A Swashbuckling Tale of Mutiny Took Him Where ‘the Soul of Man Dies’
The journalist David Grann was rummaging through the electronic files of a British archive in 2016, researching one of his pet obsessions — mutinies — when he came across an astonishing tale.
Written in florid, 18th-century prose by a midshipman named John Byron, the journal told the story of a British warship that sank off the coast of Chile, leaving its survivors marooned on a desolate island, where they descended into chaos, starvation, sedition and murder. Byron, the grandfather of the poet Lord Byron, was one of just a few dozen castaways who escaped the island and survived, out of some 250 who first set sail on a quest to seize a treasure-filled Spanish galleon in 1740.
“When they’re on that island, it became almost like a laboratory, testing human nature under extraordinary circumstances,” Grann said. “This is a story about the disintegration of a floating civilization.”
The account had largely faded from public memory, even though it was documented in popular accounts by Byron and other survivors, and went on to influence philosophers like Rousseau, Voltaire and Montesquieu, and inspire the novelists Herman Melville and Patrick O’Brian.
Grann set out to reconstruct the story. After six years of research — including his own harrowing journey to the inhospitable island where the castaways washed up — Grann has delivered what will likely endure as the definitive popular account of the demise of the H.M.S. Wager.
An engrossing survival story, “The Wager” is a knotty tale of moral compromises and betrayal and a metaphysical inquiry into the elusive nature of truth and the power of stories to shape history and our perceptions of reality. The book, which Doubleday will release on April 18, has drawn enthusiastic early reviews. It is being adapted into a feature film by the director Martin Scorsese and the actor Leonardo DiCaprio — who also teamed up on a forthcoming movie based on Grann’s book “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
For Grann, telling the story of the shipwreck and its scandalous aftermath was a chance to excavate not just a rousing adventure, but to explore how history is constructed, who writes it and what gets distorted or left out.
“What hooked me was not only what happened on the island, but what happened when they got back to England,” Grann said. “After waging war on the elements, they have to wage war on the truth.”
Grann, 56, who has been a writer for The New Yorker for 20 years, is known for crafting nonfiction narratives that have the unpredictable twists of a detective novel or an espionage thriller. He’s told the stories of larger-than-life adventurers and impostors, of a death squad leader turned New York real estate broker and a scientist on a quest to capture a giant squid, and of doomed expeditions to the South Pole and to the Amazon.
Often, his stories take a dizzying turn when Grann introduces a new set of facts or a perspective that undermines the narrative he has presented. Rather than trying to lay down a concrete version of events, Grann often invokes a queasy uncertainty that the truth can ever be known. He’s drawn to unsolvable mysteries and stories that explore the fallibility of our perceptions — including his own.
Growing up in Connecticut, Grann inherited his love of reading and writing from his mother, Phyllis Grann, a pioneering publishing executive who edited works by Tom Clancy and other blockbuster writers.
He was determined to become a writer, and tried poetry and fiction — “All of which was pretty terrible,” he concedes — but found he had a knack for nonfiction. He got a job as a copy editor at The Hill, in Washington, D.C. In 2003, he joined The New Yorker, where he proved adept at finding stories that combined the propulsive qualities of an airport thriller with deeply reported investigative journalism.
“He looked for stories in which an artful manipulation of the reader was an appropriate way to illuminate the story,” said Daniel Zalewski, Grann’s longtime editor at The New Yorker. “Sometimes they were dark entertainments, but because the stakes were real, there was a gravity to them, and a morality to them.”
Grann has a reputation for being a meticulous, tireless reporter who will travel the ocean or go deep into the jungle to track down the perfect details for a story. To those who know him, his swashbuckling escapades can seem at odds with his low key, bookish persona.
“I love the guy, but he’s not Indiana Jones,” Zalewski said.
When he was reporting his 2009 book, “The Lost City of Z,” — about the British explorer Percy Fawcett, who embarked on a fatal quest in 1925 to find a lost city in the Amazon — Grann traveled to the Upper Xingu River region in the rainforest of Brazil to meet with members of the Kalapalo tribe, who shared oral histories their ancestors had passed down about Fawcett.
To research his 2017 book, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which chronicled an investigation into a series of murders of wealthy members of the Osage tribe in Oklahoma, Grann interviewed the victims’ descendants, collected oral histories from the Osage Nation and studied thousands of pages of F.B.I. files, Justice Department memos, secret grand jury testimonies, crime scene photographs, court transcripts and field reports from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“He’s obsessive about getting the facts right,” said Bill Thomas, the editor in chief and publisher of Doubleday. “To my mind, his neuroses are his super power.”
With “The Wager,” Grann tested his ability to create narrative suspense from a spotty and often contradictory historical record. He pored over faded ship logbooks, correspondence, journals, records from the court-martial hearings, newspaper reports, sea ballads and accounts published by survivors.
Just how far Grann tumbled down the research rabbit hole was evident during a visit to his home in Rye, New York.
His bright, spacious office is crammed with books, boxes of files, and towering piles of manila folders full of photocopied maps, reproductions of old engravings and diagrams, muster books (lists of a ship’s personnel) and other nautical paraphernalia. His bookshelves are filled with naval histories, seamen’s accounts, books about piracy and 18th-century medical texts, including a photocopy of an illustrated guide from 1743, with alarmingly simple instructions on how to amputate a leg. More piles of books and folders are scattered across the floor.
On a table near his desk, Grann has a model of The Wager, complete with 28 tiny canons, a captain’s quarters and tiny transport vessels.
“That’s one of their castaway boats,” he said, pointing at one of the smaller vessels on the model ship’s deck. “You can imagine them all packed into that thing, not even able to move, dozens and dozens of them on a 3,000 mile journey.”
Even when he had a coherent narrative based on scrupulous documentation, Grann said, he was unsettled by the feeling that he was missing something.
“You always have that gnawing doubt of what you don’t know,” he said. “I started to fear I couldn’t fully understand what these castaways went through.”
So in the summer of 2019, he traveled to Chiloé Island, off the country’s west coast, and hired a captain to take him on the roughly 350-mile journey by sea to Wager Island. The small boat took them through the Golfo de Penas — the Gulf of Pain, where the Wager succumbed to punishing winds and shattered against rocks. The seas were so rough that Grann couldn’t stand, so he sat on the floor, listening to an audiobook of Moby Dick, “half drugged on Dramamine,” he said.
When they finally got to the barren island after about a week at sea, Grann couldn’t believe that the men survived there for months. A wet, freezing wind whipped the shore; the mountains were shrouded in gnarled vegetation. There was nothing to eat but limpets, seaweed and wild celery, which was bitter but had cured the shipwrecked sailors’ scurvy.
As Grann and his companions explored, they found a few rotted wooden planks lodged in a frigid stream — the remnants of the ship.
“It remains a place of complete wild desolation,” Grann said. “I was like, OK, I now understand why a British officer described this as a place where ‘the soul of man dies in him.’”
On the way to the island, the captain had pointed out four small islands — Smith, Hertford, Crosslet and Hobbs. Grann recognized the names instantly. They were four men who were left behind because there wasn’t room in the boat for them.
As their crewmates left them, they yelled “God bless the King,” and were never seen again.