Peru is a long way from these islands. Hidden away on the west coast of South America, the only way marauding British ships could reach it was either by travelling all the way around the Cape of Good Hope past Australia and across the Pacific, or by ships tackling the treacherous and fearsome Cape Horn. In the days before modern safety features and navigational equipment on boats, you might almost think Peru would have been out of harm’s way from us. But you would be wrong.
British raiders were already working the Pacific coast of South America by the late sixteenth century. Francis Drake, for example, sacked Callao in 1578, and in 1587 Thomas Cavendish sacked Paita. And in a now almost forgotten but true story, eighteenth-century Britain sent a fleet literally around the world to invade Peru.
The context is one of our better-named, though not better-known, wars. It is the so-called War of Jenkins’ Ear conducted against Spain, starting in 1739, and was named after one Robert Jenkins, who arrived in Parliament prior to the war to complain about his rough treatment by Spanish coast guards and, in the days before computer presentations, used his severed ear to illustrate the point rather dramatically.
In 1740, in what must surely be one of the more ambitious military operations ever launched by Britain, Commodore George Anson was given the unenviable assignment of leading six warships, Centurion, Gloucester, Severn, Pearl, Wager and Tryal, across the Atlantic from Britain, around Cape Horn and up the Pacific coast of South America. His mission (and this was just part of it) was to include capturing Callao and the port of Lima in Peru, and then if possible to capture Lima itself and raise a Peruvian rebellion against Spain. He was also supposed to do assorted other things on this extraordinary mission, including capture Panama.
The story of Anson’s journey round the world is a bit of a saga, quite a lot of a saga, in fact, so I’ll just touch briefly here on the Peruvian aspects of it.
By the time Anson made it to Cape Horn, his force had already had quite a time of it. He had been allotted no soldiers so had been forced to make up his contingent of 500 from invalids at the Chelsea Hospital. The expedition had been hit by dysentery, malaria and other diseases. And they had had to dodge Spanish warships.
Rounding the Cape they were then hit by huge storms and freezing conditions, and the ships were scattered. Still without three of his ships, Anson took a census in September 1741 and found that of the 961 men he had started out with, 626 had already died. Nevertheless he pushed on, and when he received news that the authorities in the port of Paita had been told of his whereabouts, he decided to invade. Paita has one of the best natural harbours on the Peruvian coast.
Anson landed at night in an attempt to capture some treasure stored there for export. The inhabitants of Paita legged it for the hills when they saw Anson’s invaders. They had already been raided by Britons in the past, so perhaps they had decided this was the safest bet.
The British stayed in the town for three days, looting valuables and food, before Anson ordered the release of prisoners and the burning of the town, except for two churches. One sailor was killed, possibly accidentally by his own side.
After that, Anson headed north towards Mexico and eventually, after a further long string of dramatic events, back across the Pacific. He returned to Britain and became famous. Only about 500 of the original 1,900 members of Anson’s expedition made it back alive. The expedition left a legacy of disputes over the prize money in court. Not a spectacular end to such an expedition, but perhaps not surprising.
British volunteers played an important part in Bolivar’s campaign to liberate Peru. On land, many helped win Bolivar’s crucial victory at the Battle of Ayacucho in December 1824. At sea, Lord Cochrane, previously a captain in the British Navy, created a Chilean navy that fought in the campaign to free Peru and that had a very significant percentage of experienced British and Irish officers, midshipmen and sailors in it.
There is one last venture of our ships into Peruvian waters that is worth mentioning here, the Battle of Pacocha in 1877. This time, we were facing an opponent from the now independent state of Peru. There was revolution in Peru and the ironclad Huáscar was raiding shipping, only to make the mistake of attacking some British ships. We sent Rear Admiral de Horsey after it, and an inconclusive battle ensued. However, the battle is memorable for one thing at least: HMS Shah fired the first ever torpedo used in action. It missed.