War of Jenkins’s Ear

Great Britain’s launch of the War of Jenkins’s Ear against Spain brought about the fall of Robert Walpole, the peaceable Whig prime minister, and committed the British government to the use of war as a tool for achieving its imperialistic goals.

Summary of Event

As the conquerors of Latin America, the Spanish claimed full sovereignty over their American colonies, allowing only Spanish merchants to trade with the colonists. In 1713, the British had forced Spain to make two exceptions: Great Britain’s South Sea Company was allowed to send one merchant ship per year to Porto Bello, and, under an agreement called an asiento de negros
Asiento de negros (slave trade license)
Slave trade;licensing of (“Negroes’ contract”), the British were authorized to ship five thousand slaves per year to the Spanish colonies in the Americas. Because Spain also claimed sovereignty over the seas adjacent to their colonies, they sent Spanish guarda costas, or coast guards, to enforce their laws. The guarda costas would stop British merchantmen, search them for contraband, brutally interrogate captain and crew, and often seize the ships and their cargoes. [kw]War of Jenkins’s Ear (1739-1741)
[kw]Ear, War of Jenkins’s (1739-1741)
[kw]Jenkins’s Ear, War of (1739-1741)
British-Spanish conflicts[British Spanish conflicts]
Spanish-British conflicts[Spanish British conflicts]
Jenkins’s Ear, War of (1739-1741)[Jenkinss Ear, War of]
Jenkins’s Ear, War of (1739-1741)[Jenkinss Ear, War of]
[g]England;1739-1741: War of Jenkins’s Ear[0970]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1739-1741: War of Jenkins’s Ear[0970]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;1739-1741: War of Jenkins’s Ear[0970]
Jenkins, Robert
Walpole, Sir Robert
Vernon, Edward
Brown, Charles
Anson, Lord
Wentworth, Thomas

Despite the best diplomatic efforts of Prime Minister Robert Walpole, who saw no advantage to making war, in 1738 Spain abandoned negotiations and suspended the asiento, prompting British merchant groups to bombard Parliament with demands for war with Spain. Britain’s commercial interests were certain that with a fleet three times the size of Spain’s, Great Britain would win an easy victory, leaving the way clear for British merchants to dominate trade in Latin America. Similarly motivated by self-interest were Walpole’s political opponents, the Tories. For the first time in seventeen years, they had a good chance to oust the prime minister, whom they loathed, from the office that he had effectively created. Visions of a Tory prime minister, enjoying the power and the perquisites that Walpole had monopolized since 1721, drove the opposition at least as much as any foreign policy concerns.

Thus it is clear that the mistreatment of Robert Jenkins at the hands of the Spanish was not the primary cause of the war that bears his name. In fact, the incident that supposedly motivated the war had taken place several years before it began. On April 9, 1731, the brig Rebecca, with Jenkins as master, was proceeding from Jamaica to London. While it was becalmed off Havana, Cuba, it was boarded by a Spanish guarda costa under the command of a Captain Fandino. After a search revealed no contraband, Fandino had Jenkins tortured and then, taking out his cutlass, cut off the captain’s left ear. Afterward, everything of value was taken from the ship, including its navigational instruments, but Jenkins managed to get back to England, where he reported what had happened.

In September, 1731, the admiral of the West Indies included a description of the incident in a formal protest to the governor of Havana. In 1738, Jenkins is said to have appeared before a committee of the House of Commons, where he related his story and displayed his pickled ear to the committee. However, at least one scholar insists that Jenkins could not have been present in person, since he was at sea on the date in question. In any case, it is true that Jenkins’s ear was mentioned in an important debate in the House of Commons, thus becoming a rallying point for those who favored war with Spain.

By the time war was declared in October, 1739, almost everyone except Walpole was enthusiastic. Even King George II and his son, the prince of Wales, who rarely agreed on anything, were certain of a great victory. Initially, all went well. In July, 1739, an able though irascible naval officer, Captain Edward Vernon, had been made vice admiral of the blue and dispatched to the West Indies. On October 23, Vernon sailed into Port Royal, Jamaica, where his five ships were joined by the Hampton Court, under the command of Commodore Charles Brown.

Wisely, Vice Admiral Vernon decided against a costly and uncertain land campaign against the Spanish; the best course of action, he knew, was to bombard their forts from the sea. On November 21, 1739, the Hampton Court led an attack against the fortified port treasure depot of Porto Bello (the present Portobelo), on the Isthmus of Panama. The Spanish surrendered the next morning. In March, 1740, the news reached England, and Vernon became a national hero. More medals were struck in his honor than for anyone else in English history, and the victory was celebrated in the popular song “Rule, Britannia,” with its well-known lyric, “Britannia rules the waves.”

