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'The Wager' chronicles shipwreck, mutiny and murder at the tip of South America

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest today is bestselling author and New Yorker magazine staff writer David Grann. Grann has a knack for finding little known stories from history and turning them into books that are page turners. His new nonfiction book is no exception. It's about a shipwreck and mutiny in the 1700s. Martin Scorsese already has plans to adapt it into a film. Scorsese already adapted Grann's book "Killers Of The Flower Moon" into a film that will be released later this year. An earlier Grann book, "The Lost City Of Z," was also adapted into a film. Our producer Sam Briger spoke with David Grann yesterday.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: At the bottom of the world, below the tip of South America, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans converge to form one of the most dangerous places to find yourself in a boat - the Drake Passage. In the mid-18th century, a squadron of British warships made the journey through the passage in the worst weather imaginable, suffering terrible damage to their ships. One man-of-war called the Wager went missing and wrecked upon the rocks of a desolate island off Patagonia.

At first, the castaways maintained the naval laws and discipline of the British Empire under their captain. But that unraveled under the hardships they endured, including poor shelter, punishing weather and starvation. There was murder and cannibalism. And the captain lost the respect of his crew, especially after killing one of the sailors by shooting him. Eventually, the majority of the men mutinied and sailed away on a makeshift craft, leaving behind their captain and a small band loyal to him. They sailed nearly 3,000 miles to rescue in Brazil, but only 29 of the 81 survived the journey. Miraculously, the captain survived as well. The leaders of the mutineers and the captain were reunited in England at a court martial hearing to decide whether they were guilty of the crimes of mutiny and murder. David Grann writes about this harrowing journey in his new book, "The Wager: A Tale Of Shipwreck, Mutiny, And Murder."

Well, David Grann, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

DAVID GRANN: Oh, it's so great to be back on the program.

BRIGER: So your book takes place in the 1740s when the British Empire went to war against its rival, imperial Spain. And the war was called the War of Jenkins' Ear, and we can leave that to readers to find out why it had that name. But there was a secret mission that a squadron of five British warships took. Tell us about that mission and where they were going.

GRANN: Yeah. So they were given a secret mission to try to intercept and capture a Spanish galleon filled with so much treasure it was known as the prize of all the oceans. And so they were going to sail across the Atlantic around the violent seas at Cape Horn into the Pacific and then try to intercept this ship somewhere off the coast of the Philippines. Believe it or not, that was part of the mission, and there was a real whiff of piracy to it all.

BRIGER: Yeah. I mean, it sounds like a heist movie. But, like, isn't this piracy? Isn't this almost illegal during that time?

GRANN: It wasn't illegal. It was actually part - you know, it was the end of a certain era of buccaneering. But in that period, seamen were offered a tantalizing prospect, which was a share of the prize money. So, yes, it - there really was a piratical element to this secret mission.

BRIGER: And can you set this conflict in the larger context? Like, what were Britain and Spain fighting about?

GRANN: Yeah. So Great Britain was seeking - this was the kind of terrible age of empires, and Great Britain was seeking to expand its empire into Latin America and break its rival Spain's hold over that region. And so this war was sparked by imperialists who were hoping to break that Spanish hold over this region.

BRIGER: And as I said in the introduction, even today, rounding Cape Horn is considered very dangerous. What makes it so tricky?

GRANN: Oh, it is the worst - it is among the worst, if not the worst, seas in the world. And the reason is that the seas travel uninterrupted, unblocked by any land around the globe, and so they travel about 13,000 miles without having anything to slow them down. And then they funnel around Cape Horn. A 90-foot wave can dwarf a ship's mast. The currents are the strongest on Earth. And then there are the winds, which can accelerate to as much as 200 miles per hour. Herman Melville, who later made the trek around the Horn, compared it to a descent into hell in Dante's "Inferno."

BRIGER: And you say, like, they're facing these waves which they have to ascend and descend, and then, like, in the hollows of the waves, there are these deadly icebergs.

GRANN: Yes, they have to navigate through a typhoon, or what they referred to as the perfect hurricane. There are tidal waves. And, you know, these ships, which were the engineering marvels of their day because they were very sophisticated in so many ways - they were these murderous instruments but also the homes to hundreds of sailors who lived together. But they were also very vulnerable because they were made of very perishable materials, virtually all of wood.

BRIGER: We'll get to that in a second. But one of the things I found fascinating was that - this is before the Panama Canal, obviously. But the Spanish would prefer to just cross Panama rather than sail around the Cape.

