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In 1740, in the first year of war with Spain, Commodore George Anson set sail with a squadron of six British warships. His secret mission, prowling the world's longest, richest, most far-flung ocean trade route, was to seize the legendary Spanish galleon on her yearly voyage from Acapulco to Manila laden with Peruvian silver, "the prize ...
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In 1740, in the first year of war with Spain, Commodore George Anson set sail with a squadron of six British warships. His secret mission, prowling the world's longest, richest, most far-flung ocean trade route, was to seize the legendary Spanish galleon on her yearly voyage from Acapulco to Manila laden with Peruvian silver, "the prize of all the oceans."It was to be a four-year litany of hardship, disaster, mutiny, and heroism. Only one ship, Centurion, achieved its goal; the others were wrecked, scuttled, or forced back in tatters. Of more than 1900 crewmen, almost 1400 perished of disease or starvation.
Historian Glyn Williams's The Prize of All the Oceans shapes Anson's dramatic voyage into a powerful narrative threaded with incisive analysis and commentary. At its center is a colorful portrait of a commander who hauled ropes alongside his men, tended their sickness, and watched them die by the hundreds—but never wavered in his resolve to capture the prize that would bring him untold wealth and return home triumphant. Anson's voyage would change the course of naval history. Glyn Williams tells the full story for the first time in a book that will rivet historians and armchair survivalists alike.
A South Sea Venture
`I saw it was a voyage to cover some adventure I was not let
into, as well as to annoy the Spanish navigation in those seas.'
Admiral Sir John Norris, November 1739
London in the summer of 1739 was tense with excitement at the prospect of war with Spain. For two years the government of Sir Robert Walpole had struggled to contain rising anti-Spanish feelings stirred up by a parliamentary opposition looking for a chance to overthrow the powerful First Minister. Walpole's opponents found their opportunity in the public outrage that greeted exaggerated reports of Spanish atrocities against British trading vessels in the Caribbean. The wealth of that region had long fired the imagination of Europe. Huge amounts of silver shipped up the Pacific coast from Peru crossed the narrow isthmus of Panama to await shipment to Spain on the treasure fleet from Portobelo. Farther north, Asian luxury goods brought to Acapulco on the Manila galleon were sent overland to Vera Cruz, where they were loaded together with Mexican silver onto the flota sailing for Europe. These cargoes of precious metals were supplemented by indigo, cotton, dye-woods, hides, sugar and tobacco — truly `the wealth of the Indies'.
To tap this silver lifeline, legally or otherwise, had been the ambition of generations of English merchants, pirates and privateers. By the 1730s the fragile equilibrium reached at the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, when the newly formed South Sea Company had been awarded the coveted asiento, the right to supplyslaves to Spanish America, had all but broken down. Spanish officials suspected that the concession served as a cloak for smuggling, and they were equally irritated by the private traders engaged in illicit trade, especially British vessels working out of their base at Jamaica in the heart of the Spanish Caribbean. Incident followed incident as private Spanish coastguard vessels, the notorious guardacostas, intercepted foreign vessels, seized their cargoes and beat up their crews. In Britain the old hatred of Spain was not far submerged. Pamphlets, newspapers and cartoons extolled the glorious days of Drake and his contemporaries, and reminded readers of the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition. Petitions from the merchants of London and the great trading cities poured into Parliament. A merchant skipper, Captain Jenkins, arrived at the House of Commons with a bottle containing his ear (lopped off, he claimed, by guardacostas), to add a dramatic note to the uproar.
In the midst of this agitation the attempts by the British and Spanish governments to reach a sensible negotiated settlement of their differences foundered, with the South Sea Company proving an awkward stumbling block. In June 1739, well before the formal declaration of hostilities in October, the British Admiralty sent ships to lie in wait off Cadiz for the Caribbean-bound flora, and the next month Admiral Edward Vernon was ordered to the West Indies to harry Spanish shipping. These early thrusts were a sign that the forthcoming war was expected to be a maritime one in which Britain would use its superior seapower to full advantage. There would be no more of the costly and often inconclusive continental campaigns that had marked the War of the Spanish Succession against the France of Louis XIV. The butcher's bill of Marlborough's battles would be replaced by an altogether more alluring tally of territory and trade gained from the Spanish enemy. In the parliamentary debates of November 1739 speaker after speaker urged the ministry to attack Spanish America, where `we can make them feel most sensibly the weight of our resentment: it is by conquests in that part of the world where we can most effectually secure or enlarge our navigation, and it is there where they can least resist us.'
