Lord Anson Battles Cape Horn

May/June 2002

Along with Nelson, Cook, Drake, Scott, Shackelton, et al., Lord Anson, nee George, was one of those heroic British seamen who was indefatigable in the face of duress. It was said of Anson, who would eventually become the first Lord of the Admiralty, that “he was an unassuming man, slow to decide but quick to excite.”

Anson rose through the ranks of the British Navy rapidly, becoming master at the age of 26. He made a name for himself as an effective pirate hunter (and a successful gambler) off the Carolinas and was awarded the command of the frigate Centurion in 1737. In 1739, Great Britain went to war with Spain, and Anson was given orders to undertake a South Seas expedition via Cape Horn. Anson and his fleet, including the vessels Gloucester, Severn, Pearl, Wager and Tyrol, were commanded to “annoy the Spaniards,” in other words, to capture prizes and destroy Spanish shipping in the Pacific. And, while they were at it, they should try to capture any wealthy Spanish treasure galleons that might be departing Manila.

In command of more than 1,300 men, Anson’s fleet departed England in September and crossed the line on Nov. 28. From there, they headed to Cape Horn, where they had one of the worst passages ever recorded doubling the cape. Continual gales and huge seas buffeted the ships; sails tore, masts sprung, men were killed. Still, the fleet carried on. In one of the most memorable moments of improvisation, while in a great storm and unable to carry any sail, Anson ordered men into the ratlines “to act as a human wind vane to keep the ship’s head off the wind,” according to the 1969 book Anson’s Voyage, written and beautifully illustrated by L.A. Wilcox. It took more than two months for the fleet to round the Horn, and they suffered an extensive loss of life due to overwork, cold and finally scurvy. This is an excerpt from the record of that account: “And now as it were to add the finishing stroke to our misfortunes, our people began to be universally afflicted with the most terrible, obstinate, and at sea, incurable disease, the scurvy, which quickly made a most dreadful havoc among us, beginning at first to carry off two or three a day, but soon increasing and at last carrying off eight or ten €¦ I have sometimes seen four or five dead bodies sewn up in their hammocks, others not, washing about the decks, for want of help to bury them in the sea.”

Amazingly, after four years Anson somehow managed to return to England to complete a circumnavigation, where he was greeted as a hero. After he became Lord of the Admiralty in 1751, his vision helped pave the way for the voyages of Capt. James Cook. By the time Anson returned to England, only 145 of the original company survived. Just four men had been killed from hostile action with the Spanish; the others died from hardship, malnutrition and disease. Yet when he returned, he led a procession of 32 wagons loaded with Spanish treasure though the streets of London.

Let’s join Anson on Centurion in his battle with Cape Horn. The westerlies have shifted to the north and are blowing at 50 knots. Centurion is barely making headway, and the sky has been overcast for days. He thinks that he is at about 62° S, but his dead reckoning is questionable. Of course this is before the use of Harrison’s clock, so the only reliable shot that Anson can take is a meridian altitude. On the 15th of April – we will use the 2002 Almanac – the sky clears and Anson, with octant in hand, takes a lower limb shot of the sun. He really has no idea of the exact time, and as for his height of eye, he is about 25 feet off the rolling sea. He hopes this sun sight will give him a latitude line. Obviously, he wants to stay well off Cape Horn. His DR at the time is 63° S by 67° W.

Anson gets a lower limb sight with an Hs of 17° 30′. There is no index correction, and he approximates the time is around 1600 hours.

A: What is the Hc?

B: What is the latitude?

C: Plot the latitude and an EP for 1600.

After two days of no sun, Anson is once again able to take what he hopes is a noon sight. The Hs is 15° 52′. Time is still about 1600.

D: What is the Hc?

E: What is the latitude?

F: What is the EP?

G: How far has Centurion moved in two days?  

By Ocean Navigator