GRANN: That is how terrifying Cape Horn was to seamen, that the Spanish decided that for their trade, they would take their cargo ship, sail to Panama and then haul the goods across the jungle, suffer malaria and yellow fever, and then load the goods on the other side of Panama onto ships into the Pacific. So that was just a testament to how terrifying these seas really were.

BRIGER: Let's talk a little bit about these ships. You called them buoyant wooden castles. The flagship of this mission was the Centurion. Can you describe it for us?

GRANN: Yeah. So again, yeah, these ships really were these kind of engineering marvels. They had - they were more than 120 feet long. They had three masts. They were propelled by sails. They could fly as many as, you know, 12 to 18 sails, depending on the size of the warship, at a time. But again, they were also very susceptible to the elements of sea and storm because they were made of wood. One of the facts that astonished me when researching this book was that about 4,000 trees could be used to build one of these warships. And I even found accounts of people complaining about a kind of deforestation at the time.

BRIGER: Yeah, it's amazing to me. Like, these boats are built to be as sturdy as possible, but as you say, they constantly need repairs because of the sea and storm damage they face. But there's also these insects and fungus that's destroying their structural integrity.

GRANN: And there are - yes, there are worms that burrow holes in them. There are termites. And then there are the rats which gnaw through food and sails. If a ship is not remade after every long voyage, it can just sink. And so even as sophisticated as these ships were, a shipwright at the time estimated their lifespan was only about a dozen years, and that is assuming they are being almost virtually remade - the hulls and the planks - after every long voyage.

BRIGER: Yeah. Now, the Wager, the ship that you focus on, was not built as a man-of-war. It was actually a merchant ship that was purchased by the Navy and refurbished for battle. You say it was tubby and unwieldy.

GRANN: Yeah, it was a little bit like the ugly duckling of the squadron because it had not been born for battle. It had been one of these merchant ships that had been remade into a warship to serve in the war. It was the lowest-rated ship. In that period, they rated warships by the number of cannons, and the Wager had 28. So it was a six rate, which was the lowest rate. And it had been named after the head of the Admiralty at the time, a man named Sir Charles Wager. And the name, in many ways, seemed fitting because they were all, in effect, gambling with their lives.

BRIGER: So these boats also needed a lot of sailors to work properly. You say that the Centurion, the flagship of this mission, needed 400 sailors. And that's only one of the ships going on the mission. There are four other warships, there's a scouting boat and two cargo ships. They all needed personnel, but the Navy was having a hard time recruiting enough men. What means did they resort to to find the manpower?

GRANN: Yeah. So the - Great Britain at that time did not have conscription, and it had exhausted its supply of volunteers during this war for the Navy. And so for the squadron, which was desperately short of men - and men were the most essential element. You needed skilled seamen to operate these very complex vessels. And so what they did was they dispatched the press gangs, and the press gangs would roam into cities. They would roam into ports and towns, and they would look for anyone with the telltale signs of a mariner. You know, if you had even a little tar on the tips of your fingertips - tar was used on a ship a lot - they would say, oh, you're a mariner. They would round you up, they would put you on these - basically, like, these floating jails and take you out to the ship. And you were forced to go unwillingly on a voyage that might last three years.

Even then, the squadron was short of men. So the Admiralty took the extreme step of rounding up soldiers from a retirement home, many of whom were in their 60s and 70s. They were missing an assortment of limbs. Some were so sick they needed to be lifted on stretchers onto these ships before the voyage. Everybody knew they were sailing to their deaths.

BRIGER: Back to the press gangs for a second. You describe how the press gangs would row out to returning merchant ships. And these are ships that may had been out - may have been out in sea for years and would snatch sailors off those boats. So the sailors wouldn't be able to see their families. They would be put right back onto another boat. And then also, you describe how there's this poignant scene where family and wives would go to the docks looking for their loved ones, trying to peer into the floating jails to see if they could get one last glimpse of the men before they were sent off again.

GRANN: Yeah. I mean, those scenes give you such a poignant sense of the human toll of these expeditions. You know, you could have been a loved one waiting for somebody to come home, and then you hear they've been snatched. You haven't seen a husband or a brother or a son for years and years. And then you just hope to catch one last glimpse before they sail off. And given how perilous this voyage is, not only may you not - this may be the last glimpse you have of your loved one.