No scheme was too madcap for consideration, and the files of ministers bulged with plans for attacks on all parts of Spain's overseas empire: Havana, Vera Cruz, Cartagena and Darien in the Caribbean; Panama and Lima in the South Sea; Manila, far distant across the North Pacific. But if the list of objectives seemed endless, resources were not. The Royal Navy was more impressive on paper than on the high seas. Its ships had deteriorated during the years of peace; it had seen little fighting for a generation; its organisation and some of its senior officers were of doubtful quality. The First Lord of the Admiralty was Sir Charles Wager, 73 years old at the outbreak of war; the Admiral of the Fleet was Sir John Norris, almost eighty. Both had been fine fighting seamen in their time. Putting their decisions into effect was the secretary of the Admiralty, Josiah Burchett, about 72 years old, who had held his post since 1694. At the Navy Board the dominant figure was the surveyor, Sir Jacob Acworth, in post since 1715 and now about seventy years old. Age did not necessarily mean decrepitude, and these men had served the navy well, but their tenacious grip on naval affairs had its drawbacks. If nothing else, it was a depressing reminder for ambitious younger officers of the continuing importance of seniority and longevity in the navy of the Walpole era.
The Admiralty's first priority, as always, was the defence of home waters, and then the protection of British trade, especially in the Mediterranean and Baltic. Extra funds in 1738 had enabled it to prepare eighty line-of-battle ships for sea, but their deployment was hindered by the uncertainty as to whether if war came France might join on Spain's side. If ships could be spared to attack the Spanish overseas empire, then the main target zone would be the Caribbean. In addition to the general considerations of wealth and accessibility that pointed to the West Indies as the main theatre of overseas operations, there was a more specific reason. In November 1739 Vernon secured an unexpected success when he captured Portobelo with a mere half-dozen ships; and the thunderous popular acclaim at home that greeted this minor victory prompted the government to dispatch powerful forces to the Caribbean.
All this was the public and predictable face of war, discussed at length in Parliament, and in pamphlets and newspapers. Less public, and certainly less predictable, were decisions taken by British ministers at this time to send forces to a more distant and exotic region — the Pacific. Ever since Drake's voyage in the Golden Hind, and his capture of a treasure ship off the coast of Peru, the South Sea had exercised a powerful hold over the English imagination. At one level it promised to be an `Inexhaustible Fountain of Gold'; at another it was the jousting ground of satirical and utopian writers. To the accounts of the imaginary travellers of Defoe and Swift were added the narratives of actual voyagers, from William Dampier to Captain George Shelvocke, whose books did much to shape English perceptions of `the Great South Sea'. Most English seamen venturing through the Strait of Magellan or around Cape Horn were raiders, preying on Spanish trade. Some were officially authorised as privateers, most brought their commissions, as one buccaneer boasted, 'on the muzzle of our Guns'. Such enterprise was private rather than government-sponsored; only John Narborough (in 1669) and William Dampier thirty years later took naval vessels into the Pacific, on what proved to be half-hearted and unsuccessful reconnaissance expeditions. But there had also been glimpses of a more official interest. Norris's papers from the War of the Spanish Succession, when he was a vice-admiral, contain details of the Lima trade and its possible exploitation, while Wager during a short-lived bout of hostilities with Spain in 1727 found time while cruising off Cadiz to write to Sir Robert Walpole, wondering whether the ships sent to the Caribbean might not have been better employed in the South Sea in attacks on Lima or Panama. Other letters of that year suggest that the government may have had `the Project of a Settlement in the South Seas' in mind. Whether it did or not, the war was over before any such scheme could be put into operation.
