Manila Galleon by F. van Wyck Mason

“It was in London, 1946, while I was occupying a bed in the Station Hospital, that I chanced upon a copy of Thomas Pascoe’s Journal and became irrevocably intrigued by Commodore George Anson’s epic voyage. Then and there, I resolved, for better or worse, to attempt to describe this modern Odyssey.” (Foreward by F. van Wyck Mason).

And describe it he did, in fluent and fascinating detail. This historical novel follows the expedition of Commodore George Anson of the Royal Navy, which set sail from Portsmouth in 1740 to “annoy and distress the Spaniards,” and to capture The Prize of All the Oceans, the Manila Galleon. The treasure to be taken from this one ship alone would make even the lowliest ship’s boy wealthy.

Filled with quotes from actual journals, correspondence, and other records of this fantastic, and often ill-fated, voyage, Mason brings into sharp focus the struggle to maintain life itself aboard one of His Majesty’s men-of-war in the mid 18th century.

The names of green, unseasoned crewmen swelled the ships’ muster books by every means imaginable. Press gangs — legal shanghaiers — lurked in alleyways and stormed unsuspecting roadside inns. One such recruit, Nathaniel Wade, a leather-worker, was dragged kicking and screaming from his bride’s bed on his wedding night. A drunken old farmer, Joseph Utting, enjoying the fruits of his hard-earned labor, was found sprawled in the hay and considered “young enough to stop a bullet in the King’s service.” Volunteers included Henry Cozens, who, fleeing from a cudgel-wielding constable, wheezed, “Quick, where’s yer bloody pen?”; and Will Pallister, a 17-year-old runaway who was looking for a future more exciting than his father, a local vicar, could provide. Among the recruits from “the Lord Mayor’s Men,” walked the sixth Earl of Burford, former highwayman, chained between a rapist and a murderer; and Dr. Peter Vesey, graduate of Oxford and Edinburgh, who exchanged his appointment with a hangman for an unknown fate on the high seas.

However, before a single sail was unfurled, the six ill-equiped and undermanned men-of-war were plagued by inferior provisions — salted meat over 10 years old; weavil-ridden bread — and time that was running out for a safe passage around the Horn. Once underway, they were bedeviled by crippled ships, scurvy, and the “curse of Captain Arnand.” Racked by tempests and typhoons, often lost upon a seemingly endless sea, water and food supplies depleted, Commodore Anson, later termed “Father of the Modern Royal Navy,” clung to his mission at all costs.

The book is pervaded with passages such as this one when they are adrift upon an empty, endless sea and sharp-eyed Will Pallister is manning the lookout post:

“Before resuming his methodical study of the horizon, Will once more feasted his eyes on the sunset . . . . . Yes! There was something out there and . . . yonder distant sail was not alone! Heart pounding, Will drew a deep breath, tried to make his voice sound deep and manly when he shouted, “Ahoy the deck! Sail ho! Two sails!” Instantly Lieutenant Denis, Officer of the Deck, yelled back, “Masthead there! Where away?” Will was so rattled he forgot seamanship and failed to give a compass bearing, only screamed, “Over there! There! Just to the left of the sunset!”

How many of the six ships made it back to England four long years later? Of the several hundred men who embarked that September morning, how many now lay full fathoms deep on the ocean floor, and how many of their bones lay bleaching upon some lonely island or foreign shore? Did they ever find the illusive Manila Galleon?

I won’t tell. I found my book at the Goodwill, scruffy and water damaged. Where will you find yours?

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