BRIGER: Well, let's take a quick break here. Our guest is David Grann, bestselling author of "The Lost City Of Z" and "Killers Of The Flower Moon." His new book is called "The Wager: A Tale Of Shipwreck, Mutiny And Murder." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOGOL BORDELLO SONG, "NOT A CRIME")

BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, we're speaking with David Grann, the best-selling author of the nonfiction books "The Lost City Of Z" and "Killers Of The Flower Moon." His newest book is "The Wager." It's about a shipwreck of a British warship off the remote west coast of Patagonia in the 18th century and the ordeal of its survivors.

Let's talk a little bit about life on board these boats. Although they were huge vessels, there were so many sailors that unless you were, say, like, the captain, you didn't have a lot of personal space, right?

GRANN: Yeah. Like on land, real estate was a reflection of a class society and hierarchical society. So the captain had a great cabin - a large cabin with a balcony overlooking the sea. But the petty officers were in very small quarters, and the seamen had to sleep on hammocks, separated only by about a foot at most, the distance. And, you know, so in jostling seas, their elbows and knees are bouncing against each other.

BRIGER: And there could be dozens of boys on board, some as young as 6 years old. What jobs did they have?

GRANN: Yeah. So, I mean, what's so interesting about these ships is that they really are these floating civilizations that are almost, like, a test or experiment in human sociability because people from all walks of lives and all ages are thrown onto these ships. You know, they begin as strangers, most of them. There could be boys as young as 6. You could have men in their 80s. You have aristocrats. You have dandies. You have city paupers. You have professional craftsmen. You have free Black seamen. They're each given a different kind of mission on the ship. The boys tended to be - they were, like, powder monkeys. They would, you know, run about carrying the - you know, the gunpowder in battle. Many of them were there to be trained, to learn how to live on a ship so that they could go on to become seamen. And some might even be from well-to-do families who are in training to eventually become officers.

BRIGER: Yeah, one of those is actually John Byron, who later is the grandfather of Lord Byron, the poet. The way you describe it, one of the more dangerous jobs on board was climbing the mainmast. Can you describe how harrowing that is?

GRANN: Yeah, it's harrowing. So you mentioned John Byron, for example, this midshipman who was 16 years old when the voyage set sail. And he has to learn, you know, how to work and operate on a ship. And one of the tasks he has to do is to climb these masts that can climb - you know, that can rise as much as a hundred feet. They would have to climb along these ropes that hold up the mast on the exterior and scurry up them. You know, it wasn't like ships today where you could kind of work the sails from down on the deck. You had to go up and then climb up and climb up. Sometimes when you were climbing, your back was nearly parallel to the deck and the sea.

BRIGER: Right, 'cause the ship is moving. This is not a static...

GRANN: No.

BRIGER: ...Static pole.

GRANN: No, nothing is...

BRIGER: The ship is rocking back and forth.

GRANN: No. I mean, and it's important to mention that, you know, there will come a time on this voyage where not only are they rocking back and forth, they have to do this in hurricanes and typhoons. So they are swinging as if, you know, they were spiders clinging on as the ship rocks, you know, close to 45 degrees to one side and then 45 degrees to the other.

BRIGER: Have to ask you what the toilet situation was like.

GRANN: (Laughter) Well, everything on a ship had its own name, and the toilet was known as the head. It was basically a hole in the water, and it would just kind of shoot through and down into the sea. But in storms, when - for the average seaman, when it became so rough, and it would - when they were going around Cape Horn, the seas were coming over the entire bow of the ship, washing some of the heads away and making it impossible to use them.

BRIGER: It would not be right to call it a privy 'cause there was no privacy.

GRANN: (Laughter).

BRIGER: So...

GRANN: You'd be a landlubber if you called it a privy.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIGER: Right. So there's a sea battle in your book, and we won't give the details of it, but one of the things I was surprised to read was just how close the warships would get to each other before they started firing their cannons.

GRANN: Yes, they did because the weaponry, while very lethal, was not very accurate over distances. So they would come side by side, you know, parallel to each other, and they would just unload their cannons, also firing musket shots. They would have men climb the masts to kind of pick people off on the deck. And the other thing that is - I wasn't aware of, you know, again, until working on this book was that, you know, I always assumed that the cannons were the most lethal part. You know, you get hit by a cannon, or you get hit by a musket shot. But the greatest danger during battle was actually splinters because these ships were all made of wood, that if a cannonball hit the ship, it would send this just splinters flying, some as long as two feet, three feet, four feet, and they would spear the men and boys and kill them.