In 1739 something altogether more purposeful and elaborate began to emerge in secret discussions. As early as 3 June 1739 the Cabinet Council had on its agenda consideration of proposals from Wager for operations in the Caribbean and in the South Sea. The latter began to take firmer shape in September when two separate South Sea schemes were put before a small group of ministers. First was a proposal to send two fifty-gun ships to the Philippines to seize the treasure ship or ships coming across the North Pacific from Acapulco. The Acapulco or Manila galleon — the name changed depending on whether she was on her westbound or eastbound run — was the fabulous `Prize of All the Oceans', the target of foreign predators in the South Sea, and had twice been taken by the English (by Thomas Cavendish in 1587 and by Woodes Rogers in 1709). Secondly, a quite different scheme envisaged raiding operations along the coasts of Chile and Peru by ships sent round Cape Horn, on the grounds that `many national advantages may be gained and great riches acquired by sending ten sail of men-of-war with fifteen hundred or two thousand land forces with them into the South Seas round Cape Horn'.
Wager and Norris were the sponsors rather than the originators of these projects. The proposals came from a handful of men with first-hand experience of the regions that had been selected as targets. The suggestions for attacks on Spanish America came from two former factors of the South Sea Company, Hubert Tassell and Henry Hutchinson. Tassell had served as a Company factor in Havana in the 1730s, while Hutchinson had not only been in the Company's employ at Portobelo and Panama, but also knew Lima. Although neither man was still in the employ of the South Sea Company — and Hutchinson had been in dispute with the Company for several years over his accounts — between them they brought an unusual degree of recent knowledge to the discussions on the proposed South Sea expedition. The twists and turns of those discussions can be followed in the pages of the private diary kept by Norris. Never published, it is a frank and detailed source of information about the preparations for war in the latter half of 1739.
On 11 September Tassell and Hutchinson wrote to Walpole suggesting that a squadron of eight men-of-war carrying 1,500 soldiers should be sent around Cape Horn to attack the coasts of Chile and Peru, and at the end of the month they put their plan in person to Wager and Norris. To anyone who had read Daniel Defoe or Woodes Rogers twenty-five years earlier, much of this had a familiar ring. The squadron was to conquer Chile with the aid of its disaffected inhabitants, plunder the great treasure-house of Lima and perhaps establish a government there that was well-disposed to Britain, and then attack Panama. Smaller craft might be detached from the squadron to fortify Juan Fernández, once the island haunt of the buccaneers. Hutchinson had in his possession a manuscript coasting pilot of the South Sea coast from Cape Horn to California, compiled from his and others' observations. He claimed close knowledge of the state of Spanish defences in the South Sea: those of Panama and Lima he described as consisting of little more than low brick walls and a few hundred soldiers whose military experience was confined to parades and processions.
Government reaction to these proposals was cautious. Both Wager and Norris were doubtful about the wisdom of sending soldiers by ship into the South Sea, and thought that an attack on Panama would be better mounted across the isthmus, Henry Morgan style; but in mid-October they decided to go ahead with a raiding expedition of about three ships along the coasts of Chile and Peru. With that agreed, on 18 October Wager and Norris met James Naish, a former supercargo of the East India Company whose experience of trading in China and the Eastern Seas dated back to 1713. He seems to have known Wager for some time, and had already discussed with him the possibility of capturing Manila. Now he produced detailed proposals, and he also volunteered to accompany the force. If naval ships reached Manila the following summer by way of the Cape of Good Hope, they could capture the annual galleon or galleons from Acapulco, carrying silver worth £2,000,000, he claimed. In addition to this alluring prospect, Naish stressed the wider implications of a predatory expedition to the Pacific. The conquest of the Philippines, at the centre of a network of trade extending across the North Pacific from Siam to Japan, would give British merchants in the East a great advantage over their European rivals. Naish himself, after an eight-year dispute with the East India Company over allegations of private trade, smuggling and fraud, had just received £30,000 in settlement that summer. Clearly, he had money to invest; and despite his agreement not to do anything to damage the Company's trade monopoly, he might not have been over-scrupulous about his observance of this undertaking. His attitude to his former employers was shown in his warning to Wager not to reveal to the East India Company any hint of an attack on Manila, for that would be a sure way of passing the news on to the Spaniards. Lacking a professional intelligence service, the government could obtain information about regions as remote from normal British commercial and diplomatic activity as the Philippines and Peru only from private individuals such as Naish, Tassell and Hutchinson. It was not altogether reassuring that two of the three had been in dispute with their employers over financial matters, and that in the schemes they pressed upon ministers private gain competed with public interest for pride of place.
