The War of Jenkins' Ear was a conflict between Great Britain and Spain that lasted from 1739 to 1748, with major operations largely ended by 1742. Its unusual name, coined by Thomas Carlyle in 1858, relates to Robert Jenkins, captain of a British merchant ship, who exhibited his severed ear in Parliament following the boarding of his vessel by Spanish coast guards in 1731. This affair and a number of similar incidents sparked a war against the Spanish Empire, ostensibly to encourage the Spanish not to renege on the lucrative asiento contract (permission to sell slaves in Spanish America).
After 1742 the war was subsumed by the wider War of the Austrian Succession involving most of the powers of Europe. Peace arrived with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748.
At the conclusion of the War of the Spanish Succession, the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 gave Britain a thirty-year asiento, or contract-right, to supply an unlimited number of slaves to the Spanish colonies, and 500 tons of goods per year. This provided British traders and smugglers potential inroads into the (traditionally) closed markets in Spanish America. However, Britain and Spain were often at war during this period, fighting one another in the War of the Quadruple Alliance (1718–20), the Blockade of Porto Bello (1726) and the Anglo-Spanish War (1727–1729).
In the Treaty of Seville (1729), following the Anglo-Spanish War, Britain had accorded Spanish warships the right to stop British traders and verify if the asiento right was respected. Over time the Spanish became suspicious that British traders were abusing the contract and began to board ships and confiscate their cargoes. After very strained relations between 1727 and 1732, the situation improved between 1732 and 1737, when Sir Robert Walpole supported Spain during the War of Polish Succession. But the causes of the problems remained and when the opposition against Walpole grew, so did the anti-Spanish sentiment amongst the British public.
Walpole gave in to the pressure and approved the sending of troops to the West Indies and a squadron to Gibraltar under Admiral Haddock, causing an immediate Spanish reaction. Spain asked for financial compensation, which led to the British demand to annul the "Visitation Right" agreed to in the Treaty of Seville (1729). In reaction, King Philip V of Spain annulled the "Asiento Right" and had all British ships in Spanish harbours confiscated.
The Convention of Pardo, an attempt to mediate the dispute, broke down. On 14 August, Britain recalled its ambassador to Spain and officially declared war on 23 October 1739. Despite the Pacte de Famille, France remained neutral. Walpole was deeply reluctant to declare war and reportedly remarked of the jubilation in Britain "they are ringing their bells, soon they will be wringing their hands".
Further information: Robert Jenkins (master mariner)
The incident that gave its name to the war had occurred in 1731 when the British brig Rebecca was boarded by the Spanish coast guard La Isabela, commanded by Julio León Fandiño. After boarding, Fandiño cut off the left ear of the Rebecca's captain, Robert Jenkins, who had been accused of piracy. Fandiño told Jenkins, "Go, and tell your King that I will do the same, if he dares to do the same." In March 1738, Jenkins was ordered to attend Parliament, presumably to repeat his story before a committee of the House of Commons. According to some accounts, he produced the severed ear when he attended, although no detailed record of the hearing exists. The incident was considered alongside various other cases of "Spanish Depredations upon the British Subjects", and was perceived as an insult to the honour of the nation and a clear casus belli.
Capture of Porto Bello
Main article: Battle of Porto Bello
Following the testimony of Jenkins, and petitions from other West India merchants, the opposition in Parliament voted on 28 March 1738 to send "an Address" to the King, asking his Majesty to seek redress from Spain. More than one year later, all diplomatic means having been exhausted, on 10 July 1739 King George II authorized the Admiralty Board to seek maritime reprisals against Spain. On 20 July, Vice Admiral Edward Vernon and a squadron of warships departed England bound for the West Indies to attack Spanish ships and "possessions". The actual declaration of war against Spain was not proclaimed until Saturday 23 October 1739 (Old Style).
