The War of Jenkins’ Ear



    This is not a joke. Repeat, this is not a joke. One of Britain’s eighteenth-century wars is called the War of Jenkins’ Ear, 1739-48.

    Jenkins was a British captain engaged in trading in the Spanish Caribbean. It is unclear what he was trading and with whom; it might have been slaves or it might have been more innocent cargo. In 1731, Jenkins was intercepted by a Spanish patrol ship. He was boarded and whatever else happened, the Spaniards cut off one of Jenkin’s ears as punishment.

    It was peacetime, and the Spanish do not seem to have been particularly upset, or Jenkins likely would have lost his whole head, or been hanged as a pirate. The cutting off of an ear was a common penalty for criminals in that time.

    Another oddity is that Captain Jenkins was attached enough to his severed ear to hang onto it. He somehow kept it. For years. It might have been dried and kept in some kind of small chest, or it might have been pickled in rum. The Caribbean climate can be fiercely hot, and rum was the common drink, so Jenkins’ ear probably was pickled in rum.

    In 1738, Jenkins displayed his ear to a committee of the House of Commons. The government of Sir Robert Walpole ruled Britain, but he was coming under criticism for not being aggressive enough with Spain. There was also a faction that envisioned easy pickings in a war in the Caribbean. Members of Parliament were outraged that the Spanish had dared to cut off the ear of an English captain. 

    Whether the outrage over Jenkins’ seven year old ear was real or pretended, soon there was war. Most of the action took place in the Caribbean. A British fleet attacked and took Portobello (in what is now Panama), but was repulsed at Cartagena. In what is now the United States, there was fighting on the border of Georgia and Florida, with a Spanish invasion defeated at the battle of Bloody Marsh. 

    This was a sizable war, with the British suffering 20,000 casualties and losing more than 400 ships (mainly to privateers). The Spanish lost 10,000 and 186 ships. The fighting faded away and merged with another of the seemingly interminable European wars of the 1700s, the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48).

    The name of the war was not settled until 1858, when the famed British historian Thomas Carlyle called it The War of Jenkins’ Ear. More recent historians are doubtful about Jenkins’ ear. They tend to think that Jenkins displayed where his ear used to be, using somebody else’s ear.

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