BRIGER: When people didn't die immediately, they were sent to the surgeon, who would set up a table somewhere inside the ship. And obviously, there wasn't a lot that could be done, but one of the things they did a lot was amputate limbs. And in your book, you have a diagram from the period that shows how to amputate limbs. First of all, I wouldn't know how to amputate a limb from looking at this diagram.

GRANN: (Laughter).

BRIGER: But secondly, the thing that just seems like such a lie about it is you have the surgeon - there's a man, and he's holding out his arm. There's three men around him, like, holding him upright. But everyone looks so calm. Like, this is like, here's my arm. Like, chop it off. Like, clearly that was not the situation.

GRANN: Yeah, well, clearly, you're in battle. You have to - you know, these surgeries were done during battle. And in fact, Midshipman Byron - had a very small quarters for the midshipman. That would be turned into the operating room during battle. And they would lay the men usually on a couple sea chests put together. They would lay a sail on the ground so that the surgeon wouldn't slip on blood. And then a couple men would hold the patient down, and the surgeon would just saw as quickly as possible with a blade, usually trying to do it within a couple minutes at most. And then - there was no anesthesia. I mean, that's the other thing. You know, there's just no anesthesia.

BRIGER: Yeah.

GRANN: So you could just imagine the pain.

BRIGER: There was a lot of documentation that happened on these boats. A lot of the officers would keep logbooks. Even some non-officers would keep logbooks. Why were they so important?

GRANN: Yeah. So the Admiralty and the British Empire and the government required the senior officers all to keep a logbook, the captain and lieutenant, of almost a daily occurrence of the wind and the elements and unexpected accidents and remarkable incidents. And this was partly a way for the British Empire, which was during this age of ruthless expansion - these documents provided a kind of encyclopedic knowledge of what the world was like, what these unchartered seas were like. All this was being fueled back to the empire for further trade and conquest. These documents were also very important because if anything happened on a ship - let's say there was a mutiny or a shipwreck or something went wrong - they would become entered into evidence at a court martial, and officers were instructed not to alter them or to edit them because it raised suspicions.

BRIGER: And some of the logbooks of the Wager survived the wreck, and you actually got to read them. What was that like?

GRANN: Oh, yeah, I mean, it's hard to fathom how some of these documents survived typhoons and the tidal waves and the shipwreck and made it back. And you can hold these incredibly brittle documents from the 18th century. You know, you open them up in a box, and you pull them out. You know, dust just blows out of them. The covers are almost disintegrating. But they are a wealth of information and let you to really meticulously reconstruct this expedition from day to day. There are muster books. There are logbooks. There are journals and much more.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Sam Briger recorded with David Grann. Grann's new book is called "The Wager: A Tale Of Shipwreck, Mutiny, And Murder." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OFF TO SEA ONCE MORE")

MACY GRAY: (Singing) When first I landed in Liverpool, I went up on a spree. With money at last, I spent it fast. Got drunk as drunk could be. And when that mere money was all gone, it was then I wanted more. But a man must be blind to make up his mind to go to see once more. Once more, boys, once more. Go to sea once more.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview our producer Sam Briger recorded with bestselling nonfiction author David Grann, who's also a staff writer at The New Yorker. His previous books include "The Lost City Of Z" and "Killers Of The Flower Moon." His new book is about an 18th century British warship that crashed on a remote island off Patagonia. The castaways faced terrible conditions and eventually mutinied against their captain. Some of them were able to reach safety by sailing nearly 3,000 miles to Brazil on a makeshift boat. The book is called "The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny, and Murder."

BRIGER: So, David, there's two important characters in your book that will become, like, the opposing poles in the mutiny. One is the captain, David Cheap. And he actually starts this journey to South America as a second-in-command of a different boat. But he's promoted to captain of the Wager after its captain dies. Give us a little sense of him.

GRANN: Yeah. So Captain Cheap was somebody who on land was plagued by debts and chased by creditors. But he had always found refuge on the regimented, you know, wooden world of a ship. And on this voyage, he had finally attained what he had always longed for. It was his deep ambition, which was to be captain of his own warship and to have a chance to possibly capture a lucrative prize.

BRIGER: And the other character is John Bulkley, who was the gunner of the Wager. And the gunner is in charge of the boat's munitions and was usually a very responsible and reliable person, which would describe Bulkley. He was considered a natural leader among the sailors.

