The War of Jenkins’ Ear

If you’re going to have a war, you may as well name it something interesting and memorable, right? On October 23, 1739, the awesomely named War of Jenkins’ Ear began when Britain declared war on Spain, despite Prime Minister Robert Walpole’s reservations.

The unusual name wasn’t made official until more than 100 years after the conflict. It refers to an incident in 1731, when the Spanish coast guard boarded the British brig Rebecca and cut off the left ear of Rebecca’s captain, Robert Jenkins, for allegedly engaging in piracy. In 1738, Jenkins was asked to relate his story before Parliament. He attended with his severed ear, according to some accounts, and this incident, along with several others, encouraged Parliament to pursue the war. Walpole tried to find a diplomatic solution, but mediations broke down, and in August 1739, Britain recalled its ambassador to Spain. War soon followed.

Instead of hitting Spain directly, Britain directed their attacks where they would really hurt: the Spanish pocketbook. Their first move was to capture the silver-exporting town of Porto Bello on the coast of Panama in November. The British occupied and trashed the town for a few weeks before withdrawing. Back home, British citizens celebrated the victory by performing the song Rule Britannia for the first time and naming Portobello Road in London after the conquered town. More medals were awarded for this victory than for any other event in the eighteenth century, which is saying something, since Britain was pretty much constantly at war for the whole 100 years.

High on their success in Panama, the British sent a squadron under Commodore George Anson to attack the Spanish possessions in the Pacific. The endeavor was nearly a disaster: most of the members of the expedition died of disease before they even got to the Pacific, and they missed intercepting the annual Manila galleon. Anson was determined, though, and he pursued the galleon, finally intercepting it the following year. He was rewarded with a treasure of more than a million gold coins. He then sailed home, arriving in London more than three and a half years after setting out, having circumnavigated the globe along the way, so it wasn’t a total loss, even though less than a tenth of those who set out made it back.

While Anson was out on his lengthy cruise, the British and Spanish continued to squabble. A British attack on the gold-mining port of Cartagtena went awry, and the defeat helped bring down Walpole’s government. The new government elected to steer the war effort away from the Americas and focus it in the Mediterranean. That pretty much went nowhere, as did a British attack on Cuba. The emboldened Spanish attempted to invade and seize the British colony of Georgia, but they were forced to withdraw. Clashes between Spanish Florida and British Georgia continued for the next few years.

By the middle of 1742, the War of Austrian Succession had broken out, engulfing most of Europe and essentially burying the smaller war between Britain and Spain. The two countries started peace negotiations in August 1746, but they broke down because of Britain’s commitments to Austria. It wasn’t until the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748 (which ended the War of the Austrian Succession) and the Treaty of Madrid in 1750 that all the issues between Britain and Spain were settled. The two nations went on to become pretty good friends over the next several years, all but forgetting that pesky war. Today, the War of Jenkins’ Ear is mostly remembered for having a neat name, and it’s commemorated annual at Wormsloe Plantation in Savannah, Georgia.



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