Friday, April 1, 2011

George Anson’s astounding world voyage

Commodore George Anson
It is the stuff of novels and epic films. A Voyage Round the World is a true account, but it is a sea story as action-packed as the popular Master and Commander historical fiction series by Patrick O’Brian, though Voyage happened more than half a century before the time in which O'Brian's novels are set.

In 1740, a British expedition set sail under the command of Commodore George Anson, a skilled naval commander and wealthy aristocrat. The mission: attack Spanish ports and vessels in the Pacific Ocean. England was at war with Spain and anything that disrupted Spain’s commerce, especially in the New World, was considered a top priority. While the voyage mostly failed in its primary mission, Anson returned a hero, mainly due to a serendipitous turn of events after much disaster.

The four-year expedition is chronicled in A Voyage Round the World, published in 1748. The massive volume was compiled by the flagship’s chaplain from the papers of the commodore. A copy of a first edition is in the collection of rare and unusual books at Lighthouse Books, ABAA. It includes 42 copper plates illustrating the various ports of call and some of what was seen along the way.

That the expedition even got under way at all was an astounding event, considering that it was ill-equipped, undermanned, and got a late start. Six warships and two store ships set sail from Great Britain with 1,854 men and boys aboard, many of whom were patients in military hospitals and too ill to serve in battle. The expedition was part of the conflict between Great Britain and Spain known as the War of Jenkins’ Ear.

HMS Centurion, the flagship, was the only one to return to Britain, after circumnavigating the globe. Warships Gloucester, Wager and the sloop Tryal were lost through damage, storms or misfortune. Severn and Pearl were separated from the rest, eventually turned back, and arrived in England amid speculation that they deserted, though there were never any charges The supply ships, Anna and Industry, suffered ignoble ends in an episode that could have been a novel unto itself.

In all, only about 500 survived, including 188 original crew members and officers who returned on the Centurion. The expedition was beset with disaster after disaster, including severe storms that damaged and separated the ships, leaky vessels, mutiny, marooned crews, and illness. Anson encountered hostile ports, including a run-in with Chinese officials in Canton and Macau, who demanded a port tax that Anson refused to pay on the ground that his was a warship, not a merchant vessel. Storms plagued the expedition because it had started late, putting in at the southern tip of South America at the worst possible time of the year.

The expedition did succeed in capturing merchant vessels bound for Spanish ports in South America, and relieving them of their cash, but the real prize came near the end of the expedition.

For centuries, the Spanish had made annual or semi-annual runs across the Pacific Ocean from Manila to Acapulco and back. Part of the plan had been to capture the Spanish galleon as it left Acapulco carrying silver for trade in the Philippines. Anson lay in wait off the coast but it soon became clear that the Spanish had spotted his ships and wouldn’t be sending any galleons.

Manila Galleon by Samuel Scott, painted before 1772.
Anson headed to China, where he endured much difficulty and months of delay. When, finally, he got his remaining ship fully repaired, he decided to try once more for the Spanish galleon, which was by now, he expected, nearing the Philippines in the western Pacific.

Anson got lucky. He encountered the Neustra Señora de Covadonga, laden with 1.3 million pieces of eight and 2,230 pounds of silver. Anson took the vessel, and after a brief visit back in Canton, where Chinese officials and British merchants both took a dim view of his arrival (believing he wanted to make Canton a base for his pirating activities), he made a swift return to Great Britain.

The arrival of the Centurion in England was cause for great celebration and Anson was accorded the status of a hero. His share of the proceeds of this four-year adventure left his family financially secure and Anson subsequently enjoyed a distinguished naval and political career.

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