The forgotten importance of the War of Jenkins’ Ear

From The Economist:

It sounds more like a bad visit to the otolaryngologist than an important conflict between empires. The incident that gave the War of Jenkins’ Ear its name occurred in 1731, when a Spanish coastguard commander mutilated the captain of a British privateer suspected of smuggling in the Caribbean. Jenkins’ severed appendage was preserved in a bottle and presented to King George II of Britain as proof of Spanish barbarity. The ensuing conflict lasted from 1739 to 1742.

Yet as Robert Gaudi writes in his new history, the war’s causes went beyond a single outrage. Tension had simmered over a dispute about fees for Britain’s contract to provide slaves to the Spanish colonies. British ships ran contraband to and from the West Indies in defiance of bilateral agreements. And then there was the strange case of the Italian castrato opera star, whom King Felipe V of Spain whisked from London and made his personal divo in Madrid. One journal summed up the sentiment in Britain: “What are the taking of a few Ships, and the cutting off the Ears of the Masters of our Merchantmen, to the loss of our dear, dear Farinello?”

The war proved disastrous for Britain. It assembled an armada and intended to invade the Spanish ports at Cartagena (now in Colombia), and Santiago, Cuba. The Cartagena operation was a fiasco, bogged down by tropical weather, mosquito-borne disease and indecisive leadership. Bad planning and squabbling commanders meant that the Santiago campaign was over before it could even begin. Spain suffered defeats of its own, failing to take Georgia in the North American colonies. Led by James Oglethorpe, the British joined Native Americans and used ambushes to repel the larger Spanish force.

Among the engagements at sea was an action at Porto Bello, Panama, which yielded one of Britain’s few victories. Mr Gaudi, though, is less interested in the detailed narration of naval fracases than in sketching some of the vivid characters who fought them. The British succeeded at Porto Bello largely because of Admiral Edward Vernon, “boisterous and bellicose”, who became an instant national hero. (The song “Rule, Britannia!” was written in the afterglow of his achievement.) On the Spanish side was the pugnacious Don Blas, famous after an earlier incident in which, when he was only 15, his leg was amputated in the heat of battle.

Why does this forgotten war matter now? For two reasons, suggests Mr Gaudi. First, a different result could have changed the fate of North America. Had the Spanish invasion of Georgia succeeded, he speculates, Spain and not Britain might have become the dominant imperial force on the continent. Second, the war nurtured the resentment of Britain that ultimately led to the American revolution. The British recruited 3,000 Americans to fight in the Cartagena campaign, but held them back from the vanguard out of mistrust and fear of desertion.

Link to the rest at The Economist (You may hit a paywall. PG apologizes.)

12 thoughts on “The forgotten importance of the War of Jenkins’ Ear”

  1. “Had the Spanish invasion of Georgia succeeded, he speculates, Spain and not Britain might have become the dominant imperial force on the continent.”

    This is risible. Georgia and Florida were the distant borders where the British and Spanish empires met. The fates of empires don’t lie with border skirmishes. Border skirmishes might set off great wars. George Washington wandering around what is now western Pennsylvania (which he believed was part of Virginia) and bushwhacking a French party set off the Seven Years War (French and Indian War in American historiography). It did not, however, have any direct effect on the outcome of that war, even in western Pennsylvania. Had Spain successfully taken Georgia in the War of Jenkin’s Ear, this would have resulted in a temporary and minor adjustment to the boundaries of the two empires.

    This bit of silliness made me look up Robert Gaudi. He is a journalist with no training in history. It shows. Histories by journalists tend, with honorable exceptions, to be well crafted fairy tales, long on storytelling, short on insight. One of the Amazon reader reviews tells us this book reads like a “fun novel.” Given the five stars this reviewer assigns the book, they seem to think this is praise.

    • Thanks for your comment. The review – or the book – sounded silly but I couldn’t be bothered to look into it, so I’m glad you made the effort. The whole idea of a distinct war running from 1739 to 1742 also sounds odd. I thought that it simply merged into The War of the Austrian Succession (King George’s War in American historiography?)

      I do though think you that you are being a bit hard on Washington in blaming him for the Seven Years War. He ended up as an influential man but that influential…?

      • It is important to distinguish between the cause of a war and the trigger that set it off. The First World War was caused by a combination of a bunch of stuff that made a general war likely. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was the trigger. To put it another way, if a house has a gas leak and an open flame sets off an explosion, the issue is the leak, not the flame.

