View Full Version : George Anson: Circumnavigation of the World

11-03-2008, 12:22
The story is very complex and there's enough information to fill several books. Here I attempt a very brief description only.

George Anson (1697-1762)

He joined the navy as a volunteer in 1712 aged 15 and became Lieutenant in 1716. He served in the Mediterranean and Baltic. In 1722 he was promoted Captain.

Promotion was rapid. By 1722 he was a Commander and a Post Captain in 1724. He captained HMS Scarborough from 1724 to 1730 and HMS Squirrel from 1733 to 1735. In 1737 he commanded HMS Centurion. This ship was a 60 gun 4th Rate ship of the line. In 1736 Centurion carried the first Harrison chronometer H1. He took the ship to Africa then Jamaica before returning home.

Circumnavigation of he World

In 1739 Anson was given command of a Squadron with the rank of Commodore. His orders were specific and highly ambitious:

1. Capture Calau in Peru and if possible take Lima as well. Lima was the starting point for all of Spain's gold from the New World.
2. Capture Panama and its treasures
3. Capture the Spanish galleon Acapulco
4. Lead a revolt of Peruvians
5. Capture Manilla. This directive was later dropped.

The Squadron consisted of:

Centurion - flagship
Gloucester 50 guns
Severn 50 guns
Pearl 40 guns
Wagner 24 guns
Tyral 8 guns
Two Merchant ships Anna and Industry to carry supplies

500 troops were provided, all invalids and when word got around, a number disappeared so that only 259 came on board. The balance was made up with Marines, all untrained.

The Squadron sailed from Spithead Sep 1740. The were required to oversea a convoy of 150 ships. Delays in departure allowed the French to discover the voyage and 5 Spanish warships were detailed to wait for the the Squadron off Madeira. Anson was delayed by weather and reached Madeira four weeks late. He took on fresh provisions and was able to avoid the Spanish ships.

However food soon started to go bad. As well, the ships were badly overcrowded. Typhus spread through the ships. The fleet reached Santa Carolina off Brazil in December. Here the sick were transferred to shore - 80 from Centurion alone - and the fleet cleaned and fumigated. Here, Tyral's mainmast needed repair and this took a month. They departed Jan 1741. Malaria struck down many crew during the stay but by departure time, crew strength was good. However, unbeknown to them, the Portuguese Governor informed the Spanish of the Fleet's presence and a Spanish Squadron immediately set sail to intercept the English.

During a storm, Tyral's mainmast broke and she had to be taken in tow by Gloucester. Pearl became separated then her captain died. Acting Captain Sampson then bumped into the Spanish Squadron but was able to escape and rejoin the Squadron. Despite being aware of the presence of the Spanish somewhere nearby, Anson had to put into St. Julian where Tyral was patched as well as possible.

Passage through the Horn was a disaster. Huge storms caused much damage and the crew, already suffering from typhus and dysentery, now also contracted scurvy. Hundreds of men died.

Through the Horn at last, they proceeded north. But their dead reckoning was quite wrong and the Squadron narrowly avoided shipwreck. Then another huge storm arose that scattered the ships. Both Centurion and Gloucester reported every sail torn. Centurion reached the agreed upon rendezvous point of Sorocco off the Chilean coast on 8 May. She waited in vain for 2 weeks before Anson decided to sail to Juan Fernandez, another rendezvous. It so happens that his charts were very inaccurate however and hopelessly lost, he returned to his starting point, losing 80 crew along he way. Juan Fernandez was sighted on 9 June. However, by now there were only 8 men and the remaining officers and their servants able to work the ship. No ships were there but Tyral was sighted soon afterwards. She had lost over 50% of her crew and only the Captain, his Lieutenant and 3 crew were able to be on deck. Days later, Gloucester was sighted but it took days for her to come alongside. She had lost 254 crew.

Three weeks later, Anna was sighted. Her crew were in good condition as they had been blown ashore and were able to stay and provision over the following 2 months. A check of Anna revealed she was hopelessly damaged however and Anson ordered her broken up and the crew transferred to Gloucester.

Before leaving in Sep 1741, a census revealed that two-thirds of all crews were dead. As well, the other ships of the Squadron were still missing.