On March 24, Vernon attempted an attack on Cartagena, on the northwest coast of present-day Colombia, but it soon became evident that the city was too well fortified to be taken except by a land assault. After capturing nearby Fort Chagre, Vernon had to wait for an expeditionary force to reach Jamaica. During the summer, troops were raised in the English colonies and in England itself, and a great fleet was assembled. In September, Lord Anson left England with a squadron of six ships; his mission was to aid Vernon in the Isthmus of Panama and to harry Spanish shipping along the Pacific coast, perhaps even to capture the greatest prize of all, the silver-laden Spanish ship that every year made its way from Acapulco, Mexico, to Manila in the Philippines.

In January, 1741, the expeditionary force Vernon had been expecting finally arrived in Jamaica. Vernon now had thirty-three warships in his squadron, as well as a number of smaller vessels and some nine thousand troops under the command of Brigadier General Thomas Wentworth, who was inexperienced and proved to be indecisive. The two men were supposed to make their decisions jointly, but they soon began quarreling so bitterly that their mutual distrust made itself felt among the men. After making excuses for weeks, on April 9 Wentworth finally agreed to attack, but the assault failed, in part because of poor planning, in part because soldiers and seamen would not work together. With the rainy season upon them and large numbers of their men dying of disease, Wentworth and Vernon abandoned their campaign and returned to Jamaica. Part of the fleet returned to England immediately, and after an unsuccessful effort to capture Santiago, Cuba, Vernon followed.

Admiral Anson, too, had lost a great many men, as well as five of the six vessels under his command. However, after some raids on the coast of Chile, he set off westward in his flagship, and in 1743, he succeeded in capturing the prize he had sought and seizing the treasure it carried, which was valued at £500,000. After rounding the Cape of Good Hope, Anson evaded a French fleet and arrived safely in England on June 15, 1744. Although both Vernon and Wentworth were honored by their countrymen for their wartime leadership, it is Anson who is now best known of all those involved in the War of Jenkins’s Ear.


The War of Jenkins’s Ear was a military and a financial failure. It is now remembered in England primarily because its sole victory inspired the composition of “Rule, Britannia” and because during the conflict Vice Admiral Vernon improved naval discipline immensely by ordering that sailors be served watered-down rum; thereafter, the drink was referred to as “grog,” because Old Grog was Vernon’s nickname. Vernon was also honored in the United States. While George Washington’s half brother Lawrence was serving in the Caribbean with his fellow Virginians, he came to admire the vice admiral so much that after returning home, he gave a house he built the name of Mount Vernon.

Although it did not achieve its objective of opening Latin American trade to British merchants, the War of Jenkins’s Ear did affect the policy decisions of the British government. With Walpole out of power, the British felt free to become involved in the War of the Austrian Succession. Moreover, after the War of Jenkins’s Ear, not only national pride or territorial acquisition but also commercial interests would be considered reasonable justifications for the British to go to war. It can also be argued that by demonstrating Great Britain’s military weakness, the War of Jenkins’s Ear showed the American colonists that it was possible to defeat the mother country and thus encouraged their move toward independence.

Further Reading

  • Anderson, M. S. The War of the Austrian Succession, 1740-1748. London: Longman, 1995. Argues persuasively that the primary cause of the war was economic.
  • Berkeley, F. L., Jr. “The War of Jenkins’ Ear.” In The Old Dominion: Essays for Thomas Perkins Abernethy, edited by Darrett B. Rutman. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1964. Finds the war of particular interest to Americans as the only time the colonists sent troops into action abroad.
  • Black, Jeremy. Walpole in Power. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton, 2001. The final chapters of this book explain how Walpole’s attempts to avoid war were thwarted by his opponents.
  • Browning, Reed. The War of the Austrian Succession. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993. Sees this period as a time when the great powers of Europe were constantly adapting their diplomatic and military strategies to fit ever-changing aims.
  • Williams, Glyn. The Prize of All the Oceans: Commodore Anson’s Daring Voyage and Triumphant Capture of the Spanish Treasure Galleon. New York: Viking Penguin, 2000. A definitive study of Anson’s venture. Maps, tables, and illustrations.
  • Woodfine, Philip. Britannnia’s Glories: The Walpole Ministry and the 1739 War with Spain. Rochester, N.Y.: Royal Historical Society/Boydell Press, 1998. The first full-length study of the War of Jenkins’s Ear. A meticulously researched, balanced account.

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War of the Austrian Succession

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