Jenkins' Ear, War of (1739–1742)

views updated May 17 2018

JENKINS' EAR, WAR OF (17391742)

JENKINS' EAR, WAR OF (17391742). The War of Jenkins' Ear, an armed conflict between Britain and Spain, arose from longstanding Anglo-Spanish antagonism fostered by illicit British trading activities in the Spanish Caribbean and the determined, often brutal, attempts by Spain's colonial guarda costa ('coast guard') vessels to suppress such ventures. Popular feeling, incited by opponents of the Walpole ministry in London and a vigorous merchant lobby opposed to diplomatic efforts, further intensified pressures conducive to war.

The immediate events that precipitated open hostilities were the alleged sinking of several British merchant ships by Spanish privateers, the suspension of the asiento or slave supply contract, and the intensification of Spain's search and seizure claims against British smuggling vessels, and, marginally, the ill usage suffered by one Capt. Robert Jenkins, Master of the brig Rebecca. Legitimately bound for London from Jamaica with a cargo of sugar, Jenkins's ship was plundered and his ear severed by the commander of a Spanish coast guard vessel near Havana on 9 April 1731.

The case received brief publicity, subsided, but then was revived (together with other, similar incidents) during a stormy Commons debate in March 1738. Although modern research has established that, contrary to historical tradition, Jenkins never appeared personally to present the missing ear, his plight was highly dramatized and contributed to the momentum of the political opposition campaign urging an immediate offensive against Spain. This appealed to national sentiment and commercial interests alike. Temporizing, Walpole arranged the Convention of Pardo with Spain, which provided compensation for vessels lost but avoided the crucial issue: Spain's continued determination to suppress all smuggling attempts. Confronted with growing public and parliamentary indignation, Walpole finally had to yield and war was declared on 19 October 1739.

In the lackluster naval operations that followed, Admiral Vernon (16841757) sacked Porto Bello (in modern Panama) in November 1739, but the attack on Cartagena (Colombia) in early March 1741 failed due to spirited Spanish resistance, tropical disease, and dissension between British army and navy commanders. Commodore George Anson, operating with a small squadron off Chile, marauded coastal areas, then circumnavigated the globe in the HMS Centurion (17401744), capturing Spanish treasure along the way. Attempts to seize Cuba in December 1741 and raids along the Florida coast were largely fruitless, resulting in heavy British casualties. Gradually the war overseas petered out into desultory forays against Spanish shipping and ineffectual attempts to isolate Spain from her colonies before becoming enveloped and overshadowed by hostilities in Europe (War of the Austrian Succession, 17401748) in which Britain, by means of mercenary forces, supported Austria against France (who had joined Spain) and her German allies.

While in its altered, Continental dimension the war enabled Britain to contain threatening Bourbon expansionism in key strategic areas abroad during the period 17421748, overseas it failed to achieve the initially anticipated sweeping victory over Spain. Small-scale Anglo-Spanish clashes in Caribbean and Mediterranean waters produced little monetary or strategic gain, clearly indicating that naval action was not the solution to Britain's commercial grievances at this time, nor the key to much-needed political stability.

See also Austrian Succession, War of the (17401748) ; Spanish Colonies: The Caribbean ; Spanish Colonies: Other American Colonies ; Walpole, Horace .


Black, Jeremy. British Foreign Policy in the Age of Walpole. Edinburgh and Atlantic Highlands, N.J., 1985.

Harding, Richard. Amphibious Warfare in the 18th Century: The British Expedition to the West Indies, 17401742. London and Rochester, N.Y., 1991.

McLachlan, Jean. Trade and Peace with Old Spain, 16671750: A Study of the Influence of Commerce on Anglo-Spanish Diplomacy in the First Half of the Eighteenth Century. Cambridge, U.K., 1940.

Nelson, George. "Contraband Trade under the Asiento, 17301739." American Historical Review 51 (19451946): 5567.

Temperley, Harold. "The Causes of the War of Jenkins' Ear." Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 3rd ser. III (1909): 197236.

Woodfine, Philip. Britannia's Glories: The Walpole Ministry and the 1739 War with Spain. Woodbridge, U.K., and Rochester, N.Y., 1998.

Karl W. Schweizer

Jenkins' Ear, War of

views updated May 08 2018


JENKINS' EAR, WAR OF (1739–1743), was a struggle between England and Spain. It preceded the War of the Austrian Succession (known in North America as King George's War), which lasted until 1748. The war was named for Robert Jenkins, a British seaman who lost an ear in a brush with the Spaniards off the coast of Florida. Commercial rivalry on the seas and disputes over proprietary rights to Georgia contributed to the conflict. England and Spain fought at sea and on land, in two major theaters: the Caribbean and the Georgia-Florida borderlands.

The war resulted in no significant gains for either side. The British admiral Edward Vernon captured Portobelo on the Isthmus of Panama in 1739 but met with disastrous failure in 1741 at Cartagena, Colombia's principal port. James Oglethorpe, having clinched an alliance with the Creek Indians at a meeting on the Chattahoochee River, invaded Florida early in 1740 and seized two forts on the St. Johns River. He attacked St. Augustine the following summer but failed to take it. In 1742 a force of five thousand Spaniards sought to end the Georgia colony but was turned back at the Battle of Bloody Marsh, on St. Simons Island. The next year, Oglethorpe again invaded Florida without success.


Dowd, Gregory Evans. A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745–1815. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Merrell, James H. The Indians' New World: Catawbas and Their Neighbors from European Contact through the Era of Removal. New York: Norton, 1989.

Usner, Daniel H., Jr. Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy: The Lower Mississippi Valley before 1783. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.


E. MertonCoulter

See alsoColonial Wars ; Indian Treaties ; King George's War .

Jenkins's Ear, War of

views updated May 23 2018

Jenkins's Ear, War of. Although Captain Jenkins's ear was cut off by the Spanish in a skirmish in 1731, the war between Spain and Britain that bears his name did not begin until October 1739. American colonial trade was at the heart of the conflict and, initially, Britain made gains. Defeats followed, which had virtually destroyed her Caribbean army by spring 1741, though the navy remained potent. Domestic pressure for war with Spain marked the beginning of the end for Walpole's premiership. From December 1740 the War of Jenkins's Ear was subsumed into the War of the Austrian Succession.

Andrew Iain Lewer

Jenkins's Ear, War of

views updated May 18 2018

Jenkins's Ear, War of a naval war between England and Spain (1739). It was precipitated by a British sea captain, Robert Jenkins, who appeared before Parliament to produce what he claimed was his ear, cut off by the Spanish while they were carrying out a search of his ship in the Caribbean. His story was probably at least partially fabricated.

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