Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Wager and slavery

Captives being taken on board a slave ship on the west coast of Africa. Image source: The Guardian

David Grann's The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder is a compelling saga of an 18th-century British naval expedition in the Pacific to attack the Spanish trade in South American silver. The expedition ended in disaster: only one of the six ships ever returned. It's a story of brutality, cowardice, and courage. It's also, and mainly, a tale of an extraordinary feat of seamanship, in which 81 men set sail in overloaded jury-rigged boats from the desolate island on which the warship HMS Wager had been shipwrecked, and somehow managed to navigate 2500 sea miles to a safe harbor. But only a handful survived the perilous journey and ultimately returned to England—where they were put on trial for mutiny. 

Grann's retelling of this story, as well as the fate of the one ship in the expedition that managed to fulfill its mission, the flagship HMS Centurion, is vividly written with many novelistic touches, and is highly engaging. For more on Grann's book and the story of the expedition, please see the post Shipwreck, mutiny and murder: The Wager. [1]

But Grann's book also contains significant gaps in both fact and historical context. As Fara Dabhoiwala writes in the London Review of Books, key omissions involve the connection of the men and ships of the expedition with the Atlantic slave trade.

The leader of the Pacific expedition, Commodore George Anson, had spent the two years before the mission commanding the Centurion as a naval escort for British slave ships on their journeys from the west coast of Africa to the sugar islands of the Caribbean, something that Grann doesn't mention. Anson had also spent a decade as part of the naval garrison in Charleston, South Carolina, where he bought property. Charleston was largest slave-trading port in North America; it's estimated that 40 percent of the enslaved Africans brought to the U.S. came through Charleston. Though apparently not a slaveowner himself, Anson was deeply implicated in protecting and sustaining the slave trade.

Portrait of George Anson, 1st Baron Anson, by Thomas Hudson, before 1748. Image source: National Maritime Museum

In addition to omitting Anson's backstory, Grann also falsifies the story of John Duck, a mixed-race member of the Wager's crew. Duck, raised in London, was probably the son of a British man and an enslaved African woman. Dabhoiwala speculates that Duck's father may have been a British captain of the same name known to have been master of the ship Ann around 1709.

On the Pacific expedition, Duck had lived through an onboard plague of typhus, the decimation of the crew by scurvy, and the wreck of the Wager. Like the other members of the crew, after leaving the sinking ship he was stranded for months with little food on an otherwise uninhabited island off the west coast of what is now Chile. After dozens of men had died of starvation (and some by violence), most of the remaining crew had left the Wager's cruel and incompetent captain David Cheap behind and sailed off in the most seaworthy of the Wager's boats. Duck was among those risking a quick death at sea against a lingering death on the island.

Portrait of David Cheap by Allan Ramsay, c. 1748 (detail). Image source: The Guardian

After leaving the island, Duck had survived for three months as one of the dwindling number of men on the Wager's jury-rigged longboat, christened the Speedwell. The survivors had navigated two thousand nautical miles through the Straits of Magellan and up the east coast of South America. Their ultimate goal was the Portuguese colony of Brazil; had they landed in Spanish-held territory, they would have been held as prisoners of war.

Duck was one of more than a dozen men who had been sent ashore to find food at Freshwater Bay (near Mar del Plata in what is now Argentina). When a storm blew up suddenly and pushed the damaged Speedwell away from the shore, eight of the foraging party were stranded on the beach. Duck and several others, including Isaac Morris, Samuel Cooper and John Andrews, were soon captured by indigenous Tehuelche tribesmen.

In Grann's account, the men spent two and a half years with the Tehuelche, who "led them from one village to another, staying for months in one place" until they reached the Spanish settlement of Buenos Aires. There, according to Grann, Duck was "kidnapped and sold into slavery. Morris didn't know where his friend had been taken, whether to the mines or the fields—Duck's fate was unknown, as is the case for so many people whose stories can never be told."

But the men were not guests of the Tehuelche. According to Dabhoiwala, after they had been captured all the men had been immediately enslaved. Being enslaved by the indigenous tribesmen meant something a bit different from being enslaved by Europeans. Dabhoiwala writes that "slavery among Native Americans. . .was largely a form of involuntary household servitude. It didn't mean being worked to death on a large plantation or down a silver mine, or being horrifically maltreated, as enslaved Africans in America routinely were." Morris later wrote that "our Work was chiefly to fetch Wood and Water, and Skin all the Horses which they killed; and tho' we were their Slaves, we were treated very humanely, and they would suffer no one to treat us ill."

Tehuelche tribesmen, 19th century. Image source: Awasi

The Tehuelche also enslaved captured Spanish women (Dabhoiwala does not mention what might have happened to any captured Spanish men). Duck's companions stated that each of the enslaved seamen had "a Spanish Woman given him to Wife, and that some of them had left Children behind." Of course, free consent is impossible under conditions of captivity, and the effect of the unions was to engender more slaves for the Tehuelche.

After two and a half years, the men were taken by the Tehuelche to Buenos Aires, where they were sold to the English agent for the Asiento de Negros. [2] They were held captive there for more than a year, "treated more like Slaves than Prisoners of War," before hostilities between England and Spain ended and they were repatriated to England. But Duck was not imprisoned with the others and never returned to England; his fate is unknown. It's certainly possible that he was separated from his companions due to the color of his skin and sold into Spanish slavery by the English Asiento agent. It's also possible that, as his companions stated in one account, the tribesmen refused to sell Duck to the agent because he was "too near of a Complexion with those Indians" that they, "insisting upon his being an Indian. . .therefore they would keep him." But Dabhoiwala offers another possibility: Duck may have chosen to remain with the Tehuelche voluntarily, because winding up in the hands of the Spanish might well lead to enslavement in more brutal conditions, or repatriation to an England that might hang him as a mutineer.

Dabhoiwala writes,

Perhaps Duck, far from home, had made a new life. Even the unrecorded and the enslaved, whatever the extremity of their predicament, are actors in their own stories. Perhaps he himself chose to remain behind.

We can only hope he was given the choice.

Cover of David Grann's The Wager (Doubleday, 2023), featuring "Ships in distress in a storm" (detail) by Peter Monamy (c. 1720-30), courtesy of Tate Britain. Cover image source: David Grann


  1. Martin Scorsese is currently planning a movie version of The Wager. Grann is also the author of Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (2017), which Scorsese adapted as a film in 2023.
  2. The Asiento de Negros was a monopoly on trading slaves in Spanish territories. The Spanish did not generally capture or purchase slaves in Africa and convey them to the Americas, but instead outsourced the procurement of slaves to agents from countries more directly involved in the slave trade.

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