Wager and Norris evidently caught some of Naish's enthusiasm, despite a frosty comment by the Duke of Newcastle, who as Secretary of State for the Southern Department was responsible for overseas operations, that `this was a small affair, and that greater matters had been under consideration'. By the end of October ministers agreed in principle to send an expedition of three or four warships and a regiment of 1,000 soldiers to take Manila. Naish was to be `the King's chief agent' on the expedition, responsible among other things for victualling the ships. It soon became clear that commitments elsewhere made it difficult both to send an expedition to Manila, and to raise land forces of any size to go round the Horn and into the South Sea. Instead of the eight ships carrying 1,500 or 2,000 troops that Hutchinson had in mind, only three or four ships and a couple of hundred soldiers could be spared. Norris's diary makes it clear that Newcastle and his fellow Secretary of State (for the Northern Department), the Earl of Harrington, had reservations about both the Manila and South Sea expeditions. Norris himself was beginning to suspect that trade as well as war might be involved. He was not informed of the time of at least one meeting to discuss details of the South Sea squadron — an oversight, he was assured — and when he asked Wager whether trading goods were to be carried on the ships he was referred to Tassell. Finally, after a further fortnight of uncertainty, Sir Robert Walpole came to a decision. The First Minister concluded that there were not enough forces for an attack on Manila, but that the expedition to the South Sea should go ahead, with six ships and 500 land forces. This ran against the opinion of his First Lord of the Admiralty, for Wager had made clear his preference for an expedition to Manila rather than one to the South Sea. Among the reasons put forward by Walpole for his choice was the possibility that a naval force reaching the Pacific side of the isthmus of Panama would be able to link up with British troops coming overland from the Caribbean.
At Wager's suggestion George Anson, an experienced naval officer 42 years old, had been chosen for the Manila expedition; and on the abandonment of that project he was given command of the Cape Horn expedition. The younger son from a minor county family, the Ansons of Shugborough, Staffordshire, Anson had entered the navy in 1712, at the age of fourteen. His career was typical of someone who had joined the service just as a long period of war was coming to an end and a long period of peace beginning. He saw action as a lieutenant at the Battle of Passaro in 1718 during a brief outbreak of hostilities with Spain, and in 1724 a combination of meritorious service and good connections — for his aunt was married to the Earl of Macclesfield, then Lord Chancellor — brought him promotion to captain and command of a frigate stationed at Charleston, South Carolina. Much of his time in colonial waters was spent in routine patrols against smugglers and others trying to evade the system of imperial trade regulation, but by his second spell of duty in South Carolina, which began in 1732, the deterioration in Anglo-Spanish relations was having an impact. Almost immediately, he was involved in the case of two British merchant vessels intercepted and looted by guardacostas from Havana, and in 1734 he took the Squirrel to Georgia to offer the colonists there protection against possible Spanish raids. In his periods of shore leave he became well-known in the convivial society of the colonial capital, Charleston. Contemporary accounts suggest that he was a hard drinker, but that above all he was known for his love of gaming. From 1726 onwards he began investing his winnings in land purchases, and by the time he left the colony he held more than 12,000 acres, including a lot in Charleston itself, and land just outside the city limits that was to be become the capital's first suburb, called Ansonborough. The fullest account of Anson during this period (by a woman) hints at a character that was not altogether easy to read. `Mr Anson is far from being an anchorite, though not what we call a modern pretty fellow, because he is really so old-fashioned as to make some profession of religion: moreover, he never dances, nor swears, nor talks nonsense. As he greatly admires a fine woman, so he is passionately fond of music.' In 1735 Anson left South Carolina for the last time and was placed on the half-pay list. Like many of his peacetime contemporaries his career in the navy came to a halt. After two and a half years he was re-employed, this time to command a 60-gun ship, the Centurion, on trade protection duties once more, but this time along the Guinea coast. As war with Spain approached, the Centurion was ordered to the West Indies, but then brought back to Spithead.
