Wednesday, 25 November 2009

History: Admiral Anson, part 1

Admiral Lord Anson, 1697-1762

(This essay will be in 2 parts: Part 2 can be found as a separate entry on this blog)

Admiral Anson is best remembered as the man who sailed round the world in the early 1740s, but there is much more to his career than that. His real importance can be summed up in a comment made by Lord Lyttleton in 1759:- "We talk of nothing here but the French invasion: they are certainly making such preparations as have never been made to invade this island since the Spanish Armada, but I trust in God and Lord Anson". We shall see how this faith was justified.

The Ansons were said to be an old Staffordshire family, but the founder of the family's home at Shugborough, on the confluence of the Trent and Sow near Stafford, was William Anson, a rich and successful London lawyer who built a large brick house there in the 1690s. He was not a particularly significant figure compared withthe families who dominated mid-Staffordshire; the Bagots, Chetwynds, Pagets and Gowers; and his house was far less grand than their mansions like Tixall and Beaudesert, but his family were clearly moving up in the world, and he had useful political connexions through his wife. When William Anson died in 1720, Shugborough was inherited by his eldest son, Thomas; a cultivated man with a deep interest in music and classical architecture, but it was his second son George, born in 1697, who was the true founder of the family's fortunes.

An early historian of Staffordshire, William Pitt, informs us that "the bent of Mr Anson's genius was directed towards an active rather than a studious profession", and that after only "the rudiments of a classical education" he went to sea at the age of 14, as servant to Captain Chamberlain on board the "Ruby". Young George must have decided this was the life for him, because in 1716 he was commissioned as a Midshipman, learning the art of navigation, and then as Lieutenant, on the warship "Hampshire".

These were uncertain times. Ten years of the mighty conflict known as the War of the Spanish Succession had recently ended with a decisive triumph for Britain and her allies over France, but many nations were dissatisfied with the terms of the peace settlement negotiated at Utrecht in 1713. In Britain the Hanoverian George I had come to the throne in 1714, but many at home and abroad supported the excluded Jacobite line and their claimant, the exiled James Edward Stuart. In 1715-16 James had attempted a rising in Britain, which had failed through incompetent leadership; but the way was open for any country quarreling with Britain to stir up trouble by encouraging the Jacobites. Hence Asnon's ship was sent to the Baltic, where Admiral Norris's fleet hoped to deter any hostile action from the Swedes, who had a territorial dispute in Germany with King George, and also to keep an eye on the new and alarming power in the north: Russia under Peter the Great.

Another discontented country was Spain, which had lost its empire in the islands of the western Mediterranean, and now tried to regain it with an invasion of Sicily. In 1718 Anson served on a fleet under Admiral Byng that was dispatched to prevent this. The Spanish fleet was defeated at the battle of Cape Passaro, where Anson had his first taste of action. Sicily was saved, and next year a Spanish landing in western Scotland, intended to spark off another Jacobite rising, was easily crushed.

In 1724 Anson was promoted to Captain, with his own warship. Peace had returned, and Sir Robert Walpole, the leader of the pro-Hanoverian Whig party, was now Prime Minister and firmly in control. Captain Anson spent most of the next decade across the Atlantic, guarding against the pirate threat to the American colony of South Carolina, where Anson County still bears witness to his presence. He was given no long-term leave till 1735, and then two years later was sent on a similar mission to protect British trading interests in West Africa.

For almost twenty years, Walpole managed to presrve peace in Western Europe, but a downside of his policy was that, to save money and balance the books, he allowed the armed forces to decline significantly. In consequence when war did return, Britain was perilously ill-prepared. This was exposed in 1739, when allegations of Spanish mistreatment of British merchants in South America led to the magnificently-named "War of Jenkins' Ear" against Spain. It is certain that Walpole did not want this war, but was hustled into it by divisions in the cabinet and a skilful propaganda campaign on behalf of the London mercantile interests. He was an aging man now, and beginning to lose his grip on events.

It was decided to fight this war entirely overseas, not in Europe, so Admiral Vernon was sent to attack Spanish bases in the Caribbean, and Anson was chosen for a particularly grandiose plan in the best traditions of Francis Drake: he was to sail round Cape Horn and plunder Spanish trade in the Pacific. The hub of Spanish power in the Far East was the Philippines, from which annual treasure ships sailed across to Panama, and thence back to Spain. All well and good, but then there were delays, the plan kept being changed, and instead of regular troops Anson was only given the services of 500 Chelsea Pensioners! Half of these, the ones who were still physically capable of running away, promptly deserted, and were very wise to do so, since of those who stayed with the expedition, not one returned alive.