The Severn and Pearl managed to stay together. They suffered great privations and storms before the senior Captain, Legge, ordered the ships to return through the Horn. They reached Rio de Janeiro in June with only 30 men well enough to man the ships. After a month laying up there, the Junior Captain , Murray was keen to return to the Pacific but was over-ruled by Legge and the two ships returned to England, reaching there via the West Indies in Dec 1741. The official report made no mention of the rumour of desertion.

Wager,also hopelessly undermanned, tried to reach the first rendezvous but got hopelessly lost and with so few crew available,she foundered. The crew mutinied but managed to reach dry land. Discipline was impossible to be applied and conditions were harsh. A cutter and two smaller boats were made serviceable but the men were unable to work together and they broke up into factions, each going their own way. Finally, after many remarkable experiences, some 29 of the crew reached England.

Meanwhile back at Juan Fernandez, Anson and his crew were making a good recovery. As well they set about repairing the ships as best they could. Anson pondered what to do. He could not be certain that Britain and Spain were still at war nor did he know anything of the whereabouts of the Spanish Squadron. In fact the Spanish had suffered even worse than Anson going around the Horn. It is likely the two Squadrons passed each other without knowing it.

On 8 Sep, a ship was sighted and Anson gave chase. The other ship, Nuestra Señora del Monte Carmelo, soon surrendered. There was much bullion on board and importantly papers that allowed Anson to realise that a state of war still existed. Both Centurion and Gloucester now prowled the local area, capturing several merchantmen before Gloucester was seen from the land. Anson then attacked the town of Paita, capturing it and gaining £30,000 in gold. Gloucester also captured two vessels and much gold before both ships and their prizes set out for Acapulco. It took time to find it and a plan was made to intercept the gold galleon from Manilla. She was in port getting ready to sail. The Spaniards got wind of this and the galleon did not depart. After making arrangements for the prizes and juggling crew, the ships set sail for China in May 1742.

The trip was expected to be easy but it was not the way. The weather was most unhelpful. Centurion's foremast split then Gloucester lost her mainmast and soon after most of its rigging. Scurvy again broke out and a large leak that couldn't be countered. Gloucester was scuttled. Anson then set out to reach Guam. They landed at nearby Tinian in late August. This was a treasure trove of goodness and the crew recovered dramatically. Of particular interest there was the breadfruit tree.

During a storm Centurion was swept out to sea and Anson had to assume she was lost as there was only a skeleton crew aboard. They tried to prepare a small cutter. But 19 days later, Centurion reappeared. She was blown away again later but now with most of the crew on-board, they were able to return. She set sail for Macao on 20 Oct, arriving there 11 Nov.

Initially they were denied entry or help but eventually it was given and he ship careened.

Concerned that he had failed with all his orders, Anson took the bold step of trying to capture the Acapulco galleon as it approached the Philippines. They left Macao mid April 1743. The enemy was sighted on 20 June and after a short battle was captured. A huge amount of bounty was secured. After repairing the Acapulco, he set sail again for Macao, arriving there in mid July.

The Chinese were most unhelpful and it took two weeks and many threats before permission was granted to sail toward Canton. After much political manoeuvring, she arrived there in early December.

Soon after they sailed again, stopping at Macao where the Acapulco was sold. They then sailed for Cape Town, arriving there 11 March. She left again 7 April and arrived at Spithead 15 June 1744 after nearly 4 years. Only 188 of the original crews had survived. Together with the survivors of the other ships, about 500 made it back of the original 1900.

Anson was feted by one and all. There were the usual disputes over prize money, which amounted to £300,000 in value at the time.

Anson has been compared to Drake. Many new rules were enacted as a result of the voyage and many new expeditions planned. The one surprising omission was any interest in the treatment of scurvy. This had to wait 50 years.

In 1761, Anson was promoted Rear Admiral of the White and in 1761, Admiral of the Fleet. Centurion saw many other adventures in the following years before being broken up at Chatham in 1769. Her figurehead was presented to Greenwich Hospital. In 1871 it crumbled into pieces.

11-03-2008, 13:22
When men were men eh. Good post Herk. I was particularly interested in the H1 Chronometer.I have included a picture. This was invented against stiff opposition by a lowly carpenter from Wakefield in Yorkshire. Who solved the problem of "Longitude" ahead of sailors,scientists and navigators.The chronometer as opposed to the clocks he made only ran for 24 hrs so winding it was a both a priority and an essential task.

11-03-2008, 18:09
I am a great fan of Harrison. What a wondrous feat he achieved and in light of such opposition.

