was sad to hear they are largely gone due to our greed and racism. I appreciate the modern tone the author took with regards to colonialism and racism when it cropped up, calling it what it was rather than trying to explain it away as part of the times.
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LibraryThing member DrApple
I got bogged down in the unending suffering once the group was ship wrecked, I did learn about the English navy.
LibraryThing member stevesmits
Well-researched and well told by the author of "Killers of the Flower Moon". The book not only recounts a long-forgotten harrowing tale of shipwreck, mutiny and heroic escape from a desolate island it also gives us a close look at conditions existing for British sailors in the mid-eighteenth
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century. Fans of Patrick O'Brian and the "Mutiny on the Bounty" trilogy will enjoy this story.
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LibraryThing member ibkennedy
Interesting piece of mid 1700s history. Nicely written.
LibraryThing member FormerEnglishTeacher
This is one of those nonfiction works that always make me suspicious. The details of the voyage of HMS Wager and the mutiny that overtook the Royal Navy ship after it shipwrecked in 1741 off the coast of Patagonia are hard to imagine given the timeline and the number of sailors who actually
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survived the voyage. Hard as it is to believe that a tale this far into the past could contain so much detail, we have to remember that at one time people actually kept diaries and journals. Through these the story survived with the few who survived. But that isn’t where the story ends. After the survivors return to England, there is a court martial trial to determine exactly who were the mutineers and who kept their loyalty to the Crown. Like all David Gann’s book, this one is a masterpiece and deserves the weeks and weeks it’s been on various best seller lists. This is a book that also deserves to be recommended to everyone. A real winner.
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LibraryThing member bobbieharv
Such a fascinating wonderful well-researched well-written book about so much: Britain and Spanish wars, warships, mutiny, survival - so compelling. I kept telling everyone around me what was happening in it as I read it.
LibraryThing member janerawoof
Well-written and very well-researched nonfiction telling of HMS Wager in the 18th century and its mission to capture Spanish treasure and the various horrendous things it went through: shipboard life [warts and all], its journey around Cape Horn and subsequent shipwreck, mutiny, cannibalism, and
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even murder by her captain. I liked any nautical explanations, also it was interesting to learn this whole affair was an influence on the naval fiction writer, Patrick O'Brien and that one of the main characters, Midshipman Byron was grandfather to the poet, Lord Byron, who used some of his grandfather's experiences in his "Don Juan." The book, although factual, read like a novel.
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LibraryThing member quondame
Told with a restrained but decided anti-imperialistic stance, this narrative makes a smooth telling from what must have been a very lumpy quantity of evidence - over half the book is notes, reference material, indexes. The ending is in fact a bit of a twist in the way the court martial handled the
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situation, but it can't be the only time marital justice picked its comb carefully. It's hard to have fellow feeling with the two arrogant and self justifying leads in the drama or the romantic views of the young midshipman Byron or in fact any of the players on the island. Still, with modern knowledge of how starvation acts upon the moral fiber of a group it is amazing that they held together in any manner at all and some, though so few, managed to make it back to England.
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LibraryThing member nancyadair
I love a good adventure story, and The Wager has it all: men against the elements, the breakdown of order, the quest for fame and glory gone awry, the miracle of survival, and a humane justice that forgave what men did to survive.

In 1740, England was at war with Spain. The Wager was part of a
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squadron led my Captain Anson with instructions to capture a Spanish galleon filled with treasure. They would have to go around treacherous Cape Horn. The Wager had a crew of 250 men under Captain Cheap who had risen up through the ranks and was determined that his first captaincy was a success.

Grann describes the reality of life on the sea in the 18th c. The crowded conditions, the dangerous work, the vermin that carried disease. Sailors dying of ‘ship’s fever’–typhoid–and scurvy, described in chilling detail. The starvation when supplies run low. The endless upkeep of the ship to keep it seaworthy.

By the time the ship reached Cape Horn, the crew was already diminished in ranks and weakened by disease.

Storms and high seas kept the ships from rounding the Cape for months. Some turned back. Some disappeared. The Wager was shipwrecked on a desert island. With few supplies, the men gaunt and starving and in shredded clothes and shoeless, the rule of order broke down. Captain Cheap was determined to fulfill his command; they would repair the ship and keep going. The men only wanted to survive, and that mean turning back to Brazil. Cheap would not give in to the sailor’s demands. He shot a sailor, and the crew believed it made him unfit to be captain. The crew mutinied and left the captain behind with a few men loyal to him.

