COMMODORE ANSON, SOME SAILORS, A NICE WORCESTER TEA BOWL AND FOUR YEARS OF ABSOLUTE PURGATORY (part one)
The history behing the Worcester porcelain valentines pattern
As you are all no doubt aware, there’s nothing I like better than an instance where the provenance of an item of antique glassware or porcelain can be related back to a specific story in the past – better still if said tales involve epic sagas of derring-do, be they in the midst of a well-drilled square of Highland infantrymen under attack by French cuirassiers, or on the high seas with vainglorious foe being despatched to a watery grave under a maelstrom of chainshot from the guns of an English man’o’war.
For material which relies so much on visual impact, however, it is unusual for porcelain to catch my eye in this respect. Fortunately, though, we have recently been lucky enough to be able offer for sale an example of an 18th century first period Worcester tea bowl and saucer. At first glance it seems rather uninspiring, other than its outstanding condition, given that it is some 260 years of age. Dig a little deeper, though, and what may seem to be a fairly standard, almost generic oriental design will lead us on a convoluted journey across thousands of miles of open ocean, through the sprawling maze of backstreets in a far-flung city, high in to the vertiginous mastheads of great wooden warships, and in to the lowest pits of despair - riven with hunger, disease and abject resignation as death draws ever closer.
Anyway, all good stories, naturally, require a hero, and to fill this role I would invite you to perambulate back to the 1720’s, and present for your edification and delight a Lieutenant George Anson, erstwhile executive officer in His Majesty’s Baltic Sea fleet, now entering his seventh year of service to the king on Admiral George Byng’s flagship, HMS Barfleur. Son of a Staffordshire gentleman, Anson volunteered for naval service at 15, and climbed steadily through the ranks, seeing his first notable action - against the Spanish - at Cape Passaro, as part of the Quadruple Alliance seeking to put an end to King Philippe V’s expansionist ideas. At this point in history, the Spaniards were a thorn in the side of Britain’s own pursuit of Empire at every turn; whereas the French were to become our bête noir across the battlefields of the near continent, the Spanish bestia negre sought to confound our ambitions further afield, and we would cross swords, cutlasses, muskets, calivers and sundry other accoutrements of war with them on a regular basis, at any given latitude or longitude, whenever the opportunity for pugilistic endeavour manifested itself.
Anson continued to rise through the ranks, taking command of his own ship in 1722, being despatched across an increasingly wide sphere of operations and meeting with success wherever he turned, to the point in 1937 when (now a 25 year veteran) he was elevated to the rank of Commodore and invited to fly his own broad pennant over the 60-gun fourth rate ship-of-the-line HMS Centurion. At this same time, simmering resentment with the Spanish reached boiling point when the British government – looking for any excuse to declare war – called before them the captain of a trading brig, a Mr Robert Jenkins, who, some eight years beforehand, had his ear cut off by the crew of a Spanish privateer. Jenkins has been plying his (free) trade off the coast of Florida, saw his vessel boarded by the Spaniards, was accused of smuggling, disfigured and then sent home to deliver the threat of similar depredations against any other presumed villains of similar intent hailing from Britain. Having shown little or no interest in the matter for almost a decade, Parliament now decided that action must be taken against the aggressors to redress the balance, and all Spanish vessels were declared fair game with immediate effect. The ensuing conflict was retrospectively referred to as The War of Jenkins’ Ear.
Initially, combat operations were initiated by a fleet under Vice Admiral Edward Vernon, who mounted numerous sorties throughout the Caribbean and along the eastern seaboard of Central and South America. Actions were prosecuted against Spanish shipping, dependencies, trading outposts, ports and garrisons, with varying degrees of success – but every victory was nullified by some crass tactical blunder, unfortunate reverse or chaotic retreat elsewhere. Vernon persisted with his rather hit and miss campaign for three years, but even before he had set sail for home, Anson had been instructed to ready a squadron of warships and to head for the Pacific with the intention of sacking Spanish interests along the Chilean and Peruvian coastlines before striking westward and plundering far-flung possessions and commercial routes across the vast southern tracts of the great ocean.
Anson and his newly assembled squadron of eight ships (five warships, one armed sloop and two supply vessels known as “pinks”) set sail on 13th September 1740, intending to harry and beleaguer anything and everything they encountered that might be abroad or ashore under the red, gold and blue ensign of Philippe’s patronage. Things, however, began to go wrong almost from the outset. Having taken four times longer than the normal ten day passage to reach Madeira due to unfavourable winds, the fleet was re-provisioned and set out on a tortuous six and a half week crossing of the Atlantic, bound for Santa Catarina, a Portuguese enclave in southern Brazil. Unseasonal hot weather during the passage across the tropics caused an outbreak of calentures amongst the crews – a debilitating confusion of feverish heat-stroke and delirium that accounted for the first fatalities of the expedition. The (nominal) marines assigned to the expedition, as well as being far too few in number for such an enterprise, actually consisted of a number of "invalids" from the Chelsea Hospital, considered too ill for the full rigours of active duty. Fresh from the confines of hospital, the most significant contribution they made to the early stages of the adventure was to bring typhus and dysentery with them on board the vessels, which – as you can imagine – contributed little towards alleviating the general malaise with which proceedings were seen to be afflicted.
