Commodore George Anson and Lieutenant Philip Saumarez were pacing the quarter deck of His Majesty’s ship 60 gun ship ‘Centurion’. The other seven ships of the squadron following behind them down the English Channel.
It was 1740 and England and Spain were at war.
“We are making good time Mr. Saumarez, the squadron sails remarkably well.”
“Indeed. Sir”, replied Saumarez “Our passage to Madeira is set fair!”
Anson drew Saumarez aside out of earshot of the crew. “Now Lieutenant – I can reveal our orders. We are to sail into the Pacific and attack Spanish trade and shipping there. The Spanish won’t be expecting us- they will think they are too far away – but they have reckoned without the Royal Navy!”
Anson turned away to share this information with the rest of his officers.
Saumarez could hardly stop himself from doing a jig on the deck! The Spanish ships were known to be carrying great riches taken from their newly acquired lands – now Spanish colonies – in the Americas. If they captured even one of these ships it would make him rich beyond his dreams!
Suddenly he stopped and looked anxiously at the ships following behind. It was going to be a long journey – and dangerous – would the crew and the ships be up to it? They had had problems recruiting and of the 1900 men they had managed to scrape together many were pensioners or invalids. The ships were not the pick of the fleet either, the frigate ‘Severn’ was clumsy and slow and it was essential that they kept together.
They had two small supply ships – ‘Anna’ and ‘Industry’ but the supplies they carried would only last a short time, then they would have to get what they needed wherever they could.
It wasn’t going to be an easy mission.
The problems began almost immediately. The passage to Madeira took much longer than they had planned and supplies ran low. Then scurvy struck the crews as the ships sailed on from Madeira to Brazil.
Scurvy- the scourge of seamen everywhere.
Do you know the symptoms of the scurvy?
Gums become swollen, teeth fall out, large spots and ulcers appear on the whole body. Legs become inflamed, sinews contract and turn as black as coal. Old wounds re-open, eyesight fails, delirium, depression, idiocy and lunacy set in and convulsions wrack the frame. Words cannot express the misery the victims suffer.
The crews and the Officers were close to despair when finally a cry from the crow’s nest gave them hope. The ship was within sight of St Catherine’s Isle off Brazil!
“Bosun!” called Saumarez
“Send the men ashore – stock up on supplies and make sure the men gather plentiful supplies of fresh fruit. We must win the fight against the Scurvy!”
Eventually, refreshed and with repairs to the ships complete. Commodore Anson and his crews continued on their way down the eastern coast of South America.
But there was more danger ahead – Cape Horn!
Saumarez was now in charge of the squadron’s navigation but, beset by violent storms, rocks and raging currents, only three battered ships ‘Centurion’, ‘Gloucester’ and ‘Tryall’ rounded the Horn and made it up the coast to Juan Fernandez Island. ‘Pearl’ and ‘Severn’ had been forced to turn back to Rio De Janiero and ‘Wager’ was presumed lost. ‘Tryall’ was in such a sorry state that Anson decided to use her to repair the two remaining ships. He would need her crew too – out of the 1900 men they had started with he was now down to 335.
Despite all their problems, during the following months things started to look up. Anson, Saumarez and the crews successfully harassed the Spanish ships in the Pacific disrupting their trade and taking a number of ‘prizes’.
In a confident mood, Anson gave his orders, “Now Mr Saumarez, North to Mexico! We’ll crown our success by taking the Apaculco Treasure Galleon!”
However, things didn’t work out quite as he planned. The treasure ship stayed in port. They waited – and waited. The bosun sang;
“Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath, nor motion.
As idle as two painted ships
Upon the scorching ocean”
They were unable to capture a treasure galleon off the coast of Mexico and more of Anson’s men succumbed to the scurvy. The crew was now down to 99 men and 19 boys – not enough for two ships. The ‘Gloucester’ was in the worst state.
“Burn the ‘Gloucester’!” ordered Anson “and bring the remaining crew and supplies over to ‘Centurion’. We have one last hazard Mr Saumarez. We shall cross the Pacific towards China and take the Acapulco Galleon there!”
Saumarez, one of the few surviving officers, kept his fears to himself, but with only one ship, a long journey and such a small crew this was madness. What hope did they have?
The journey was dreadful. But with a damaged ship and many more crew lost, they eventually arrived at Macao on the coast of China.
The Chinese authorities needed a lot of persuading but eventually they agreed to help get the ‘Centurion’ back into fighting order.
Several weeks later they were ready to set sail again.
“Right Mr Saumarez, we are ready for one last attack. We shall find the Manila Galleon and capture the ship and its cargo for Britain!”
Saumarez summoned the remaining crew.
“Men, we shall not be sailing for home just yet. One last effort – we shall cruise off the Philippines and intercept the treasure galleon – the ‘Prize of all the Oceans’ shall be ours!”
“But we’ll be outnumbered, sir!”
“Each man will do the work of two. We may be undermanned but we’ll keep the guns a-blazing. The Spaniards think we are a ragged gang of pirates sailing in an unseaworthy ship – we’ll show ‘em what British tars can do, eh Bosun? Target practice, while we wait – stand to your guns men!”
They waited – and waited. In the still, hot and sultry weather – it seemed as if the Spaniards would have the last laugh. The bosun sang;
“With throats unslaked, with black lips baked,
We could not laugh or wail.
Through utter drought all dumb we stood,
Shall I bite my arm and suck the blood?”
Then – at last- a cry!
The crew ran to their stations.
“Fire from aloft and alow men!” ordered Saumarez
“She’s returning our fire Sir”, cried the bo’sun
“We’re coming alongside!’ shouted Saumarez. ‘Broadsides now– ball and grape, we’re causing havoc! Their fire is slackening, They’ve struck their colours! Give a cheer men! Bosun – boarding party – with me!”
“Aye, aye Sir.”
The Manila Galleon had been taken!
The crew of 500 were taken prisoner – and what treasure the ‘Nuestra Senora de Cobadonga’ was carrying! It took days to collect and count – one and a half million dollars worth! Gold, coins and exquisite jewellery stored everywhere- hidden in sacks and even stuffed into whole cheeses!
Saumarez took over as Captain of the ‘Prize’ and four years on from the start of their adventure, In 1744, Anson and his remaining crew returned safely back to England to a tumultuous welcome.
It took 32 wagons to carry the treasure from Plymouth where they landed, to the Tower of London. As their reward, most of the crew got about £300 each, enough to buy a nice little pub in Portsmouth. Commodore Anson did rather better. His share of the prize money came to a cool £91,000!
And Saumarez? Well he got mixed up with the lawyers over his share of the prize. In the end he received £7605 which was enough to establish the family fortune in Guernsey.
Sadly he didn’t live long to enjoy it as he was killed 3 years later at the battle of Finisterre, aged only 36.