Peter Palafox, the son of an Irish parson, secures a midshipman's berth on Commodore Anson's flagship Centurion, through the good offices of his father's friend Mr. Walters, the Centurion's chaplain. Together with Sean O'Mara, a laborer from the same parish, Peter meets Mr. FitzGerald, a young midshipman like himself departing on Commodore Anson's expedition. The three meet at a horse fair, where amusing mishaps cause the young men to travel most of the remaining distance to the sea port of departure on foot, barely arriving in time to catch the victualler that is to transport them from Cork to Portsmouth. Once aboard the Centurion Sean O'Mara is pressed into service as a seaman, and Peter and Mr. FitzGerald are introduced to the squalid hole that is the midshipmen's living quarters and to the other midshipmen, officers and men with whom they are to spend the next several years. Immediate conflict arises between the two Irish and the English midshipmen, and the crisis of Peter's having come aboard the Centurion without a sea chest – containing the necessary navigational instruments and clothing – is averted when Mr. Walters sells Peter's emerald cravat pin, a relic of earlier plundering of Spanish vessels.
Mr. FitzGerald leaves the ship to return home at Funchal, one of the expedition's first foreign stops. Having discovered his fear of heights; midshipmen are frequently punished by being ‘mastheaded', sent up the main mast to contemplate their sins from its towering height, Mr. FitzGerald considers he is unsuited to Naval life. Peter sends a letter and numerous gifts home to his family by Mr. FitzGerald. These include a preserved flying fish and a ‘Nest of Curious Serpents and a Scorpion in a Jar of Spirits'. Lighthearted times seem to be left behind as Peter experiences harsh Naval life and falls ill from fever as the equator is crossed. He recovers, and views the New World from his hammock on the decks of the Centurion where his shipmates have hauled him for fresh air. Commodore Anson's squadron leaves Brazil, and of the five ships of the line only two survive the rounding of the Horn. In the terrible seas, storms and freezing southern latitudes both Peter and Sean distinguish themselves and are among the half of the men that survive. Off the coast of Chile more seamen die of hunger and scurvy until the Commodore leads them at last to the island of Juan Fernandez where fruit and fish are plentiful. The revived ships cruise to the coast of Mexico, taking several Spanish ships and accomplishing part of Anson's mission to attack England's enemy. Peter and the other seamen's joy in the rich Spanish prizes they capture is allayed, however, by their missing the richest prize of all in the port of Acapulco – the Spanish galleon that carries the Old World's goods to the New, returning to Europe with gold and silver in payment.
At last, with the stormy season coming, Commodore Anson directs his reduced squadron across the Pacific. The passage is marked by a near shipwreck following a hurricane, but the coast of Asia is finally reached. Peter and his shipmates experience the Orient while the ships are refitted. Once at sea again on what they believe is the homeward bound journey the crew receives with cheering the news from Commodore Anson that they are to try again for the Spanish galleon laden with a reported one million pieces of eight. Although the Spanish outnumber them in both guns and men the incredibly rich galleon surrenders under the attack of the English. Peter, Sean and all the crew of the Centurion share in the division of the prize, found to be carrying over a million pieces of eight, in addition to gold and silver bars, plate and other New World treasures. Returning home to Ireland covered in glory and riches, author Patrick O'Brian's fictional account of Commodore Anson's real life 1740 expedition ends on the happiest possible note for its two young heroes.
This report prepared by Eva Ulett