Tuesday 29 September 2015

The Adventures of Baron Anson

A couple of years ago, not long after I had opened the salon doors, I was lucky enough to stray across the wonderful Wunderkammer of Dirk Puehl, a man whose infectious passion for history knows no bounds. Dirk has championed and encouraged me in my endeavours since those early days and I am privileged to welcome him today with the story of George Anson, naval hero.


6 June 1762, circumnavigator, naval hero and reformer of naval affairs George Anson, 1st Baron Anson, died aged 65 at Moor Park in Hertfordshire 

“Thus was this expedition finished, when it had lasted three years and nine months, after having, by its event, strongly evinced this important truth: That though prudence, intrepidity, and perseverance united are not exempted from the blows of adverse fortune, yet in a long series of transactions they usually rise superior to its power, and in the end rarely fail of proving successful.“ (Anson's Voyage Round the World by Richard Walter)

A caricature of 1738 showing British tars in a Spanish jail in the West Indies, praying for rescue by the navy and conjuring the spirits of Cavendish, Raleigh and Drake
A caricature of 1738 showing British tars in a Spanish jail in the West Indies, praying for rescue by the navy and conjuring the spirits of Cavendish, Raleigh and Drake

The “War of Jenkins’ Ear” was certainly one of the most peculiarly named conflicts in history. Actually, Thomas Carlyle came up with the odd denomination a hundred years after the war had finally ended in 1748, based on the incident that became the alleged casus belli. Back in 1731, the commander of a Spanish patrol boat had boarded the English merchantman “Rebecca” to search her for contraband violating the conditions of the Asiento, the monopoly of selling slaves to Spanish America, granted to Britain after the Peace of Utrecht in 1713 and passed on to the South Sea Company. British merchants, especially those in the West Indies, applied an excessively wide interpretation of the treaty and shipped trade goods of all kinds to the Main. With the firm Spanish trade rules still in place, the colonial masters of the New World viewed this flow of goods as smuggling like they did back in Drake’s day and were, according to contemporary international law, in the right. Robert Jenkins, the master of the “Rebecca”, protested and tried to stop the guarda costa of Spanish Florida from searching his ship. The Spanish commander promptly drew his sword and cut off Jenkins’ ear, after he had conveniently bound him to the mast to hold still, and uttered the famous words:  "Go, and tell your King that I will do the same, if he dares to do the same." Whether “smuggling” was meant by the Spanish capitán with “the same” or “talking back to a Spanish officer” or “sailing off Florida” or all three together is lost in history along with the fact if Jenkins really was shipping contraband or not over the Spaniard’s bravado and acting like the villain from an early Hollywood pirate movie. However, Jenkins and the “Rebecca” made it back home to England along with the cut-off ear, pickled in alcohol. The corpus delicti was presented to the House of Commons and, after a bit of diplomatic and internal toing and froing, war was declared on Spain in 1739 over the insult to the honour of the nation. Political pressure of the West Indies merchants to stop the Spanish from revoking the monopoly of the Asiento and maybe even to force open the ports on the Main at gunpoint has certainly played a role in the decision.      

