Posted by: Rob Viens | May 22, 2012

George Anson’s Voyage Round the World

On May 22nd Darwin spent the evening wrapping up George Anson’s page-turner A Voyage Round the World in 1740.  He writes:

“This has been my alternate day of rest, whilst working at the yesterdays collecting. — I give up the evenings to reading & writing; in the latter, the number of friends to whom I am in debt keeps me in full employment. I have just finished Ansons voyage, my pleasure in reading such works is at least trebled by expecting to see some of the described places & in knowing a little about the sea. ” (May 22)

So who was this George Anson and what happened on that voyage almost 100 years before the voyage of the Beagle?  Well, I can’t pass up a good adventure story – filed with scurvy, ship wrecks and pieces of eight – so read on….

George Anson:
George Anson
George Anson was a born in 1697 and entered the navy in 1712. Anson was a career navy man, quickly moving through the ranks, ultimately reaching the highest rank possible – Admiral of the Fleet. During a later career in politics, Anson returned to his naval roots, serving as First Lord of the Admiralty from 1751 until his death in 1757. During that time he instituted several reforms in the Royal Navy that were still in effect in 1832 (such as the reassignment of the Royal Marines to the navy (remember there were several on the Beagle) and the issuing of uniforms to commissioned officers).

In 1740, Anson received orders to travel to South America and attack, capture and/or disrupt Spanish colonies.  Why?  Well, (1) England was at war with Spain and (2) Spain was shipping back a lot of loot from the New World and England wanted in on the action. So on September 18, 1740, Anson set sail for the New World with 8 ships – 6 warships and 2 merchant (supply) ships – and over 1800 men. His flagship was the forth-rate, 60 gun ship, the Centurion.

Anson’s Voyage (Wikipedia Commons):
Route of Anson's Voyage
By November the small fleet had already lost one merchant ship, and by the time they reached Brazil in December typhus and dysentery were severely plaguing the crew. Needless to say, they were not off to a good start.

They tried to recoup their loses by cleaning the ships (with smoke, water and vinegar), but while part of the crew was waiting onshore they came down with Malaria and several men died. Meanwhile, a Spanish fleet of 5 powerful warships that had been alerted to Anson’s mission, passed him in Brazil and sailed to the west coast to defend the Spanish territories.

The small fleet of ships headed south, facing more storms, loss of supplies, damages and an outbreak of scurvy. By the time they had reached the Pacific Ocean the  scurvy outbreak had taken the lives of several hundred sailors. Furthermore, they faced severe storms, so that by June of 1741, only 3 ships (including the flagship), manned by scurvy-sickened crews were left. By September only about 600 sailors from the start of the voyage were still alive and with Anson.

It turns out two of the lost ships turned back, and although they lost much of their crew, did return to England.  A third ship (the Wager) was wrecked and the captain faced a mutiny by the crew.

Plate from Anson’s Voyage off the western coast of South America:
plate from Anson's book
After having some success in fighting the Spanish off the coast of South America, the little convoy of remaining ships decided to return home via the Pacific Ocean and China. After springing several leaks, another ship of the fleet was lost and it’s crew and supplies taken on board the Centurion (which had its own set of leaks). On the verge of sinking, they made it to Guam to make repairs. And to add insult to injury, while in Guam the flagship was blown out to see by storm and presumed lost. Amazingly they were able to regain the ship and make it to China.

At last the Centurion had a success to write home about.  In June 1743, they captured the Spanish galleon the Covadonga. The Covadonga was what was known at the time as a Manila-Acapulco Galleon – essentially a treasure ship. So along with several Spanish charts, Anson and his crew captured over 1.3 million pieces of eight and more than 35,000 ounces of silver. Since English crews that captured an enemy ship were granted a share of the takings (“prize money”) the remaining crew members were suddenly quite wealthy.  In the end, seamen earned about £300 (about 20 years wages) and the captain raked in £91.000 (for reference, his salary for the entire voyage was £719).

Capture du galion espagnol Nuestra Señora de Covadonga par le navire britannique Centurion, commandé par George Anson, le 20 juin 1743. by Samuel Scott.(Wikipedia Commons)
Capture of the Covadonga by Anson

After several more adventures, Anson and his 188 remaining crew members completed their circumnavigation of the Earth and returned to England – almost 4 years after they left

It is interesting to see the similarities between the route of the Centurion and that of the Beagle. Even though some things (such as scurvy and typhus) were not as significant an issue in 1832, it is still amazing (and a testimony to FitzRoy) how much more successful the Beagle voyage was.

With all the tragedy of the Anson’s voyage, it is also interesting to see Darwin “pleasure” upon reading it .  It harkens to his love of Humboldt – he really seemed to like a good adventure.

A first edition of Anson’s book (from Bauman Rare Books) – it sells for almost $10,000!
Anson's book

Want to peruse what Darwin was reading this week 180 years ago? You can find Anson’s Voyage Round the World written by his chaplain Richard Walter in 1748 at Project Gutenberg. It is sort of cool to be reading the same thing as Darwin, on the same night 180 years ago today! (RJV)


  1. […] of historic voyages of exploration, such as George Anson’s Voyage Round the World, Humboldt’s Personal Narratives, Cook’s Voyages and La Perouse’s Voyage Round the […]

  2. […] scientific explorations of Humboldt (see Darwin on Humboldt) to the voyages of George Anson (see George Anson’s Voyage Round the World).  The Beagle library is stocked with such tales and Darwin likes to make reference to them in his […]

  3. […] PS – For more stories of Englishmen picking off Manila Galleons see George Anson’s Voyage Round the World. […]

  4. […] St. Julian from an early edition of George Anson’s Voyage Round the World (via – click on the link above for more on George […]

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