The eventual landfall at Nossa Senhora do Desterro did little to lighten the load, as a profusion of noisome sand flies assailed anything and everything that moved, the fortified town proved to be little more than a lawless haven for vagabonds, smugglers and pirates, and confirmation was received of an earlier intelligence which had suggested that a Spanish squadron had been sent to shadow Anson’s flotilla and now lay at anchor in Buenos Aires, blocking their intended route southwards. Deprivations notwithstanding, the English fleet stayed at Santa Catarina for almost two months before laying a course for Cape Horn in mid-January. Almost immediately, they were assailed by violent and damaging storms, but this – at least – meant that the Spaniards were unable to mount a coherent action against them, and Anson put in to St Julian’s in Patagonia after a month of torrid, enervating progress across 2,100 miles of the Southern Atlantic.
Another two weeks of refitting and repairs followed and then – at last having put together a cogent plan to engage their foe – the squadron set out to round the Cape and attack the Spanish settlement of Valdivia on the Chilean coast. Heading south, the ships skirted a coastline which was noted to be “unsurpassed in wildness and horror” and of which “nothing can be imagined more dreadful and gloomy”. That said, they were driven before strong winds and made good time, up to the point where they were entering the Straits of Le Maire at the south eastern extremity of Argentina. The day of the passage dawned clear and bright, and was noted as being “mild and delightful as any…seen since departure from England”, but then the skies darkened, the wind and tide aligned in opposite directions, and all hell broke loose. Far from being a squall that blew itself out in short but furious order, or even a storm of some days’ duration, successive tempests of mesmeric intensity beset the fleet for weeks on end, almost without cessation. Freezing temperatures, snow, sleet, howling gales, deluge after deluge of icy water; the very seams of the ships were left creaking and leaking by the constant battering. Rigging and sails were carried away, men thrown about and killed or left disabled; two of the ships turned back and headed for Brazil - unbeknownst to their colleagues who presumed them to have been wrecked - and it was not until mid-May that some respite could be taken in relative calm around Socoro (Guamblin) Island, barely half-way to the originally proposed destination of Valdivia.
With the fleet scattered, Anson and the Centurion made for the Juan Fernandez Islands, another pre-agreed rendezvous point and formerly the (enforced) abode of one Alexander Selkirk – the inspiration behind the tale of Robinson Crusoe. Over the course of the summer, four of the original eight boats limped in to Cumberland Bay which served as a temporary home port for the depleted expedition. The two warships which had turned back during the abortive attempt to round Cape Horn had, after fruitlessly waiting in Rio de Janeiro for news of their storm-battered cohorts, opted to head back to England; one other ship – HMS Wager – had managed to weather the storms and head north for Socoro, but she ran aground and was dashed to pieces by mountainous seas. Most of the crew survived the initial wreck, but discipline dissolved and descended in to a protracted mutiny of sorts; suffice to say that all parties were eventually repatriated to Britain and no-one was to hang, as the circumstances were considered to be sufficiently trying to have mitigated the need for further punishment. As for the last of the original eight, she had long since been assigned to other duties, and didn't actually make the initial trans-Atlantic trip in the company of the rest of the flotilla.
And so we temporarily take our leave of Commodore Anson and his much enfeebled entourage in straightened if not wholly dire circumstances on the Isla Más a Tierra, some 400 miles off the coast of Chile. They were able to subsist on the abundant fruit and vegetables which grew there, augmented by seals, fish, penguins, sea-lions, sundry seabirds and goats - which were a legacy left by former Spanish settlers. In Part Two, the fleet strike westward in to the Pacific and – almost unbelievably – some of this stuff actually becomes directly relevant to the Worcester porcelain pieces, with which we started out so very long ago (this is, of course, fully immersive and interactive text, the intention being to evoke a similar experience of tortuous and extended hardship as that endured by the wretched sailors, albeit without the optional cinéma vérité touches of dysentery, scurvy or aggressive Spaniards - more anon…)
The image alongisde this piece shows three views of the tea bowl and saucer in question, Anson himself, HMS Centurion engaging a Spanish treasure ship, and the much reduced fleet anchored at Juan Fernadez.
Link to the detailed description and high resolution images of the tea bowl on our website:
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