One of the most remarkable events in Marianas history was the unplanned visit of Commodore George Anson to Tinian in 1742, some 40 years after the Spanish depopulation of the island. His eighth-generation namesake, George Anson, his wife, and son are right now following the commodore’s route from England to Tinian, where he landed in January 2020 and walked in his great-sire’s footsteps. This brief history explains how Commodore Anson’s visit to Tinian contributed to Marianas hHistory and the results of his global mission.
George Anson was born on April 23, 1697, to a modest family living at Shugborough, England, not quite 30 years after Padre Sanvitores established the first Spanish mission in the Marianas. He joined the Royal Navy in 1712 during the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714). Using their negotiating skills to end the war, and backed by their powerful navy, the British managed to reduce the power of France and secured the Protestant succession for the British throne. The war marked Britain’s rise as the leading European maritime and commercial power. It also led to the creation of a centralized Spanish state.
Anson then languished in a top-heavy, post-war Royal Navy until the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748), pitting England against Spain. The successful colonization of North and South America as well as the Philippine Islands had brought great wealth to Spain. Peru produced high-quality silver, while Mexico was a source of both silver and gold. Two million British pounds’ worth of silver was being shipped from Acapulco, Mexico, to Manila, Philippines, annually to buy handcrafted gold necklaces, buckles, rings, and crucifixes made from Mexican gold, spices, tea, porcelain, and other Asian goods. This treasure was then shipped to Acapulco, Mexico, on Manila-built galleons (armed merchant ships). From there, it was transported overland by mule train to Vera Cruz, to meet Spanish-built galleons that would carry it from the Caribbean, across the Atlantic to Spain. The cargo was heavily taxed, making Spain the richest country in the world at the time. This “Manila Galleon Route,” established in 1568, continued until the Mexican Revolution of 1811–’21.
England’s decision for war had much to do with piracy in the Caribbean and the perceived weakness of the Spanish government in South America. To pirates and predators of all nature, capturing a Manila galleon sailing in either direction in the Pacific was the fabulous “Prize of All the Oceans.” Adding fuel to the fire for war, opposition politicians in England wanted to upset the government of Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole and investors in the British South Sea Company believed that a victorious war with Spain would improve Britain’s trading opportunities in the Caribbean and maintain England’s permission to sell slaves in Spanish America. As an additional benefit, stirring an “independence” movement among the Creole natives in Spanish-held colonies was seen as advantageous to British merchantmen, and therefore advantageous to England. Both politicians and merchants lobbied for war, and it began in December 1739.
Promoted to Commodore in the Royal Navy, George Anson (age 42) was handed his orders in June 1740. He was “to settle some island in the South Sea; to succeed in a descent on Peru; to take two men-of-war and the Lima fleet; to take Panama and their treasure; to take several valuable towns; to take the Acapulco ship, and to induce the Peruvians to throw off their obedience to the King of Spain.” It was recommended that he return by way of China, giving the mission the extra challenge of circumnavigation.
With Commodore Anson aboard his flagship, the 60-gun Centurion, his flotilla of six warships and two supply boats with 1,500 men on board (many of them sickly veterans of the War of Spanish Succession) left England on Nov. 5, 1740. They hit a terrible storm in March, 1741while rounding “The Horn” of South America, and only three of the ships made it to the rendezvous at Juan Fernandez Island off the coast of Chile. Of the 961 men that had been on board the three ships when they left England, only 335 were left alive. They made the Mexican coast north of Acapulco in late December 1741, where they awaited the galleon from Manila. They gave up and left Mexico for Macao on May 6, 1742, when no galleon had appeared.
By then, the Gloucester was the only other ship left of the original flotilla. Unfortunately, it was rotting, losing its foretopmast on July 29. The treasure captured in the Americas and stored on Gloucester was moved to the Centurion, and Gloucester was burned for fear that it might wash up in Guam and alert officials there that the British were in the area. The Centurion was now the last ship of the original flotilla. The men on board were forced to share the remaining stores. Many were in no condition to work the ship. They were dying of thirst, starving, and suffering from scurvy.