GRANN: Yes, he was, in many ways, the most skilled seaman on board the Wager. He was, as you said, an instinctive leader. But because he did not come from the aristocracy or from the wealthier classes, he knew that it was unlikely that he would ever have a chance to become a commander of his own warship like David Cheap, the captain.

BRIGER: OK. One of the biggest enemies the squadron has to face was disease. First, as the warships are crossing the Atlantic, there's a typhus breakout. And typhus is carried in the feces of lice, just for anyone who didn't know that. And then as the boats are beginning the most difficult part of their journey around Cape Horn, they are struck with the second disease, scurvy. We now know that scurvy is caused by a vitamin C deficiency, and it's actually easy to prevent and to cure by eating citrus. But at the time, people didn't know this. Ships didn't carry citrus on board or really any fruits and vegetables. And the sailors were defenseless against the disease. It sounds like scurvy was a ticking time bomb to any boat that traveled over a certain amount of time.

GRANN: That is true. Scurvy killed more seamen than, you know, all the other potential dangers at ship, you know, tempests and other diseases combined. And as the squadron and the Wager were sailing around Cape Horn at a point when the ships are just being bandied about like these rowboats in these gigantic seas and they need every person to persevere, they begin to suffer from scurvy. And they don't know what causes it, but their hair begins to fall out. Their teeth fall out. And as some seamen say, the disease got into their brains, and they went raving mad.

BRIGER: OK, so the ships are making their attempt to round Cape Horn. How did it go?

GRANN: Oh, not so well.

(LAUGHTER)

GRANN: You know, they are being - you know, they lack men. At one point - I think one of the more extraordinary moment - they can't even fly their sails because they keep blowing out. And so - but if they take down all the sails, they can't control the ship. So they - one of the commanders orders his men to climb the mast during this storm while the ships are rocking violently and to use their bodies as these threadbare sails so that the captain can help turn the ship. So imagine this. You have these men and boys standing 100 feet in the air, their bodies concave as a gale force wind blows against them. And the captain was able to turn the ship around, but one of the men was lost and fell into the sea. And the others could see him desperately swimming after the ship futilely.

BRIGER: Yeah, that's an amazing part of the story. So he doesn't want to use sails because the winds are so strong, but so he just needs a little bit of power and control. And so that's why he has these sailors go up there and act as sails.

GRANN: Exactly.

BRIGER: Yeah. You know, one of the reasons I find this book so compelling is that I just have absolutely no interest whatsoever in getting on a boat and trying to round Cape Horn. Like, it just sounds like the worst possible scenario to me.

GRANN: It is - you know, very few people join that elite club of Cape Horners who A, want to go around the horn and ever come back. There's - you know, if anyone reads Melville, he has amazing descriptions of Cape Horn. And he basically says, heaven help the - you know, the family members if their - if one of their loved ones is going around the Horn.

BRIGER: What about you? Are you adventurous? Or do you like to find your adventure in pages of books and documents?

GRANN: Well, I am the least likely adventurer possible in so many ways. I'm half blind. I'm older. I'm bald. I get lost on a subway even on my way to work. And I spend most of my time in archives researching these stories as I did for "The Wager." I spent the first two years just combing archives, reading these journals and books with a magnifying glass. These places are very suited for my paltry physical attributes. But then there usually comes a time whenever I research these books or stories where some doubt gnaws at me, some part of the story I don't fully feel like I understand. And I get propelled on some mad expedition, you know, to try to better understand what happened. And so in the case of "The Wager," I eventually organized my own little expedition to try to get to Wager Island.

BRIGER: You don't round Cape Horn, right?

GRANN: I do not round Cape Horn.

BRIGER: (Laughter) Just to be clear.

GRANN: And I hope I never do (laughter). It was rough enough as it was (laughter).

BRIGER: Fair enough. All right. Well, let's take another short break here. If you're just joining us, we're speaking with author David Grann. His newest book is "The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny, And Murder. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAN AUERBACH SONG, "HEARTBROKEN, IN DISREPAIR")

BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, we're speaking with David Grann, the bestselling author of the non-fiction books "The Lost City Of Z" and "Killers Of The Flower Moon." His newest book is "The Wager." It's about a shipwreck of a British warship off the remote west coast of Patagonia in the 18th century and the ordeal of its survivors. OK, let's get back to "The Wager." First of all, just how long does it take to round Cape Horn?

