Review: The Prize of All the Oceans: The Dramatic True Story of Commodore Anson's Voyage Round the World and How He Seized the Spanish Treasure Galleon
by Glyn Williams
New York: Viking, 1999, 264 pp.
Published in Albion, 2001
This is a grand story, full of disaster, suffering, courage, wealth, and glory. On September 18, 1740, not long after England had declared war against Spain, Commodore George Anson set sail from London on a secret mission to capture the enemy's treasure fleet as it sailed from Acapulco to Manila. His 1,900 sailors and marines and eight vessels (six naval, two merchant) ran headlong into an almost Biblical series of misfortunes: ravaging disease, violent storms near Cape Horn, shipwreck, mutiny. Reduced to "poverty, vermin, death, and destruction," hundreds of men died "like rotten sheep" (pp. 35, xx). Many of the survivors "turned Mad and Idiots with the Scurvey" (p. 131). Almost 1,400 of the original contingent perished by illness or starvation. Dead bodies at times littered the decks because the living lacked the strength to throw them overboard. Seven of the ships were eventually wrecked, scuttled, or forced to turn back.
Anson's flagship, the Centurion, somehow survived these ordeals and captured the smaller of two treasure galleons, Nuestra Señora de Covadonga, in June 1743. Anson returned to London on June 15, 1744, with 187 original members of the expedition, 1,313,843 pieces of eight, and 35,682 ounces of virgin silver. It took thirty-two wagons to carry all of the loot to the Tower, and three years to settle all of the legal claims upon it. Anson and his crew were celebrated far and wide, high and low, in books and newspapers, poetry and song. The official account, A Voyage Round the World by George Anson, published in 1748, has gone through 90 reprints in numerous languages, helping to make the circumnavigation one of the most famous in maritime history.
This dramatic tale has found a distinguished chronicler in Glyn Williams, who has mastered the primary sources in English and Spanish archives and brought new evidence to bear, especially a recently discovered "Secret History" that sheds important new light on the expedition. Williams demonstrates a sure grasp of the many contexts and subtleties of his subject, and he consistently makes sound, insightful judgments. He has included 35 illustrations and 5 maps, all well chosen, to illustrate the text. Moreover, Williams modestly refuses to oversell his subject: he does not attempt to draw from Anson's tale broad conclusions about Britain or the world in the middle of the eighteenth century. He is content to note the effects of the voyage on the treatment of scurvy, the design and adoption of naval uniforms, and, perhaps most significantly, the beginnings of British imperialism in the Pacific. All things considered, The Prize of All the Oceans is a highly crafted, gracefully written, altogether excellent narrative history.
And yet some scholars may wish for more. For example, Native Americans appear at several important points in Anson's story, but Williams shows no curiosity about them. They are merely "Indians," as opaque to the modern historian as they were to the eighteenth-century commodore. Something similar may be said of the treatment of Anson's critical encounters with the Chinese in Canton both before and after his capture of the great prize. We get a few tantalizing glimpses of how the mandarins and merchants saw Anson, "the commander of the red-haired people," and his fan kwae ("foreign devils"), but the Chinese actors in the unfolding drama are distant and one-dimensional (pp. 180, 183). Finally - and to show that this is not simply a matter of ethnocentrism - Williams says little about the common sailors aboard the Centurion. They were the proverbial motley crew - English (and no doubt Irish and Scottish) but also "Dutch, French, Spaniards, Italians, Germans, Swedes, Danes, Muscovites, Portuguese, Lascar Indians, Malays, Persians, Indians of Manila, Timor and Guam, Negroes of Guinea, Creoles of Mexico and Mozambique" (pp. 201-202). Williams writes that "Nowhere is there any direct record of the lower-deck point of view" in the sources (p. 27), but this is no justification, coming as it does from a historian who adeptly and routinely uses indirect evidence and reads between the lines of the numerous primary accounts.
The Prize of All the Oceans will appeal to the scholar, the student, and the general reader. It was my own good fortune to read it aboard a ship that was, like Anson's, circling the globe, and to begin it in waters that "lucky Anson" himself sailed, just east of the Cape of Good Hope. Lucky will be the reader, on sea or on land, who encounters this memorable book of maritime adventure.
University of Pittsburgh