Glyn Williams’ book, The Prize of All the Oceans is an interesting in-depth look at Commodore George Anson’s voyage around the world and his capture of the Spanish treasure galleon in 1743.
The hardships routinely endured by seamen and officers of the Royal Navy in the 18th century would make the most arduous modern military service seem like a relaxing vacation by comparison. Scurvy, exposure, lice, typhus, minimal rations, back breaking labor, and the constant threat of death were the life of a Royal Navy seaman in the 18th century.
Anson left England with 1900 men on five ships. He returned with under 500 men on one ship. Many of the men who returned to England had not started the voyage with Anson (they were pressed into service along the way), and so the death rate is even higher than it appears. Tellingly, only four of the dead were casualties of enemy action. The vast majority died as a result of malnutrition and disease. The officers and seamen suffered through unimaginable hardship and deprivation on the journey and yet, somehow, were able to capture a ship in the heart of Spanish territory that contained fabulous weath mined from Spanish South America.
Williams’ book is a balanced look at the voyage and its hardships. He generally steers clear of hyperbole and is careful to note the agendas and tone of various sources. His book is clearly a synthesis of the original sources as he works mainly from Royal Navy records, logbooks, and journals kept by those involved. Williams seems more interested in discovering the truth of what happened than idolizing or demonizing Anson. He covers the numerous, draw-out legal battles that wound their way through the English courts in the years following the journey. He even goes so far as to point out what various indviduals seemed to learn, or failed to learn, from the journey in the years after their return to England.
The Prize of All the Oceans is an accessible and enjoyable examination of history long past. The long, dangerous nature of sea journeys at the time is exposed in all its unfortunate detail by Williams’ work.