One of the first actions was the British capture, on 22 November 1739, of Porto Bello, a silver-exporting town on the coast of Panama in an attempt to damage Spain's finances and weaken its naval capabilities. The poorly defended port was attacked by six ships of the line under Vice Admiral Edward Vernon who captured it within twenty-four hours. The British occupied the town for three weeks before withdrawing, having destroyed its fortifications, port and warehouses. The battle led the Spanish to change their trading practices. Rather than trading at centralised ports with a few large treasure fleets, they began using a larger number of smaller convoys trading at a wide variety of ports. They also began to travel around Cape Horn to trade on the west coast. Porto Bello's economy was severely damaged, and did not recover until the building of the Panama Canal more than a century later.
In Britain the victory was greeted with much celebration, and in 1740, at a dinner in honour of Vernon in London, the song "Rule Britannia" was performed in public for the first time. Portobello Road in London is named after this victory and more medals were awarded than for any other event in the eighteenth century. The conquest of a port in Spain's American empire was widely considered a foregone conclusion by many Patriot Whigs and opposition Tories who pressed a reluctant Walpole to launch larger naval expeditions to the Gulf of Mexico.
Further information: George Anson's voyage around the world
The success of the Porto Bello operation led the British in September 1740 to send a squadron under Commodore George Anson to attack Spain's possessions in the Pacific. Before they even reached the Pacific a large amount of the expedition had died from disease, and they were in no shape to launch any sort of attack. Anson reassembled his force in the Juan Fernández Islands, allowing them to recuperate before he moved up the Chilean coast, raiding the small town of Paita. However he reached Acapulco too late to intercept the yearly Manila galleon, which had been one of the principal objectives of the expedition. He retreated across the Pacific, running into a storm which forced him to dock for repairs in Canton. After this he made a final attempt to intercept the Manila galleon the following year. This he did on 20 June 1743 off Cape Espiritu Santo capturing more than a million gold coins.
Anson then sailed home, eventually arriving back in London more than three and a half years after he had set out, having circumnavigated the globe in the process. Less than a tenth of the force had survived the expedition, but Anson's achievements helped establish his name and wealth in Britain, leading to his later appointment as First Lord of the Admiralty.
Main article: Siege of St. Augustine
In 1740 the inhabitants of Georgia launched an overland attack on St. Augustine in Florida, supported by a British naval blockade, but were repelled. The British forces led by James Oglethorpe, the Governor of Georgia, besieged St. Augustine for over a month before retreating, abandoning their artillery in the process. The failure of the Royal Navy blockade to prevent supplies reaching the settlement was a crucial factor in the collapse of the siege. Oglethorpe then began preparing Georgia for an anticipated Spanish assault.
When war had broken out in 1739 it was expected in both Britain and Spain that France would join the war on the Spanish side. This played a large role in the tactical calculations of the British. If the Spanish and French were to operate together they would have a superiority of ninety ships of the line. In 1740 there was an invasion scare when it was believed that a French fleet at Brest and a Spanish fleet at Ferrol were about to combine and launch an invasion attempt on Britain itself. Although this proved not to be the case, the British kept the large bulk of their naval and land forces in southern England to act as a deterrent.
Many in the British government were afraid to launch a major offensive against the Spanish, for fear that a large British victory would draw France into the war in order to protect the balance of power.
Battle of Cartagena
Main article: Battle of Cartagena de Indias
The largest action of the war was a major amphibious attack launched by the British under Admiral Edward Vernon in March, 1741 against Cartagena de Indias, one of Spain's principal gold-trading ports in their colony of New Granada (today Colombia). Vernon's expedition was hampered by inefficient organisation, his rivalry with the commander of his land forces, and the logistical problems of mounting and maintaining a major trans-Atlantic expedition. The strong fortifications in Cartagena and the able strategy of Spanish Commander Blas de Lezo were decisive in repelling the attack, with heavy losses on the British side. In addition to the unfamiliar tropical climate, Vernon's men succumbed in large numbers to virulent tropical disease, primarily yellow fever.
