The Treasure of the Covadonga

Simon Rostron

By Simon Rostron
LBMA Consultant

Apart from gift, inheritance or discovery, probably the best way of garnering a substantial amount of silver or gold is to steal or capture someone else’s!

Many have tried this approach: the Conquistadors were notoriously successful in Central and South America in the 15th and 16th centuries, although the same cannot be said for Sir Walter Raleigh in his failed search for El Dorado, which led, eventually, to his execution in 1618 (Alchemist 99).

Among these adventurers, one man stands out: George Anson, whose career ended, not like Raleigh’s with beheading, but with his promotion to Admiral of the Fleet in 1761 and a peerage to boot.

However, before delving into the high-stakes engagement between Anson’s flagship HMS Centurion and the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Covadonga in 1743, we need to introduce Captain Robert Jenkins of the Rebecca and the importance of his ear.

The Pickled Ear

Jenkins, a master mariner from Llanelli, rose to notoriety via the slicing action of a Spanish cutlass probably handled by Juan de León Fandiño, Commander of La Isabella, who accused Jenkins of smuggling and who was described as either a privateer or a ‘guarda-costa’ (coast guard) depending, I suspect, on whose side you were on.

There are alternative stories, but all agree that the incident took place in the West Indies, that Jenkins lost his ear and that he was not pleased. Furthermore, and unusually, Britain and Spain were not at war at the time.

In fact, it’s wrong to say that Jenkins lost his ear. More accurately, either he, or one of his crew, picked up the severed appendage, which was subsequently pickled in a jar and brought, after the long return voyage, to Westminster and to the attention of the Duke of Newcastle, Secretary of State for the Southern Department, via a deposition made by Jenkins on 18 June 1731.

Years passed, complaints were made to the Spanish Governor of Havana and, for a while, the tale lapsed into fable.

However, in the end, as Wikipedia describes: “By summer of 1739, all diplomatic efforts having been exhausted, King George II agreed, on 10 July, to direct the Admiralty Board to initiate maritime reprisals against Spain.” The War of Jenkins’ Ear had begun.

Captain Jenkins (standing three from left) shows his severed ear to Prime Minister Robert Walpole while a friend removes his wig to show the scar. Satirical cartoon, 1730s.

Enter George Anson

Among those tasked with teaching the Spaniards not to chop bits off English captains, particularly in peacetime, was Commodore George Anson.

Anson was born on St George’s Day (23 April) 1697 and entered the Royal Navy in 1712 at the age of 14. He saw early action against the Spanish off Sicily at the Battle of Passaro in 1718, and through meritorious service and good connections, he became a Captain stationed in South Carolina in 1724, leaving that station in 1735.

As the war broke out in 1739, Anson was tasked by King George II to sail to the Pacific coast of South America “to distress and annoy the King of Spain”. It was this commission that proved the making of Anson, but at least until mid-1743, it very nearly proved his undoing.

In sending Anson and his squadron of six ships to the Pacific to hunt for Spanish treasure, the King may have remembered the success achieved by Sir Francis Drake some 147 years earlier when he captured 20 tons of silver and gold in a raid on a Spanish mule train in Panama. In so doing, Drake became the first Englishman to see the Pacific, although it was more than five years after a hazardous passage around the southern tip of South America, where he lost three ships, that he sailed its waters.

Anson too lost three ships while crossing into the Pacific, but his treasure target was not land-based as Drake’s was; instead, it was to be found in one of the heavily-laden Spanish ‘Manila’ galleons making the annual round trip between Acapulco in Mexico and the Philippines, where Spanish silver was traded with local Chinese merchants in exchange for silk, spices and other oriental luxuries.

Lord and 1st Baron Anson

A Slow Beginning

From the outset, Anson’s commission did not go well. The naval dockyards facing the challenges of a new war were strained to breaking point, and fitting out his squadron of six ships was relatively low priority. Furthermore, there was an acute shortage of manpower, exacerbated by the fact that the winter of 1739-40 was one of the worst on record, food was scarce and severe illness was commonplace.

One statistic cited by historian Glyn Williams in his book The Prize of All the Oceans serves for many: “In the spring of 1740, the sick lists grew faster than the muster rolls of new recruits, so that in the five months from February to June the navy received 3,627 additional men but sent 4,875 into hospitals.”

In Anson’s case, problems were compounded by the fact that the majority of the military contingent he was to have on board was made up of ‘invalids’ and Chelsea
pensioners, almost all of whom were over 60 years old.