Not until Aug. 22, 1742, did they finally sight land and a cheer went up from the men on board Centurion. It was Anatahan. Unfortunately, the anchorage was unsatisfactory. On the 23rd, they spotted Tinian. A white speck could be seen along the beach of Tinian Island. Perhaps a church? A population? An armed guard? They knew Guam was just a hundred miles south of them, and might have a Spanish warship. They would not be able to fight. If taken prisoner, they could be hung. The trip would have been for nothing.
Flying phony Spanish colors, Centurion approached the island on the 27th. A local canoe, a “flying proa,” came skimming toward them. At about 3pm, Anson put off his cutter with a lieutenant in charge. They captured the proa, finding one Spanish sergeant and four natives on board. The Spaniard reported that they were on the annual hunting trip to Tinian. They had come on a small Spanish bark and had been busy killing wild cattle and drying the beef for the garrison in Guam. The Spaniard said Tinian had good drinking water and food—cattle, “dung hill” fowl (Micronesian Megapode), coconuts, oranges, limes, guavas, melons and breadfruit—and no one to fight. Tinian was their salvation. They anchored and established a camp where the sick could recover. On Sept. 11, sails were brought ashore to make a “stately Tent for the Commodore, and tents for several other Officers,” not far from the massive latte stones of Taga House.
The captured 32-foot proa was disassembled. The parts were all carefully taken on board so that the fascinating little vessel could be properly measured and recorded.
It was typhoon season. On Sept. 19, a storm came up. Centurion broke its anchor line and drifted out to sea and over the horizon. Suspecting they would never see Centurion again, or its chests of silver and gold, Anson ordered his men to cut the Spanish bark in half and enlarge it sufficiently to carry them to safety. To accomplish this goal, 1,000 feet of planking was cut from “large Trees of a prodigious hard Wood, of a reddish or rusty iron Color (Ironwood, trunken gagu).” Even Anson swung an axe, as did his junior officers.
They were almost finished with the new ship when, on Oct. 11, Centurion appeared over the horizon and anchored. Gleefully, every effort was made to shift all goods that had been taken ashore stored back aboard. The unfinished bark and the 32-foot proa were burned. The Centurion made sail on the 21st and headed toward China. After clearing through Macao, Anson moved Centurion to Cape Espirito Santo in Philippine waters near the Strait of San Bernardino, looking for a galleon coming from Manila and headed to Acapulco. He did not have long to wait. On June 19, 1743, Anson captured the 32-gun Manila galleon Nuestra Senora de Covadonga. Taken aboard Centurion were 1,313,843 pieces of eight, and 35,862 ounces of virgin silver and plate.
Anson arrived back at Spit Head, England on June 15, 1744, to a hero’s welcome. Sadly, of the more than 1,900 men who had sailed from Spit Head, almost 1,400 had died. Nonetheless, on June 18, Anson was promoted to Rear Admiral of the Blue. He became very wealthy from his share of the treasure, a peer in 1747, First Lord of the Admiralty in 1751 and Admiral of the Fleet in 1761. He died in 1762.
The success of the mission, though costly in lives, was a result of the excellent seamanship of Commodore Anson and the loyalty of his men. The accounts written by Anson’s junior officers were the first reports on the effects of Spanish colonial rule on the indigenous people of the Marianas, the Chamorro.
Anson, George. A Voyage Round the World in the Years 1740-1744. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd.
Barratt, Glynn. (Scott Russell, Editor.) H.M.S. Centurion at Tinian, 1742: The Ethnographic and Historic Records. Micronesian Archeological Survey Report 26. Division of Historic Preservation, the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs, 1988.
Barrow, John. The Life of George, Lord Anson: Admiral of the Fleet, Vice-Admiral of Great Britain, and First Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty, Previous to, and During, the Seven Years’ War. London: John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1838.
Schurz, William Lytle. The Manila Galleon. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1939.
Williams, Glynn. 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. New York: Viking, 2000.
Don A. Farrell is a historian and has written extensivekly about the history of the Commonwealth, with his books used as textbooks in the Public School System.