Ye Gods! What were the British thinking?! When Commodore George Anson was sent out in the 1740’s to proceed to Manila while harassing the last of the great Spanish Armada in South America, he commanded a fleet of eight small ships. Many of the crew had been pressed into service from Chelsea Hospital: small wonder that half of them had died by the time they reached their destination, having succumbed to scurvy and other diseases. Some of the fleet turned back, the Wager was wrecked off the coast of Chile, and Anson’s ship, the sixty-gun Centurion, went on to fulfill its mission alone.
The British were thinking of plunder of course, the rich cargo of the Spanish galleons that sailed to Acapulco from Manila, laden with Chinese silks, teas, and Asian spices. And they were thinking of the galleons that sailed to China filled with gold and silver from Peru. Britain, at war with Spain, was using every opportunity to pillage Spanish towns along the coasts of the Americas, as well as to take the treasure ships. Anson was to get as much booty as possible, and he succeeded brilliantly.
Chaplain Richard Walter, who narrates this tale, accompanied Anson until China, and reconstructed the remainder of his account from other eyewitnesses. Here is his description of the battle of Paita, a small but crucial port in northern Peru sacked by Anson:
But about ten o’clock at night, the ships being then within five leagues of the place, Lieutenant Brett, with the boats under his command, put off, and arrived at the mouth of the bay without being discovered; but no sooner had he entered it, than some of the people, on board a vessel riding at anchor there, perceived him, who instantly put off in their boat, rowing towards the fort, shouting and crying, the English, the English dogs, etc. by which the whole town was suddenly alarmed, and our people soon observed several lights hurrying backwards and forwards in the fort, and other marks of the inhabitants being in great motion…However, before our boats could reach the shore, the people in the fort had got ready some of their cannon, and pointed them towards the landing-place; and though in the darkness of the night it might be well supposed that chance had a greater share than skill in their direction, yet the first shot passed extremely near one of the boats…
…it may not perhaps be improper to give a succinct relation of the booty we made here…our acquisition, though inconsiderable in comparison of what we destroyed, was yet in itself far from despicable; for the wrought plate dollars and other coin which fell into our hands amounted to upwards of £30,000 sterling, besides several rings, bracelets, and jewels, whose intrinsick value we could not then determine; and over and above all this, the plunder, which became the property of the immediate captors, was very great; so that upon the whole it was by much the most important booty we made upon that coast.
The most important ship to be taken however was the galleon returning to Manila with Spanish gold and silver. Walter describes preparations aboard the Centurion:
About noon the Commodore was little more than a league distant from the galeon, and could fetch her wake, so that she could not now escape…Soon after the galeon hauled up her fore-sail, and brought to under top-sails, with her head to the northward, hoisting Spanish colours…Mr. Anson in the mean time, had prepared all things for an engagement on board the Centurion, and had taken all possible care, both for the most effectual exertion of his small strength, and for the avoiding the confusion and tumult, too frequent in actions of this kind.
He picked out about thirty of his choicest hands and best marks-men, whom he distributed into his tops…As he had not hands enough remaining to quarter a sufficient number to each great gun in the customary manner he therefore on his lower tire, fixed only two men to each gun, who were to be solely employed in loading it, whilst the rest of his people were divided into different gangs of ten or twelve men each, which were constantly moving about the decks, to run out and fire such guns as were loaded. By this management he was enabled to make use of all his guns…
The captured Spanish ship had on board 1,313,843 pieces of eight, and 35,682 oz. of virgin silver…(All’s fair!) Walter’s account is full not only of daily life at sea, but of important descriptions of the lands visited on this circumnavigation of the globe. He is also excellent at providing political and historical information that allows the reader to understand this account in context. Anson is a concerned captain and it is easy to see why his career was so spectacular. Sensational reading!