Eventually, the squadron left Spithead on 18 September 1740, much later than intended. To make matters worse, it was discovered that the squadron’s ‘secret’ mission was known to the Spaniards and that Admiral Don José Pizarro with a fleet of five ships had put to sea to intercept Anson.

Into the Pacific

Unsurprisingly, given their age and poor health, significant numbers of Anson’s crews died during the voyage south. However, all six ships eventually made it to Strait Le Maire, the gateway to Cape Horn and the Pacific, on 7 March 1741.

The weather was atrocious, and after an ordeal of three months, Anson’s squadron was reduced to three ships. By coincidence, Pizarro also lost three ships at Cape Horn, and the threat of an engagement between the two groups never came to fruition.

Despite these setbacks, some action was plausible, and Anson set about raiding up the Pacific coast of South America towards Acapulco in the hope of finding a heavily-laden treasure galleon on its way from Lima, Peru. He was too late, the galleon was already in port. Worse, the Spanish caught sight of Anson’s squadron and decided that 1742 was not the year for the galleon to set sail to the Philippines!

So, Anson decided to set out for home via Macao and the Cape of Good Hope, knowing that while his expedition had caused a great deal of distress to his crews and himself, it had probably done little to annoy Philip V of Spain!

Another serious outbreak of scurvy, a misunderstanding of the seasonal Pacific winds and the fact that Anson was nearly lost to posterity courtesy of a major storm, all contributed to what was a near catastrophic crossing of the ocean. Many died and Anson finally reached Macao with only his flagship. There were only 205 men from the original complement of more than 500 on board.

At least Portuguese Macao, which Anson reached on 11 November 1742, was welcoming. Less so was Canton on the Chinese mainland, where (quoting Williams) “… all the European traders except the English were against him, because the holding of the galleon for Manila at Acapulco that spring had disrupted the normal pattern of trade between Canton and Manila”.

After a lengthy refit, Anson left Macao on 19 April 1743, more than a two and half years after his departure from Britain. Describing himself as uneasy as a result of his misfortunes, he decided that redemption from what the Lords of the Admiralty would undoubtedly view as a failed commission – little treasure and the loss of several of His Majesty’s ships – could only be achieved by a lucky chance. In short, he decided to sail back south to the Philippines in search of that year’s Spanish treasure galleon.

The Last Throw of the Dice - Fame and Fortune

And yes, he found it, and after a bloody one-hour engagement, with its best marksmen on the top masts and 24-pounder cannons below, the Centurion hit the galleon’s commander and the Nuestra Señora de Covadonga, 72 days out of Acapulco, struck her colours.

To say that the Covadonga was laden with silver is almost an understatement. As Williams says: “A week was spent rowing the treasure across to the Centurion – the coins alone filled 256 chests … When the final sums had been done it was clear that on board the Centurion was one of the richest treasures ever seized by an English ship: 1,313,843 pieces of eight [each weighing some 0.88 troy oz, purity 92%-98%], and 35,682 oz of virgin silver and plate.” In short, Anson’s reputation, and moreover his fortune, were made.

Skating gently over the problems faced by Anson on his return voyage to England – which initially involved what can euphemistically be described as a shirty reception by merchants and officials in Canton as they witnessed a British Man-of-War filled with prisoners and booty, towing a shattered Spanish galleon back into their port – we can roll the clock forward to 15 June 1744 when, avoiding a hostile French squadron patrolling the Channel, HMS Centurion returned to Spithead.

Of the original complement of more than 1,900 men, only 188 remained, having, with Anson, completed a circumnavigation of the world, during which 1,400 had died, mostly from disease or starvation.

After the usual ceremonials and the (usual) arguments with the Lords of the Admiralty about prize money and promotions, Anson’s, now England’s treasure, carried on 32 wagons, processed from Putney Common and eventually through the City of London to the Royal Mint, where it was melted into silver shillings inscribed with ‘Lima’ (the original idea was ‘Acapulco’ but perhaps that was too long).

Anson, now a very wealthy man, in time progressed through the Royal Navy to become Admiral of the Fleet and, eventually, the First Lord of the Admiralty, and the first and only Baron Anson.

His triumph was, one observer commented, “worthy of Ancient Rome”.

The obverse of a 'Lima shilling' minted from Anson's treasure.

Simon Rostron

By Simon Rostron
LBMA Consultant

Simon Rostron has been Managing Director of Rostron Parry Ltd - media relations consultancy since 1991 and PR and media consultant to LBMA since 2014. In his earlier career he was a Stockjobber, London Stock Exchange and remains a legend in his own lunchtime.