283 days later, 81 survivors showed up in Brazil. It took them three months, traveling in a cobbled-together and over-crowded ship.

Once they returned to England, their troubles continued. All of the survivors were guilty of some crime that would earn them the death sentence. The ship’s gunner John Bulkeley kept a personal log, which he published as a way of justifying their actions.

Captain Anson’s forces had numbered 2,000, but only 227 men were left when they fought the Spanish galleon, thrillingly described. Anson’s superior planning and organization won the day. The bountiful riches they seized surpassed any other ever taken, and made Anson rich.

Captain Cheap was rescued by natives and, five years after they had set out, arrived in England along with two of his loyal men, ready to defend his honor.

The admirals in charge of the investigation had to consider the rule of order but also the embarrassing war that cost more than Captain Anson had brought back with the Spanish treasure.

Grann shares the rich literary heritage of the Wager’s story. One young crewman, who left the mutineers to return to Captain Cheap, was the grandfather of Lord Byron, who wrote about the trip in his poem “Don Juan.” Numerous accounts were written by crew members and by Grub Street hacks. The tale inspired later writers, including Herman Melville and Patrick O’Brien.

Empires preserve their power with the stories that they tell, but just as critical are the stories they don’t–the dark silences they impose, the pages they tear out.
from The Wager by David Grann

The War of Jenkin’s Ear was over by the time the survivors returned to England. It was a horrible waste of men and ships and money. Grann’s book resurrects another gruesome and riveting scene from history.

I received a free egalley from the publisher through NetGalley. My review is fair and unbiased.
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LibraryThing member nmele
It's easy to see why this book became a best seller, since it combines war, shipwreck, murder and heroism in a story that would make a good novel. What most interested me was the aftermath when the survivors return to civilization and their ompeting accounts are laid before the public in
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courts-martial. The outcome did not surprise me.
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LibraryThing member waldhaus1
Reveals a little known episode in British naval history. The Wager was a British man of war involved in the also little known’ war of Jenkins war.’ It was sailing around the horn and just as the Bounty famously did it experienced a terrible rounding. It ultimately ran aground as sank beside an
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island off the Chilean coast. While much of the crew had already died the survivors were ravaged by starvation. Part of the crew left in a longboat and a barge after arguing with the captain about whether they should continue west or go back around the horn. The crew wanted to return to England so they took a boat and went east. The captain and a crew other man remained behind. Lord Byron’s grandfather was one of those who remained behind. He and those left behind eventually were rescued by a band of Patagonian natives. Those who sailed east with the longboat got to England first. There was a court marshall asking why the ship was lost. Little fault was found. The tail of struggle and survival gives a real feel for what the days of wooden ships was like during the 1700s.
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LibraryThing member hhornblower
This is the first book I've read by David Grann. i think the main issue I have is the amount of dramatic narrative he used in this. He certainly is a dedicated researcher, but how can he be so certain that this person was feeling that emotion and they was feel that. There are many instances of that
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and it just brought me out of the book.
In addition, spend more than half the book building up the tension on the island and the various voyages home get a bit shorted. Historically the saga ultimately ended with a whimper and the book kind of does too.
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LibraryThing member markm2315
Riveting. I read slowly enough that if I've ever read anything in one sitting, it was very short, but this history is a candidate for a list of books that you (not me) might read in one sitting.
LibraryThing member BookWallah
The Wager was a Man-of-War ship in the British Navy in the mid 18th century. It sailed at the wrong season to round The Horn east to west. It did not complete the passage.

The Wager the book chronicles the harsh conditions on board, the disease (including one of the best descriptions of the onset of
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scurvy I have read), the shipwreck, the harrowing conditions of the castaways in Patagonia, the breakdown of Naval command and all vestiges of civil society (aka the mutiny), and finally the brilliant seamanship of rounding The Horn west to east in Gerry-rigged vessels. The mention of the mutiny trial was really just an after thought.