GRANN: Well, they are struggling to get around it for months because every time they think they get around it, they don't. And the ships are breaking apart. Some of the ships end up turning back. So it takes, you know, weeks and weeks and weeks as they attempt to get around the Horn.

BRIGER: But they do succeed, finally, but the boat is in terrible shape. They're no longer with the rest of the squadron. I think the squadron believes that the Wager has sunk. Most of the crew, including the captain, has scurvy. They can't do their jobs at all or very well. And the ship wrecks. Some of the crew believe - and this will be a factor in the mutiny - that it's the captain's fault, that Captain Cheap was so single-minded on his mission that he didn't really seem to pay attention that the boat had drifted into shallow waters. So the boat starts getting ripped apart by rocks and bringing on water. Fortunately, it gets wedged between some rocks, and so it doesn't completely sink. And that gives the sailors an opportunity to get in their small transport boats and row to this desolate island. And this is not the most hospitable island for castaways, is it?

GRANN: No, no. You know, the captain, you know, determinedly, you know, gets around the Horn and is trying to sail the ship up the coast of Patagonia and Chile, hoping to eventually rendezvous with the rest of the squadron. But in those days, seaman didn't really know exactly where they were on the map because they could not determine their longitude. Longitude required a reliable clock, which had not yet been invented. And so Cheap and his navigator's estimation of their longitude turns out to be not only wrong, but wrong by hundreds of miles. And they suddenly smash into this rock. And an anchor falls through the floor of the ship, the rudder shatters. And then the ship is just careening through this minefield until it does become wedged between these rocks and begins to completely rip apart.

Water surges under the bottom, into the ship. Rats are scurrying upward. Those who were suffering from scurvy who could not get out of their hammocks drowned. But in the distance, some of the survivors see this - through the mist, this desolate island. And they think, OK, maybe this will be our salvation. And they get there in one of these transport boats, about nearly 150 of them. And instead, the island turns out to be the beginning of their hell. It is cold and windy. It's constantly raining and sleeting. And worst of all, they can find virtually no food. One British officer compared the island to a place where the soul of man dies in him.

BRIGER: Right. They were starving. They were cold. They had to scrape seaweed off of rocks to eat. They have a few supplies left from the boat, but the captain takes those and puts them in a tent and rations them out to make them last. But the castaways are on the road to starvation. And one of the most remarkable moments during the castaways' time on the island is that they're visited by this group of Indigenous people called the Kawesqar, who come to their island by canoe. And, you know, the land that the British are on, it seems so barren and punishing to them. But the Kawesqar have perfectly adapted to their environment. Can you describe them to us?

GRANN: Yeah. You know, like other Patagonians, they have been in the region - Native Patagonians, they've been in the region for hundreds and hundreds of years. And so they had adapted to this very difficult environment. They traveled mostly in small familial groups. They lived almost exclusively off marine resources. And they traveled and spent much of their times in canoes. They were known as the nomads of the sea. They had learned to - how to stay warm. They would keep a fire going at all times, even in their canoes. And most critically, they knew the landscape and the terrain, so they knew where to find hidden shoals filled with fish or other, you know, sea urchins that could be eaten or mussels or whatnot. So they knew how to survive. And so when they arrive, they offer the castaways a potential lifeline.

BRIGER: Right, which, unfortunately, the castaways - they cut their own lifeline.

GRANN: The castaways cut their own lifeline. Many of them are blinkered by, you know, racism, this idea that somehow their civilization is superior to others. And they are also spiraling into violence and chaos. At a certain point, the Kawesqar basically just say, you know, we're out of here. And they disappear. And after that moment, the castaways descend only further into a Hobbesian state of depravity. And a few of the men even succumb to cannibalism.

BRIGER: OK. So Captain Cheap is trying to maintain naval law on the island, but the system starts to break down. Some men start stealing food. When they're caught, they're punished with 600 lashes. The captain shoots a man, a midshipman, in the cheek. This man, Henry Cozens, had been accused of dereliction of duty. He eventually dies from his wounds. And the crew believes that Cheap wasn't justified in his actions. And the men's loyalty to Cheap erodes. And the sailors start looking for leadership from the gunner, John Bulkeley.