News of the defeat at Cartagena was a significant factor in the downfall of the British Prime Minister Robert Walpole. Walpole's anti-war views were considered by the Opposition to have contributed to his poor prosecution of the war effort. The new government under Lord Wilmington wanted to shift the focus of Britain's war effort away from the Americas and into Mediterranean. Spanish policy, dictated by Elisabeth of Parma, also moved towards recovering lost Spanish possessions in Italy from the Austrians. In 1742 a large British fleet under Nicholas Haddock was sent to try and intercept a Spanish army being transported from Barcelona to Italy, which he failed to do.
Raids against Cuba and Venezuela
Several other British attacks took place in the Caribbean with little consequence on the geopolitical situation in the Atlantic. The weakened British forces under Vernon launched an attack against Cuba, landing in Guantánamo Bay with a plan to march the forty five miles to Santiago de Cuba and capture the city. Vernon again clashed with the army commander, and the expedition withdrew when faced with heavier Spanish opposition than expected. Vernon and his fleet remained in the Caribbean until October 1742, before heading back to Britain. The following year a smaller force led by Charles Knowles made raids upon the Venezuelan coast, attacking La Guaira in February 1743 and Puerto Cabello in April, though neither operation was particularly successful.
Invasion of Georgia
Main article: Invasion of Georgia (1742)
In 1742 the Spanish launched an attempt to seize the British colony of Georgia. Two thousand troops under the command of Manuel de Montiano landed on St Simons Island. General Oglethorpe rallied the local forces and defeated the Spanish regulars at Bloody Marsh and Gully Hole Creek, forcing them to withdraw. Border clashes between Florida and Georgia continued for the next few years, but there were no further offensive operations on the American mainland by either nation.
Merger with wider war
By mid-1742 the War of the Austrian Succession had broken out in Europe. Principally fought by Prussia and Austria over possession of Silesia, the war soon engulfed most of the major powers of Europe, who joined two competing alliances. The scale of this new war dwarfed any of the fighting in the Americas, and had drawn the main attention of Britain and Spain to operations on the European continent. The return of Vernon's fleet in 1742 marked the end of major offensive operations in the War of Jenkins' Ear. This was confirmed by the entry of France into the war in 1744. France placed their emphasis on the war in Europe, and planned an ambitious invasion of Britain. While it ultimately failed, it further persuaded the British policy makers of the dangers of sending significant forces to the Americas which might be needed at home.
Although an expedition to seize the strategic French settlement of Louisbourg was launched by New Englanders in 1745, no further attacks were attempted on Spanish possessions.
The war involved privateering by both sides. Anson captured a valuable Manila galleon but this was more than offset by the Spanish privateering attacks on the British transatlantic triangular trade route. They seized hundreds of British ships, operating with virtual impunity in the West Indies; they were also active in European waters. The Spanish convoys proved almost unstoppable and so, during the Austrian phase of the war, the British attacked poorly protected French merchantmen instead.
From August 1746 negotiations were commenced in the neutral city of Lisbon to try to arrange a peace settlement. The death of Philip V of Spain had brought his son Ferdinand VI to the throne, and he was more willing to be concillitary over the issues of trade. However, because of their commitments to their Austrian allies, the British were unable to agree to Spanish demands for territory in Italy and talks broke down.
The eventual diplomatic resolution formed part of the wider settlement of the War of the Austrian Succession by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. The issue of the asiento was not mentioned in the treaty, and it had lessened in importance to both nations. The issue was finally settled by the 1750 Treaty of Madrid in which Britain agreed to renounce its claim to the asiento in exchange for a payment of £100,000 and allowed British trade with Spanish America under favourable conditions.
Relations between Britain and Spain dramatically improved during subsequent years thanks to a concerted effort by the Duke of Newcastle to cultivate Spain as an ally, and a wish by the Spanish government not to be seen as a puppet of France. A succession of Anglophile ministers were appointed in Spain including José de Carvajal and Ricardo Wall – all of whom were on good terms with the British Ambassador Benjamin Keene in an effort to avoid a repeat of the War of Jenkins' Ear. One of the results of this was the Spanish decision to remain neutral during the early part of the Seven Years' War.
The War of Jenkins' Ear is commemorated annually on the last Saturday in May at Wormsloe Plantation in Savannah, Georgia.