"Stay, traveller, awhile and view
One who has travell'd more than you;
Quite round the globe, through each degree,
Anson and I have plough'd the sea."
The story of Lord Anson's famous voyage in the Centurion, and his capture of the great Spanish treasure-ship, is one of the finest records of the sea.
Frederick the Great had just ascended the throne of Prussia when Anson started off on his expedition against the Spaniards. England and Spain had once more been quarrelling over their trading rights in America, and matters were brought to a crisis by an episode known as "Jenkins's ear." One day an English merchant captain, called Jenkins, told a story in London of how he had been tortured by the Spaniards. He produced from a little box a human ear, which he declared the Spaniards had cut off and bid him take to the English king. England was furious at this insult, and war became inevitable.
George Anson, captain of the ship Centurion, was now appointed to command an expedition bound for the East India islands by way of South America, with orders to ravage the coast of Peru, capture the Spanish treasure-ships sailing from Mexico, and repeat as far as possible the dashing exploits of Hawkins and Drake a hundred and sixty years before.
The expedition met with delays in starting. It was difficult to get sailors and soldiers for the enterprise, which had to be kept as secret as possible. At last 500 old and infirm soldiers were told off for service under Anson: some were over seventy years of age, some were cripples. The unhappy invalids were unwilling to go, and "all who had limbs and strength to walk away, deserted."
Thus handicapped from the start, Anson at last set out on his "ill-fated but splendid voyage." The year was far advanced, and they were so delayed by winter storms and gales that they took forty days to reach Madeira, a voyage now performed in four days. It was March before they reached the south of America. No longer were the Straits, where Magellan and Drake had encountered such terrific storms, the acknowledged sea-route to the Pacific Ocean. Ships now sailed round Cape Horn, at the extreme south of the island known as Tierra del Fuego, the Land of Fire. The weather was now pleasant, and thinking the worst was over, Anson cheered himself by planning his raid on the Spanish treasure-ships. But no sooner had they reached the extreme south than a tremendous storm of wind, accompanied by hail and rain, broke over the little fleet.
"Never were fiercer seas or blacker skies more cruelly edged with sleet and ice. The very sails were frozen. The rigging was turned into mere ladders of ice. The decks were slippery as glass, and the great seas dashed over them incessantly. The groaning and overstrained ships let in water in every seam, and for over fifty days each furious gale was followed, by one yet more furious."
It was a desperate time of year to attempt such a dangerous passage, and it was a wonder that any of the little ships escaped complete destruction. As it was, after two months of battling with wind and waves, the Centurion found herself alone on the Pacific Ocean. Still there was no peace. Strong westerly gales raged day after day, till the long narrow coast of Chili became "one mad tumult of foam." The skies were dark and black, and when from time to time a glimmer of light made its way through the darkness, it was only to show the heights of the Andes white with snow.
And now a fresh trouble arose. Scurvy broke out among the crew. The legs and arms of the men broke out into open sores, old wounds broke out afresh. They died at the rate of five and six a-day, until 200 had found their last rest under the stormy sea. Still storm upon storm broke over the now half-wrecked ship, full of sick and dying men, until at last the Centurion and two battered ships—all that was left of the fleet that had started—found a long-sought shelter in the harbour of the island of Juan Fernandez, off the southern coast of America. Of the 961 men who had sailed from England, only 335 were left alive. How could such as these ever hope to capture Spanish treasure-ships? But the brave heart of Anson was undaunted; each fresh disaster made him only more determined to succeed.
After a stay of 130 days on the island for repairs and refreshment, he set sail for the coast of Chili and Peru. How he captured the Spanish town of Paita at dead of night with only sixty British sailors, and carried off the silver from the treasury, is a story unsurpassed in naval history. Sailing on past Panama, he next laid wait off Acapulco for one of the great Mexican treasure-ships, but the Spaniards caught sight of an English sail in the distance, and they kept their treasure-ships at home. Had not the fight of Sir Richard Grenville on the little Revenge taught them to beware of the Englishman at sea?
It was no use waiting there any longer, so Anson turned his ships and faced the trackless path of the lonely Pacific Ocean. It was now May 1742. Two ships were left him now, and a furious gale disabled one; so the Centurion alone, with her great figurehead of a huge lion rampant carved in wood, ploughed the merciless waves of the wide Pacific. Scurvy was again doing its work and carrying off the crew by scores. Food was bad, water scarce; but for three months Anson resolutely kept on his way until the Ladrone Islands were reached. He was now down with scurvy himself, but pure water and fresh fruits soon revived the drooping men, and onwards they sailed once more.
It was now two years since he had left England,—years of hardship and suffering, of heroism unshaken by plague or storm. But his orders were yet unfulfilled. A treasure-ship from Mexico was due at the Philippine Islands on its way home to Spain. It would be a "stout ship and fully manned," probably with a crew of 600. Anson's crew was now 201. Should they try and capture her? With a shout of joy the stout-hearted sailors expressed their willingness to do or die. It was early dawn, one morning in June, when a cry rang through the silent air, "The ship! the ship!"
The Spanish vessel bore in sight, and the little Centurion sailed quickly towards her. In a squall of wind and rain Anson attacked her while she was yet totally unprepared. He scourged the Spanish decks with fire and drove the men from their guns. Soon he had captured his prize. With a mere handful of men, for he lost 150 killed and wounded, he navigated his own ship and the Spanish galleon through dangerous and unknown seas, he rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and landed in England on June 15, 1744, with his treasure. His voyage had been yet more amazing than that of Drake 160 years before. Amid unrivalled disaster Anson had brought his ship right round the world, he had fulfilled his orders, and he had added enduring fame to the British flag.