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Anson: Royal Navy Commander and Statesman, 1697-1762

15 Sep 23


(Helion – £29.95)

ISBN 9781804511923

240 pages

David Childs

Between 1740 and June 1744, Commodore George Anson, commanded the most disastrous round-the-world group deployment ever to leave these shores. Only his own ship, Centurion, out of a squadron of eight, completed the voyage. More than 1,300 men died during the passage, mostly from scurvy, and only 145 completed it. Two ships abandoned the voyage off Cape Horn and one Wager was wrecked. But, Anson did capture the Spanish treasure galleon, Covadonga, and return home with a booty of £400,000 in his hold of which a substantial sum came his way (£91,000 or £18 million in 2023 prices).

When criticised for the unauthorised promotion of one of his officers while in Canton, Anson stated, with words which many a commanding officer might frame for his cabin bulkhead:

“It has ever been my opinion that a person entrusted with a command may, and ought to, exceed his orders, and dispense with the common rule of proceedings when extraordinary occasions require it”.

Incidentally, anyone who has not read the account A Voyage Round the World compiled by Anson’s chaplain, Richard Walter, has a treat in store.

By December 1744 Anson was both an MP, a member of the Board of Admiralty and a serious purchaser of landed estates. Now began his long sojourn of reform to transform the amateurish, corrupt and complacent force of the previous decades into a professional fighting navy well equipped to provide Nelson with the fleet that he would need to overpower the French – the fleet which Brian Lavery rightly calls “Anson’s Navy”.[1]

By 1746 Anson was back at sea, in command of the enhanced Western Squadron ordered, with great latitude;

“to cruise on such station or stations as you shall judge proper for intercepting and destroying the ships of the enemy, their convoys outward and homeward bound, and for supressing their privateers and annoying their trade and protecting the trade of his Majesty’s subjects”.

This he did to such effect that his victory in the first Battle of Cape Finisterre (3 May 1747) thwarted the attempt by the French to reinforce both the West and East Indies. Unusually Anson’s slow-moving Prince George took no part in the four- hour battle but his training of his crews and his instructions to his commanders contributed greatly to the victory. So, effective was this leadership that his successor, Admiral Warren, wrote:

“In my life I never served with more pleasure, nor saw half such pains to discipline the fleet.  While I have the honour to continue in it, I will endeavour to follow his example, however short I may fall of it, and could wish to be commanded by him rather than command myself”.

Greater praise could no commander wish for.

Following his victory at sea Anson came ashore and for the most part, thereafter remained at the Admiralty where he instigated essential reforms. This included the introduction of RAS to keep Hawke’s fleet on station and thus contribute to the victory off Quiberon Bay. Half of this book deals with this period (1751 – 1762) and the author’s detailed account makes what might be the dull topic of administration readable by examining the persistent political intrigues of the period and the one event that casts a dark cloud over all of Anson’s other achievements – the execution of Admiral Byng for cowardice. Faced with the loss of Minorca the government needed a sacrifice and it was determined that that should not be one of their own. Blaming Byng cast the spotlight away from the grievous mismanagement that had given the admiral “foul and crazy ships, ill-manned and old”, as well as many other deficiencies from which his deployment suffered.

Shame on you, Anson, but for all that, he was a great naval reformer, sea-commander and wartime strategist, whose multi-faceted career, is well worth a read.

[1] Lavery B., Anson’s Navy, Seaforth, 2021