Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Anson’s Cruise (1740–1744)

Anson’s Cruise (1740–1744)


PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): West coast of Spanish America
and Manila, Philippines


MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Britain hoped to launch a
preemptive strike against Spain in anticipation of the War
of the Austrian Succession in Europe by cutting off
Spain’s supply of wealth from the Americas.

OUTCOME: Britain failed to prevent Spain from entering the
European war or to do much damage at all strategically,
though Commodore George Anson’s diminished fleet did
manage to harass Spain’s West Coast outposts in America,
to capture one treasure-laden Spanish galleon, and to pave
the way for British expansion in the Pacific.

Britain, slightly in excess of 1,000; Spain, unknown

CASUALTIES: Britain, around 1,000 dead, mostly from
illness and shipwreck


When the tangled web of European alliances appeared to
be leading Britain into what would become the War of the
AUSTRIAN SUCCESSION in 1740, the English Crown dispatched
Commodore George Anson (1697–1762) to raid
Spain’s Pacific coast possessions—Chile, Peru, and Mexico—
and to attack Spanish galleons on the high seas.
Embroiled in the machinations of Prussia’s Frederick the
Great (1712–86) against the presumptive heir to the Austrian
throne, Maria Theresa (1717–80), Britain’s royal
command hoped to avoid a head-to-head conflict with
Spain on the Continent by cutting off its supply of income
at the source, Spain’s American colonies.
Given the commission in 1739, Anson was unable
actually to begin his mission until mid-September of 1740
because of compounded delays in provisioning and in finding
enough men—the mission, after all, required by its
very nature that he circumnavigate the world. The tardy
departure, however, cost Anson the element of surprise on
which he had counted. Though the Spanish had become
aware of British intentions and Spain’s colonies had been
warned to prepare for attack, Anson nevertheless set sail
with a fleet of six warships—his flagship Centurion, plus
Gloucester, Severn, Pearl, Wager, Tyral—and one supply vessel,
Anna Pink. All were poorly manned, since the entire
squadron boasted only 977 sailors, mostly untrained.
There were some 200-plus marines among them, but they
were fresh recruits with only minimal knowledge of the
sea. Anson was lucky to have even them—an urgent
request from Anson for more soldiers before shipping out
had netted him a contingent of patients from a local hospital.
Leading an ill-trained force in a late start against a
ready enemy made many, including Anson himself, believe
the mission was doomed from the start.
Once at sea, matters only grew worse. Another effect
of starting in September was that Anson would have to
approach Cape Horn in the autumn, when the westerlies
were at their peak. By the time Anson’s fleet began to be
battered by gale-force winds, the ships’ crews were all suffering
from a severe outbreak of scurvy. Whipped about by
storms and manned by sailors debilitated with scurvy,
only three ships in Anson’s fleet—Centurion, Gloucester,
and Tyral—survived the passage round the Horn. Anson’s
fleet was cut in half, his fighting force, such as it was,
reduced by some two-thirds, and his original mission
effectively dead in the water. But Anson was a capable and
imaginative commander, and he simply redefined his
objectives. He set sail for Acapulco, fighting his way up
the coast and hoping to ambush the famed “Manila
Galleon,” a Spanish treasure ship—the Nuestra Señora de
Cavadonga—before it left the Mexican port homewardbound
to Manila. Anson missed the Spanish ship by two
weeks, arriving at Acapulco in September 1741.
For two years after rounding the Horn, Anson ravaged
the western shores of the Americas, working his way
up the coast first to Mexico and then beyond. After he
had lost two more ships, Anson, determined to continue
around the globe, decided to make a north Pacific crossing
to China. When he reached the Portuguese settlement of
Macao (near modern-day Hong Kong) on November 13,
1742, he arrived only with his flagship and some 210 men.
Nevertheless, the Centurion was the first British warship to
sail into Chinese waters, and its arrival created an uproar.
The Portuguese, worried about the precarious trade agreements
and protocol arrangements they had made with
Chinese leaders in Canton, initially refused Anson’s
request for provisions and repairs despite pressure from
Britain’s East India Company. After careful negotiations
with the Chinese, Anson secured his provisions and—
recruiting more men—set sail in the spring of 1743, once
again hoping to intercept and capture the Nuestra Señora
de Cavadonga.
Sailing with a reinforced crew fueled by dreams of
immense wealth, Anson departed Macao heading south
toward the Philippines. In the South China Sea Anson lay
in wait for the Manila-bound treasure ship. Greatly outnumbered
but with superior weaponry and a greedy crew
hungry for loot, the Centurion captured the Cavadonga
after a fierce battle on June 20, 1743. Victory was sweet for
the beleaguered Englishman. The booty came to somewhat
more than 1.3 million pieces of eight and some
35,000 ounces of silver, worth a total of about £400,000.
Thus fortified, Anson and his crew continued on their
voyage around the world, arriving in London in June 1744
to a conqueror’s welcome as the treasure they had captured
was paraded through the streets in 32 wagons.
Anson may have failed at his mission, meeting none
of the objectives set for him by the Royal Navy command,
but his world cruise, highlighted by the sailing of the first
British warship into Chinese waters and by the capture of
the Manila galleon, became one of the more famous voyages
in naval history. Despite the loss of all but one ship
and more than 1,000 men, Anson returned a national
hero, and his cruise sparked a wave of British expansion
into the Pacific. Anson, a man of some imagination and
initiative at a time when the Royal Navy was known for
anything but the vision and pluck of its officers, not only
became George, Lord Anson, the leading admiral of his
day, but also went down in history as the “Father of the
Modern British Navy.”

Further reading: W. V. Anson, Life of Admiral Lord
Anson, the Father of the British Navy, 1697–1762 (London:
J. Murray, 1912); S. W. C. Pack, Admiral Lord Anson: The
Story of Anson’s Voyage and Naval Events of His Day (London:
Cassell, 1960); L. A. Wilcox, Anson’s Voyage (New
York: St. Martin’s Press, 1970).

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