History that is Stranger than Fiction
Before I fell under the spell of Fitzwilliam Darcy, I was an avid admirer of C S Forrester's Horatio Hornblower. Still am, if the truth is told. Reading this book was therefore like getting my hands on a bar of irresistible dark chocolate.
In January 1742 a ramshackle vessel of patched-together wood and canvas washed ashore on the coast of Brazil. Clinging to it were thirty emaciated men, barely alive, the survivors of His Majesty's ship The Wager, which had left England two years before as one of a handful of vessels led by Commodore Anson on a secret mission to capture a Spanish galleon during the War of Jenkins Ear. Rounding Cape Horn, the crews of the expedition were already suffering from scurvy and the rigours of a challenging sea voyage when caught by a terrible storm. The Wager, the smallest of the modest fleet, was blown off course and wrecked on a desolate island off the coast of Patagonia. All were presumed to have perished.
However, a number of men made it shore and after being marooned for months on an inhospitable island - with many deaths from sickness, exposure and starvation, realised their only chance of survival meant taking once more to sea. They somehow constructed a flimsy craft from fragments of the wreckage of their wrecked ship and sailed it for over a hundred days, covering nearly 3,000 miles of storm-wracked seas to reach Brazil. They were hailed as heroes.
Six months later, another even more decrepit craft landed on the coast of Chile with only three castaways, one of them The Wager's captain, David Cheap, and another a young midshipman, John Byron. These men told a vastly different story, alleging that the thirty sailors who had landed in Brazil were not heroes but mutineers. On the men's eventual return to England the Admiralty convened a court-martial to determine who was telling the truth. Whomever the court found guilty would hang.
This book is a page-turning account of a forgotten and tragic voyage that ended in a court martial which revealed a shocking tale of shipwreck, survival and savagery. I couldn't put it down.