George Anson's capture of a Manila galleon.  Samuel Scott (before 1772)
George Anson's capture of a Manila galleon.
Samuel Scott (before 1772)
The war did not exactly go well for both sides, in the West Indies and on the Main. Tropical diseases were the worst enemy, especially of the British Infantry regiments, weakened as they were from the miserable conditions of their transatlantic passage. A new strategic objective was needed and somebody came up with the Spanish possessions in the Pacific. A quite reasonable idea, since the west coast of South America and the Philippines were far less defended than the East of the Main, Florida and the Caribbean and even though the exploits of the silver mines in Potosí, present-day Bolivia, were still largely carried overland to Panama, parts of it made up the treasures carried by the annual Manila galleon along with the riches of Spanish East India. There was a reason, however, why the defences out there were negligible. The last serious raid into the Pacific was carried out by Drake himself, nearly 200 years before. With two ships and a couple of dozen crew. Now, in 1740, Admiral George Anson was tasked with taking a squadron there, composed of three 4th rate ships-of-the-line, two frigates, a sloop and two transports, crewed by 1,800 men and bolstered with 500 infantry and additional marines. A logistic nightmare, even by todays’ standards and even more so in the first half of the 18th century, with still inadequate navigational instruments, chiefly the lack of a reliable marine chronometer, sea charts that dated back, more often than not, to the days of Good Queen Bess and an almost complete ignorance of the reasons for lethal deficiency symptoms, first and foremost scurvy, as well as the tropical diseases that already had cost the comrades of Anson’s jolly tars so dearly in the West Indies. And to top it all, even though Anson’s squadron reached Cape Horn in December during the austral summer, certainly the best time to round the Horn, they were harassed by one storm after the other. When Anson reached his third rendezvous point at Robinson’s island of Juan Fernandez in April 1741, he had proven that he was an excellent sailor and navigator, but was down to two 4th rates, “Centurion” and “Gloucester” and the sloop “Tryal”, the rest was lost and his crews were in a dismal shape with scurvy, typhus and dysentery, with 300 men barely alive, just a third of the 1,000 that had crewed the three ships when they left Spithead the year before. Nevertheless, Anson started to harass South America, disrupted Spanish trade between Manila and Chinese Macao, along with John Company’s mercantile operations in the region and finally managed to capture the fabled Manila Galleon and her cargo of 1,313,843 pieces of eight and 35,682 ounces of silver on 20 June 1743. When Anson and his last ship, the “Centurion” arrived back home in Spithead, a year later to a day, he had circumnavigated the world, became an immediate celebrity and a very rich man and had lost 90% of his original crew, most of them to disease. 

Lord Anson's victory off Cape Finisterre, 2 May 1747
Lord Anson's victory off Cape Finisterre, 2 May 1747

George Anson, 1st Baron Anson, portrait by an unknown contemporary artist
George Anson, 1st Baron Anson. Anonymous.
In March 1742, the British expeditionary force in the West Indies was down to 1,500 men and the pursuit of hostilities in the region was out of the question, even though the war dragged on and was finally merged with the War of the Austrian Succession on the continent, the next of the 18th century’s cabinet wars that broke out in 1740. In due course, France allied with Spain and Anson won his most unblemished naval victory at the First Battle of Cape Finisterre in 1747 with the capture of a French convoy headed for North America and the destruction of its escort of four ships-of-the-line, along with a peerage and loads of prize money that made him even richer. But it was the capture of the Manila Galleon that gave him the somewhat chequered reputation of being the last pirate employed by the British Crown, referring to Drake who, likewise, circumnavigated the world and captured a predecessor of the Manila Galleon, even though Drake was a privateer and not even actively employed by the crown on his raid into the Pacific in 1577 while Anson was a naval officer acting on official orders. He ended his life as Admiral of the Fleet during the next cabinet war, the Seven Years’ War, and issued some important reforms, tightening discipline aboard His Majesty’s ships, improving medical care to its admittedly still lamentable 18th century standards, transferred the marines as consistent units from Army to Navy command and ordered naval officers to wear uniforms while fighting the same unpromising fight against corruption like many of his more serious successors in the role did well into the 19th century. However, his reforms took effect almost immediately, bringing the navy into the shape that enabled Boscawen and Hawke to win their decisive victories at Lagos and Quiberon Bay during the annus mirabilis of 1759 when victory became a tradition of the Royal Navy for the next 150 years.

And more about Admiral Anson on:


and his circumnavigation on:


About the Author

Blood and thunder, artsy things, curiosities and lots of ships, everything featured in my little #onthisday-series. I post a daily feature about something that happened “on this day”, weather permitting.

Usually, the posts turn on Literature with a heavy focus on the 19th and early 20th century and silver screen adaptions. The dark and macabre, vampires, ghosts and ghoulies, the plain fantastic, the Byronic tradition in Europe, dandyism as well as Thomas Mann, Dostoevsky and Nietzsche. History, often military history, from antiquity to the dawn of the 20th century and everything an armchair sailor can come up with. Fine arts with pretty much the same foci during the said period as well as Mythology.

And besides that I currently collect curiosities online, often with a touch of #steampunk and exhibit them in my virtual #wunderkammer, an online cabinet of curiosities. 


Written content of this post copyright © Dirk Puehl, 2015.


aRae said...


Catherine Curzon said...

Are you going to treat yourself?

Dirk Puehl said...

Please excuse my late response, dear Mme Gilflurt... I was terribly busy yesterday and... well, I am so proud, honoured, glad and what not, that it worked out - I do hope your readers like the narrative as much as I cherished writing it as a feature for your salon, my dear.

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you so much, sir, the honour was all mine!