GRANN: Yes, they increasingly gravitate towards Bulkeley, that instinctive leader who uses such populist expressions that still resonate with us today. He would use phrases to stir the seamen, calling for them for life and liberty, while Cheap invokes such principles as duty and honor and patriotism to try to keep the men loyal to him and to the mission.

BRIGER: We can't get into the details of the mutiny, but they finally decide to go that path. And it's so interesting to me, like, how long it takes them to get there. Like, there's all these deliberations. There's a lot of diplomacy back and forth between the factions. Like, it seems that mutiny was a really hard line for these men to cross despite all that had happened to them.

GRANN: Yes, a full-blown mutiny, they knew, was risky and, you know, a real breach of naval order. And if it was a full-blown mutiny like the kind some were contemplating, the punishment could be, or likely would be, being hanged if they ever made it back to England. So even when they are planning it, they are holding these debates. And what's amazing is that even on this desolate, remote island, the castaways are conscious of the Admiralty, you know, thousands of miles away, all the way in England, bearing down on them. So they are thinking about the rules, what rules they can break. They are writing up documents and trying to create a written record contemporaneously that can justify their uprising, a written record that would withstand the attrition of a public trial.

BRIGER: Yeah, it's amazing. They had these little scraps of paper, and they're having all the mutineers sign them, especially the second in command, so it seems like - that they were justified in their actions. And then Bulkeley just takes all these pieces of paper with them on their journey.

GRANN: That is correct.

BRIGER: OK, so once the boat is ready, the mutineers take control of it and leave Captain Cheap, along with the few remaining men loyal to him on the island. He actually requests to be left there rather than to be taken prisoner on the boat. And Bulkeley and his men make this journey, almost 3,000 miles, successfully. But you could not call it an easy trip.

GRANN: No, it was not an easy trip. And one important caveat - upon leaving the captain, they didn't really leave him with a working boat to get off.

BRIGER: Right.

GRANN: And so I think the assumption to some degree, or at least from Cheap's point of view, is he was being left to die so that he could never share his story. So if the others made it back to England, only one version of the tale would prevail.

BRIGER: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with author David Grann. His newest book is "The Wager: A Tale Of Shipwreck, Mutiny And Murder." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, we're speaking with David Grann, the bestselling author of the nonfiction books, "The Lost City Of Z" and "Killers Of The Flower Moon." His newest book is "The Wager." It's about a shipwreck of a British warship off the remote west coast of Patagonia in the 18th century and the ordeal of its survivors. So only 29 of the 81 men who take this trip survive. One actually dies, I think, as they made it to safety. And we won't get into the story, but miraculously, Captain Cheap and some of his men are rescued from the island by a group of Native people. And we'll save that to the readers. But it's amazing, first of all, that these men survived. They made it to safety - greatly diminished, but they all make it back to England. And there the survivors engage in this sort of war of words. Like, some of the men, including Bulkeley, publish accounts of their experience in part to make money but also to sway public opinion to their side. And this is all happening at a time of increased journalism and publishing. Can you sort of talk about that?

GRANN: Yeah, there was greater literacy. Printing was cheaper, so there was a real explosion in newspaper writing and travel literature. They were known as the Grub Street hacks - you know, which is where a lot of the publishing had been located - who were these kind of for the first time writing kind of done by professionals for individual profit rather than patronage by the aristocracy. And so you had these profusion of accounts, and these accounts that were being released by the various seamen and members of the expedition struck a chord. And what's so important to understand is why they did this. They get back to England, and after waging a war against all these elements, they are summoned to face a court-martial where they could be hanged.

So they begin to wage this war over the truth, releasing their accounts. And there is - you know, they each shape their account, probably the way we all do in some way, in order to emerge as the hero of their stories. There's a famous line from Joan Didion who says, we all tell ourselves stories in order to live. But in their case, it's quite literally true. They must try to tell a convincing tale in order to spare their lives. And, you know, during this battle of - over information, there is disinformation. It's just like today. There was misinformation, disinformation. There were even allegations of fake journals in a kind of fake news of the 18th century.

BRIGER: So Bulkeley and Cheap are called to a court-martial hearing by the Navy. And Bulkeley is concerned he's going to have to defend himself against the charge of mutiny. And Cheap's main concern is that he's going to face a charge of murder, which is punishable by death, for the shooting of the midshipman, Henry Cozens. The court-martial actually takes a surprising turn. What happens there?