It was at Spithead that Anson was informed in November 1739 of his appointment, first to command the Manila expedition, and then the South Sea enterprise. There is no indication of the reasons for Wager's choice of Anson. The records show nothing in his long years of unspectacular service to draw attention, favourable or otherwise, to himself. He was one among dozens of steady naval officers whose abilities had not been given a chance to shine during their peacetime service. Again, connection may be the answer, for there is some evidence that Anson already had as patron the powerful figure of the Lord Chancellor, Lord Hardwicke, whose daughter he was to marry in 1748. And Hardwicke was certainly present at several ministerial meetings in November and December that discussed the proposed South Sea expeditions. Perhaps more to the point, Anson seems to have been one of Norris's protégés: when in 1734 the admiral was appointed commander-in-chief Anson wrote him a letter of congratulation from American waters in which he hoped that Norris would `continue that share of Patronage you have hitherto been pleased to honour me with'. Whether Anson's appointment was the result of good judgement, chance or influence, it was in retrospect a decisive moment — not only for Anson and the men who sailed with him to the South Sea, but in the long term for the navy.
Norris's diary shows that Anson's instructions were drawn up personally by Wager, who showed a first draft of them to Walpole in late December. Altered in several places, they were in finished form by the end of January 1740, although they were not handed to Anson until June. One of the amendments deleted an instruction giving Anson discretion to go on from capturing Callao, the port of Lima, to attack the capital itself; and in general the instructions were more cautious than the original proposals put before ministers by Tassell and Hutchinson. Those had concluded with recommendations that were breathtaking in their scope, for among the hopes pinned on the projected expedition was `to settle some island in the South Sea; to succeed in a descent on Peru; to take two men-of-war and the Lima fleet; to take Panama and their treasure; to take several valuable towns; to take the Acapulco ship; and to induce the Peruvians to throw off their obedience to the King of Spain'. Choice of the route home was left to Anson, but Wager pointed out that if he got as far north as Acapulco he might very well decide to return by way of China. Here, for the first time, the notion of a voyage round the world by Anson and his ships appeared.
Even after the modification of its instructions, the enterprise under Anson's command was still clearly something more than a plundering raid. Raids on Spanish American ports and shipping in the South Sea, and the capture of the Acapulco galleon, were the routine buccaneering and privateering objectives of an earlier era; but the decision to take 500 soldiers, the hope that Callao could be captured and used as a base, and the clauses that dealt with the encouragement of rebellion in Peru and the establishment there of a government sympathetic towards British merchants had wider implications. A draft manifesto drawn up before Anson sailed promised British protection, freedom of trade and religious liberty to all who rose against the Spanish crown. There was even a suggestion that if the wealthy Creole inhabitants failed to rise in rebellion, then an attempt might be made to win over the mulattos and oppressed black slaves by offering them their freedom. By the standards of the time this was an incendiary proposition, and one that in the end failed to find its way into Anson's official instructions. Although the possibility of rebellion within the Spanish colonies had often been mentioned in earlier proposals, Anson's instructions reveal the first awareness in government circles that the most promising opening for British merchants would come if Spain's American empire, with or without outside help, moved towards independence.
At the same time, as Anson was preparing his ships for sea, Wager signified his approval for another expedition that hoped to reach the Pacific, but by way of a Northwest Passage. A year later, in June 1741, two naval vessels commanded by Captain Christopher Middleton sailed for the icy waters of Hudson Bay to search its west coast for a passage through to the Pacific. Though the scheme was advanced long before the outbreak of hostilities with Spain, the promoters of the expedition were able to turn the war to their advantage as they reminded Wager that ships coming through a northern passage would give officials in New Spain no warning that foreign raiders were on their coast. They would be able to seize the Acapulco galleon and destroy Spanish coastal trade before any alert could be given. Once in the North Pacific, Middleton was to negotiate alliances with native rulers, take possession of lands not under foreign control and, when he arrived off California, look out for Anson.