Anson eventually set sail in September 1740, in his flagship the 60-gun "Centurion", with seven other ships and 1,500 men. He was already too late to reach the Horn in good weather. Furthermore, the Spaniards had learnt of his plans and sent out a fleet to intercept him, which fortunately was destroyed by storms. After noting the potential usefulness of the Faulkland Islands as a future British naval base, Anson rounded the Horn in appalling weather in March 1741. The crews were decimated by scurvy, and only three ships survived to rendezvous at the island of Juan Fernandez off the coast of Chile in June. (This was the island where the Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk had been marooned from 1704 to 1709, thus inspiring Daniel Defoe to write "Robinson Crusoe") The island was currently uninhabited, but had good supplies of food and water, and the expedition spent the next three months there, recuperating. Anson won the lasting affection of his men by the way he shared their hardships and took his turn in the hard labour.

When they were sufficiently recovered, Anson was able to go on the attack. He captured a number of Spanish merchant ships and seized the treasure of the town of Patia. He then set out to cross the Pacific. They were becalmed, the expedition was reduced to just one ship,scurvy struck, with Anson himself laid low, until in late summer they reached the little island of Tinian, east of the Philippines and south of Japan. This formed part of the Spanish empire, but was almost uninhabited. Only 72 cewmen were still fit enough to anchor the "Centurion" and come ashore for supplies. This almost led to disaster, because while Anson and most of his men were on land their ship was blown away in a typhoon, and for three weeks they faced the prospect of being marooned, before eventually the skeleton crew were able to find their way back to the island. (Tinian is now part of the North Marianas islands group. It was from here that in August 1945 the American B29s took off to drop the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki)

What was left of Anson's force reached the Portugese base of Macao on the coast of China in November 1742, and then set off for the Philippines. They knew a Spanish treasure-ship would be sailing at this time of year, and for three weeks they lay in wait out of sight of land near Cape Espiritu Santo. Their patience was finally rewarded in June 1743 when they intercepted the galleon "Nuesta Senora de Cabadongo", out of Manila, bound for Acapulco. She was a much bigger ship than the "Centurion", but they took her after a sharp fight. An immense treasure in silver bullion and coin was captured, including 1.3 million "pieces of eight": all worth several million pounds in today's money.

The next stop was Canton in southern China. Anson was the first Royal Navy captain to land there, and initally the Chinese Emperor's viceroy and his mandarins received the new arrivals with suspicion; but there were British merchants on hand to translate for them, and when fire broke out in the city the sailors won the admiration and gratitude of everyone by the courage and efficiency with which they extinguished the blaze. Anson was presented with a dinner service decorated in Chinese style, which can still be seen at Shugborough. He sold the Spanish galleon to the Chinese and released all his prisoners (though 95 of them chose to stay and serve with him). The "Centurion" then set out for home.

It took three months to sail through the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra (the site of Krakatoa) in what was then the Dutch East Indies, and across the Indian Ocean to Cape Town, another Dutch base. There they halted for another month, taking on supplies and engaging fresh crew, before setting out on the final lap of the voyage. They narrowly avoided being intercepted by a French fleet in the Channel, thanks to fog, and eventually landed at Spithead in June 1744. They had been away from home for three years and nine months.

The treasure was sent to London in a covoy of 32 wagons, guarded by 139 sailors. It was the greatest wealth ever brought back in a single ship. Anson became a national hero, lauded by the press. He was also now a very rich man, since by custom of the time a captain was allowed to keep 3/8 of any treasure he managed to seize. An account of the expedition, written by Richard Walter, chaplain on the "Centurion", was published in 1748, became an instant best-seller, and has remained in print ever since. The last surviving sailor of the expedition, George Gregory, died in 1804 at the age of 109. The figurehead of the "Centurion", a lion rampant, was eventually by order of King William IV installed in the "Anson Ward" of Greenwich hospital.

(The second part of this essay, describing Anson's pivotal role in the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years' War, is available, also under the heading of History: Admiral Anson)

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