I delighted in seeing all the chronometers at Greenwich a few years ago and I have a working pic of H5 as my computer screen picture.

stewart mcloughlin
12-03-2008, 10:16
That is what history and heritage is made of.
Think you could enlist the same category of boys and men down at the employment exchange today?
It's Alfred, Bligh. Raleigh, Drake, Cook, Newton, Brunel and all the others rolled into one.
Oh to have been the master of the cruise's log and to have had the pleasure of recording the happenings for posterity. That's surmising I would have survived.
Band of Brothers? "And now ladies and gentlemen, on BBC 1, we go over to episode 999 of 'The cruise' ... an everyday story of seafaring folk." Bet that would have been a reunion to go to for a few years, and never the same story told twice. Naah, who'd have believed it. It knocks those 'reality' programmes where they belong. In the bin.

12-03-2008, 14:35
Interesting post, Herk. Although I have of course heard of Anson this is the first time that I have read anything about him. An obvious hole in British naval history that I need to fill!

12-03-2008, 14:38
Anson is referred to in at least one of the O'Brian books as I recall. But I don't have the books to be able to check that.

28-04-2008, 22:17

Just picked this up thanks to your link in my Lind post.

You may be thinking of "The Golden Ocean" but I wouldn't like to swear to it.

One point: The captain of HMS Wager did not die. He did, however, shoot dead a midshipman after a disagreement over pay (at that time sailors were only paid by the navy so long as their ship was afloat; moreover once they were not paid they were not considered bound by naval discipline).

The remaining crew divided into two groups. One of these, led by the captain, sailed north to Valparaiso; among them was another middy, the Hon. John Byron (grandfather of the poet), whose later Narrative was also drawn upon by O'Brien, in this case for "The Unknown Shore".

The remaining group took another ship's boat and made their way to Rio de Janeiro. Once they too returned home there was a flurry of other "true narratives of the voyage of HMS Wager" in their efforts to put their own side of the story.

28-04-2008, 23:33
Thanks for this additional information Jane.

Attempting to write a post here on Anson's remarkable voyage imposed considerable restrictions. I had to leave much out including the points you so rightly make.

I modified my post concerning the death of Wagner.

tim lewin
29-04-2008, 04:45
I have a book called Byron of the Wager, which details the entire episode of the loss of the Wager and the subsequent escape back to England by the two groups. If anyone is interested I can post the ISBN numbers, its a good read and insight to life at sea in those times, there is also a lot of archive material referred to.

29-04-2008, 07:57
Should others wish to read more about Anson, give this link a try. Hopefully it works!

http://books.google.com/books?id=q4ecv_-x4AsC into the address bar, and voila there will be a substantial biography of Anson available for download.


Commodore Armiger
29-04-2008, 15:13
In 1722 he was promoted Captain. Promotion was rapid. By 1722 he was a Commander and a Post Captain in 1724.

Clearly Anson was not promoted to Captain twice. The last sentence is accurate. He was promoted to the rank of Commander in 1722 and took command of HMS Weazle and to Post Captain in 1724, whereupon he took command of HMS Scarborough.

Usually such rapid promotion to Commander in those days was the direct result of having been First Lieutenant of a ship of the line during a major engagement, there being no system of medals for valour in those days. It was a mixed blessing to the recipient as there were few Commander level commands (sloops and brigs) and the rank was not used as 2i/c of a major vessel until the second decade of the 1800s.

Anson was clearly well-connected and/or extremely highly thought of to achieve Commander rank so quickly without having participated in a major fleet action. And then to serve only 2 years before promotion to Post Captain! His contemporaries would have been green with jealousy.

30-04-2008, 14:15
Anson was clearly well-connected and/or extremely highly thought of to achieve Commander rank so quickly without having participated in a major fleet action. And then to serve only 2 years before promotion to Post Captain! His contemporaries would have been green with jealousy.

The Oxford DNB offers this explanation: "As the younger son of a minor country gentleman, Anson came from a background typical of many sea officers, but he had the great advantage that when he entered the navy in 1712 his uncle Thomas Parker (later first earl of Macclesfield) was already lord chief justice, and subsequently lord chancellor."

As whoever-it-was said:

"The gates of Fame are open wide,
Its halls are always full;
And some go in by the door marked Push
And some by the door marked Pull."