Highly recommended for all sailors, anyone interested in the history of the Age of Sail, anyone who feels they work for an unjust boss, and anyone wanting to examine how low man can descend and what men will do when exposed to extreme conditions when faced with the need to survive.
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LibraryThing member MaggieFlo
This starts in September 1740 when the refitted merchant ship “the Wager”sails out of Portsmouth as part of a convoy with six other vessels. The plan of the British Admiralty is to sail to South America around Cape Horn and intercept a Spanish galleon loaded down with silver and gold from their
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colonies. The galleon sailed twice a year from South America to Spain loaded down with great treasures.
All goes well at first until a series of calamities befall the convoy including scurvy which enfeebles a great number of crew and officers. Next, the voyage around Cape Horn is extremely treacherous and very few of the ships survive the onslaught of wind, waves a freezing temperatures. The crews are decimated already when the Wager is shipwrecked on Misery Island at the tip of South America.
What I found compelling about the story is the excellent character development, the details regarding the structure of the ship, the command structure of the officer class and the living conditions aboard the ship. There is a mutiny as factions develop among the men, a murder by an officer and the deliberate marooning of some.
The fact that so many people survived and returned to England is a testament to the nature of the those who are mentally strong enough to endure these horrible living conditions.
The finale is a court martial which contemplates all sides and very promptly make a decision. The story ends abruptly at this point but we do hear about what happens to the main characters
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LibraryThing member LindaLoretz
The Wager was an English ship that set sail from England in 1740 during an imperial war with Spain. It was the mid-1700s, and navigational tools were primitive. Diseases among the seafarers spread rapidly, and I was incredulous, realizing how little they knew about curbing nutritional deficiencies
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such as scurvy. It seems absurd that in addition to not knowing about the necessity for vitamin C, insufficient levels of niacin were causing psychosis and night blindness resulting from lack of Vitamin A. After shipwrecking on a desolate island off the coast of Patagonia, the story is as much about human nature as it is about surviving on an island and attaining its mission against the Spanish. It is fascinating to read about how they discovered new food sources and what they chose to learn and ignore from natives whose cultures had thrived in the areas where the Englishmen became castaways. If they were going to continue to survive and continue their naval mission, they had to build new boats without the technology available in their homeland, and there were myriad disagreements about how to proceed and also about which path to follow when it was time to embark on the dangerous waters again. Disharmony leads some groups to set sail in opposite directions eventually. When the survivors arrived back in England, the accounts of what happened were not in sync.

The characters who are historical figures demonstrate the gamut of human emotions and an evolution of social mores. Without describing each character, I’ll point out that we meet a dominating captain with poor leadership traits. And, of course, we meet argumentative underlings who have smug independence. Then, we see ferocious workers and others with inherent leadership skills and charisma. All of the men are familiar with British naval order and ranking conventions. Yet, more hierarchies develop as the men struggle to survive and create social order. As the subtitle suggests, the fight for survival leads to becoming mutinous and murderous. Grann describes the basic human drives and terrors with admirable writing skills.

Writing, in the eighteenth century, was an honorable thing to do. The men onboard the Wager kept written logs—some were required, and others were kept to document some of the mutinous decisions. David Grann had copious notes and records to use when piecing this story together. Rousseau and Voltaire cited the Wager’s expedition reports, as did Charles Darwin and Herman Melville. The seafaring journalists quote the Bible, poets, and famous writers. It is incredible how learned they were. Grann uses his well-honed investigative and research skills to weave a beautiful story of what reportedly happened and the eloquent analysis by those who experienced it. Grann’s ability to combine first-person accounts of the expedition with his summation of the events provides fabulous text about the seafarers and their exploits. Each creative, descriptive section title structures the book and shapes the voyage with metaphoric summaries: The Wooden World, Into the Storm, Castaways, Deliverance, and Judgment are the main sections, and Gran used these to develop the book so that it reads like a novel and keeps the reader riveted. I highly recommend this narrative to everyone, even those who prefer fiction to nonfiction.
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LibraryThing member mojomomma
A gruesome and true tale of the Wager and her crew who attempt to sail South America in the 1740's. The crew and the ship are not prepared for the rigors of the Southern Oceans, where the Pacific meets the Atlantic. It's amazing that some survived to tell the tale.
LibraryThing member ritaer
Well researched and well told tale of shipwreck and the struggle to survive on a barren land and to return to England. I was surprised to learn that there was no dramatic conclusion of court martial of alleged mutineers and counter charges of madness and criminal charge of murder by Captain Cheap.
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There was only a routine inquiry as to whether the captain was at fault in losing his ship. The author believes that the Admiralty did not want the bad publicity that would have resulted from dragging the returned crew with mutiny, nor from charging Cheap with the murder of one of his midshipmen. This account reflects the current era with comments on the greed, cruelty and racism of the Spanish and British Empires.
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Physical description

352 p.; 9.13 inches


1471183688 / 9781471183683
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