GRANN: Yes, so many of them fear they're going to be hanged, and they have good reason to fear that, given the naval code, given that this had been a full-blown mutiny, given that Cheap had shot somebody without asking questions, without a proceeding. Some of them prayed before going in. But when they go into the court-martial, something astonishing happens. They aren't asked about anything that happened on the island, none of the alleged crimes. Instead, they're only asked about what had caused the shipwreck. I would compare it to the authorities stopping a car and finding a dead body in the trunk and asking the driver only why he or she had a busted taillight. And it turned out that the Admiralty and those in power really didn't like any of these stories.

BRIGER: Right. And Bulkeley and Cheap, while they have a lot of concerns about each other's behavior on the ship and who is responsible for the wreckage of the ship, they decide to censor themselves because they see the way that the court martial is going, that they're not going to have to face those more serious crimes.

GRANN: Yes. And after that single proceeding about what had caused the wreck, everybody is let go. And it became, as one naval historian called it, the mutiny that never was.

BRIGER: And you say that the Navy behaved this way because the whole affair had just been a public relations disaster for them and the British Empire. What do you mean by that?

GRANN: Yeah. So, you know, this expedition that had set out with nearly, you know, 2,000 men - more than 1,300 of them had died. It was really kind of a folly of imperialism. It was a mission kind of bungled from the start and planning. The public had clamored for war but, as so often with wars, didn't actually really want to pay for it. So they sent off their various people in many ways simply to die. Thousands and thousands of other seamen had died during other battles during this war period. And the war was kind of a bloody stalemate. And the Wager disaster was a reminder of that.

But even more profoundly, it undercut that central claim that the British Empire always asserted to justify its ruthless expansion and conquering of other peoples - that its civilization was somehow superior to others. But here, when these castaways were on the island, these British officers and crew, the supposed apostles of Western civilization, they had descended into this Hobbesian state of depravity. They had behaved, you know, less like gentlemen and more like brutes. And so none of the stories that these seamen were telling, you know, in their own - the seamen were all battling over their stories, trying to prevail. But the British Navy and Empire was looking at these stories, saying, I don't know if we like any of these stories.

BRIGER: Right. So how did you first come across this story?

GRANN: You know, one of my interests was always in mutinies. I was always fascinated by mutinies, I think, like a lot of people. Because what makes mutinies so interesting is they occur in a military organization that is, by its very nature, designed by the state as an instrument of order - to enforce order. And so what causes these men or women or members of this unit to suddenly rebel? Are they these extreme outlaws, or is there something justified in their actions because there is something, you know, rotten within the system or what is taking place?

And so I was doing research on mutinies when I came across the account of John Byron, the midshipman from the Wager. And what was so interesting is his book - his account was written in this stilted, old prose, this archaic prose from the 18th century. The F's were S's. But as I was reading it, I was just held spellbound by these descriptions of, you know, mutiny and scurvy and shipwreck and then violence on the island and murder and cannibalism. I was like, oh, my God, this account holds the clues to, you know, really one of the more extraordinary sagas. And then, of course, as I looked more into it, I began to see all these other accounts and this war over the history that was taking place, the war over the truth.

And there was also, just like today, this great battle over who would get to tell the history, an effort by those in power to cover up the sinful chapters of a nation's past. And so I would come home from the archives and flip on the TV or read the newspaper, and I would be reading in our own society about these wars over the truth and disinformation and fake news and who would get to tell history and what books were being banned. And I thought, this crazy, weird story is like a parable for our own turbulent times.

BRIGER: Well, David Grann, thanks so much for coming back on FRESH AIR.

GRANN: It was my pleasure. Thank you so much, Sam.

GROSS: David Grann spoke with our producer Sam Briger. Grann's new book is called "The Wager: A Tale Of Shipwreck, Mutiny And Murder."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our interview with songwriter John Kander. Along with Fred Ebb, he wrote the songs for the film "New York, New York," which has just been adapted into a Broadway musical. Kander and Ebb's songs for "Cabaret" and "Chicago" are being lovingly parodied in the series "Schmicago," the second season of "Schmigadoon!" I hope you'll join us.

Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUT THE WORLD GOES 'ROUND")

LIZA MINNELLI: (Singing) Sometimes you're happy, sometimes you're sad, but the world goes 'round. Sometimes you lose every nickel you had, but the world goes 'round. Sometimes your dreams get broken in pieces, but that doesn't alter a thing. Take it from me, there's still going to be a summer, a winter, a fall and a spring. And sometimes a friend starts treating you bad, but... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam Briger