Jim in Annville
12-05-2008, 14:34
The story of commodore Anson was the one that caught my interest in that era. I read a book titled The Manila Galleon when I was a teenager in High School . I was hooked from that point on.:D

12-05-2008, 20:38
A very interesting story about Anson.
My first knowledge of the name occurred at HMS Raleigh in 1963.
Anson was the name of a Division, together with Benbow and Collingwood.
I believe that I was in Collingwood Division and, at Divisions each morning, after all of the classes were marched onto the parade ground and facing the front of the parade ground, the order was given "Anson, Benbow and Collingwood Divisions, right incline" After which the said Divisions turned a half turn to the right, so that they faced the main mast.
A ceremonial salute was then given whilst the White Ensign was raised up the main mast,
Roman Candles then fell out and went to the drill shed for prayers, while the other denominations received prayers from the padre, after which the order "Anson, Benbow and Collingwood Divisions, left incline" was then given and the said Divisions turned a half turn to the left, facing the front of the parade.
Divisions were then marched off to commence their daily instruction.

Seems as if it was only yesterday, and hard to appreciate that it was 45 years ago next month .....................

12-05-2008, 20:45
That's a nice reminisce. It's always good to see examples of great men in history being remembered.

We shouldn't live in the past of course but our present was partly formed by such men.

25-08-2008, 09:37

You may be thinking of "The Golden Ocean" but I wouldn't like to swear to it.

Yes, that's the book. Patrick O'Brian's first, published around 1956. This is before his Maturin/Aubrey books - but just as good.

Jan Steer
27-08-2008, 07:28
Interesting stuff. I've long been a fan of our sea faring heroes. You might like to look out for, "The Log of the Centurion", which is exactly as it says on the cover. Loads of detail and beautiful pictures too. Philip Saumarez was quite a guy. If I remember correctly (no doubt one of you will put me right!) he got the captaincy of "London" in recognition of his services on the Anson voyage
Jan Steer

Angus MacSporran
12-07-2009, 19:56
Interesting stuff. I've long been a fan of our sea faring heroes. You might like to look out for, "The Log of the Centurion", which is exactly as it says on the cover. Loads of detail and beautiful pictures too. Philip Saumarez was quite a guy. If I remember correctly (no doubt one of you will put me right!) he got the captaincy of "London" in recognition of his services on the Anson voyage
Jan Steer

I have a copy of 'The Log of the Centurion' by Leo Heaps and a wonderful story it makes. Philip Saumarez was indeed a fine officer and friend of George Anson who had great faith in his abilities. The culmination of the circumnavigation was the return to London of 32 wagons of treasure from the 'Manila Galleon' which amounted to an estimated £800,000 (possibly £70M in todays value) or approximately one third of the Royal Navys' then annual budget. This was the greatest ever prize returned by any Navy ship and has never been surpassed. Philip Saumarez was made Captain and given command of 'Nottingham' in 1746with which he captured the Mars, one of the most prized French men of war, off Cape Clear. Killed by a French cannonball in 1747 aged 34, he left a brilliant naval career unfullfilled.

Incidentally, some 20 years ago, I found an old lithographic(?) print in a second-hand shop. It is inscribed,
'To the Rt Hon. George Lord Anson, Baron of Soberton, One of the Lords Commissioners ofthe Admiralty and Vice Admiral of the Blue Squadron of His Majestys fleet, This Plate is most humbly dedicated by his most obedient servant, Christopher Seton. *A view and prospect of the town and harbour of Portsmouth with the Fleet under the Rt Hon George Lord Anson Vice Admiral, The Hon. Sir Peter Warren Rear Admiral, returning and bringing with them the French Fleet taken off Cape Finisterre the 3rd of May 1747* It hangs over this desk as I write.

Jan Steer
13-07-2009, 07:33
Thanks Angus. My confusion over the ship's name stems from my singing of a folk song called, "Warlike Seaman". It is one of those classic moments in folk song history when the words become blurred. Possibly because other seaman want to be part of the glory expressed in the words or simply because the singer got confused with the words. When that confusion constantly repeats itself then the mistake rather than the original becomes the accepted version.
In the song, about the taking of a French warship, the beginning talks about the Nottingham but in later verses the hero is Sommerville and the ship London. Its many years since I read about the Centurion and I couldn't remember which ship was which!
Many thanks

best wishes