The fitting out of Anson's squadron and the approval of the smaller discovery expedition to Hudson Bay under Captain Middleton resurrected plans dating back to Elizabethan times for a twin approach to the Pacific by a southern and a northern route. It was no longer a matter of projects advanced by gadfly promoters or by memorialists with dubious buccaneering backgrounds. The South Sea schemes of the autumn of 1739 had found their way to the heart of government. With Wager and Norris acting, in a sense, as guarantors, ministers from Walpole downwards were directly involved. Norris's private diary shows that between late September and the end of December he was closeted, usually with Wager, and often with senior ministers, in no fewer than twenty meetings to discuss the South Sea enterprises. It is a moot question whether this number of meetings was evidence of government commitment or of government irresolution. Although the decision not to go ahead with the Manila venture and to reduce the size of the Cape Horn expedition disappointed their promoters, what was agreed in late 1739 was still impressive — not a couple of small privateering vessels, but a naval squadron and land forces of some power. If the instructions given to Anson and Middleton are taken at face value, then for the first time British warships were to be used as instruments of commercial imperialism in the Pacific. At the very least, the expedition should wreak havoc along the South Sea coasts of Spanish America; and with luck and determination the great Acapulco treasure galleon might be taken. But the expedition was more than a buccaneering venture writ large, for if the reports of Tassell and Hutchinson were correct, then the arrival of Anson's ships might well lead to the collapse of Spanish authority throughout Chile and Peru. This `Enterprize of a very singular Nature', as the authorised account of the voyage later called it, might leave Britain masters of the wealth of South America. The wheel, it seemed, had come full circle since Defoe's gloomy prediction in the years following the disillusionment of the South Sea Bubble in 1720 that future activity in regions as distant as the Pacific would have to rely on `the little Adventures of single Men, and the small Undertakings of a few'.
Time would show that the hopes that prompted the sending of Anson to the Pacific were as unrealistic as those behind earlier ventures. The projects advanced so eagerly by Tassell, Hutchinson and Naish paid little attention to the likely reactions in Old and New Spain to foreign incursions into `the Spanish lake'. Anson's sailing instructions revealed more immediate difficulties. In one hand he held orders to destroy Spanish American towns and shipping; in the other exhortations to gain the confidence of all Spanish Americans ready to rebel against viceregal role. A commission of enquiry sent to Peru at this time was providing disturbing evidence for the Spanish government of discontent in its American empire, but there was little likelihood that any substantial section of the colonial population would welcome the successors of Drake and the buccaneers with open arms. The problem remained that explained by Henry St John in 1711, when a similar scheme was contemplated during the War of the Spanish Succession: `the prospects of opening a new trade with the Spaniards and of attacking their colonies at the same time tend to be repugnant one to another.'
In other ways the precedents for sending a squadron of armed vessels around Cape Horn were not encouraging. The nearest parallel was the Dutch fleet commanded by Jacques l'Hermite, which survived the voyage into the Pacific in 1623-4 in reasonably good shape, but did little once it had arrived. Whether the route used was through the Strait of Magellan or round the Horn, at some stage ships sailing in company were invariably scattered by gales and weakened by scurvy. Even if they managed to rendezvous in the South Sea, they had by then lost much of their fighting effectiveness. As a rule of thumb the more men carried on board the greater the problems of health, provisioning and discipline. Some of the most effective voyages into the South Sea were made by lightly crewed ships — the buccaneering craft of the English in the 1680s, and the French trading vessels of the first decade of the eighteenth century. The buccaneers in particular obeyed no central direction; ships sailing together were a rarity, and even when this happened the partnership was usually a temporary one. Wind and weather, caprice and greed were more important in determining a course of action than formal agreements. Anson's ships would sail under very different assumptions, subject to a rigid command structure and with instructions to keep company whatever the circumstances. After they arrived in the South Sea it was by no means clear how and where they would find food for 2,000 men once their provisions were exhausted. There were trade goods on board, but their exchange for food would depend on the goodwill of the local populace. Given that the squadron would be sailing into uncharted waters and along enemy coasts, there was an easy optimism about some of the arrangements that boded ill for the venture.
Posted May 22, 2011
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