        In the case of Washington and the Seven Years War, there is a direct chain of causation from his blundering around Pennsylvania to the British declaration of war. But border skirmishes like Washington’s happen all the time without resulting in a general war. The skirmish is the flame, not the gas leak.

        As for the War of Jenkin’s Ear and that of the Austrian Succession, they overlapped but Jenkin’s Ear started a bit earlier and ended much sooner. These 18th century wars all do tend to blend together, and this is not merely in hindsight. But Jenkins’ Ear was a distinct, and much smaller, thing.

  2. As a Florida native who survived school in the days before classrooms had A/C, I still have vivid memories of my history teacher (a dead ringer for the KFC colonel) who whipped out a mason jar filled with alcohol & featuring a rubber ear floating therein. This piece of genius marketing resulted in my lifelong remembrance of Jenkin’s ear & what was, for us, a local naval action. Other than the ear, most of us were more fixated on the impact of hurricane season on the Spanish treasure fleets that were the main target of the privateers, as well as the odds of our discovering any coins washed ashore from wrecks before the tourists could get to them.

  3. The irony that the failures of both sides in the War of Jenkins’ Ear presaged the almost inevitable success of the Colonies in seceding escaped all of the European powers (and is virtually never even mentioned in US historiography). The War of Jenkins’ Ear demonstrated that mid-eighteenth-century logistical and communications systems were incapable of supporting anything above the level of a skirmish across the Pond — meaning that any “real” war would have to be fought by “locals.” Once the loyalty of the locals became compromised, the result was pretty much certain — it was just a question of time and exactly how devastating the defeat would prove.

    The Seven Years’ War just reinforced this, but it’s a lesson the European powers never did learn…

    • Whilst not disputing the logistical incompentcy displayed in the War of Jenkin’s Ear, I’m not convinced by your conclusion, unless your definition of a skirmish involves distinctly higher numbers of combatants than mine would allow. Whilst not reaching the scale seen in continental Europe, European powers – or at least the UK anyway – were able to project very considerable levels of force across the pond. The army gathered for the Battle of Long Island would not have disgraced many a European field and the real deciding factor in these wars was the opportunity that old enemies like France and Spain took to interfere in a private quarrel (and the higher priority then given by the UK to areas of combat outside North America).

      Of course, the loyalty of some of the locals had to have been compromised for conflict to have arisen in the first place, but the proportion who remained loyal, plus the numbers who just wanted a quiet life, left just who would suffer a defeat less certain than you imply. Having said this about North America, I would happily agree that your argument very much applies to Spain in South America in the early nineteenth century.

      • “Deploy” is not at all the same thing as “support.” Delving into the Battle of Brooklyn Heights in detail — less than 8,000 of the British force being “British regulars” — is also revealing; Howe’s later “campaign” actually proves the point (the ammunition shortages immediately after that “battle,” for example).

        It’s a “skirmish” if neither the homeland nor essential resources of either combatant were threatened, and both the War of Jenkins’ Ear and the Seven Years’ War (a/k/a French and Indian War) qualify. Frankly, North America was largely a “nice to have for commercial advantage” thing in the eighteenth century; the essential resources and money, so to speak, were in the Caribbean and South America, because the huge agricultural largely-potential comparative advantage couldn’t be shipped across the Pond in useful quantities without spoilage. Tobacco and cotton were luxury goods! (Much as American “manifest destiny” and ego declare otherwise, in the eyes of mid-eighteenth-century European governments colonies were for potential… and for storing inconvenient people. Whether those governments were correct in that view is open to argument and for another time.)

        • I think we are using two totally different meanings of the word skirmish. In my terminology it means something like “irregular or unpremeditated fighting, especially between small or outlying parts of armies”. So, an action not involving enough combatants even to be called a combat, let alone a battle. Your usage seems to be something like “strategically and or economically of low priority”.

          That the latter was true for the British once the revolution had become a more general war was, I think, implicit in my statement about “the higher priority then given by the UK to areas of combat outside North America”. When it came to the crunch, defending the sugar islands of the Caribbean and Gibraltar – and maybe the war in the Carnatac – had a higher priority than the regaining control of the American colonies.

          I’m not sure why you emphasise the number or British regulars at Long Island. The 12,000 Hessians were just as useful for the job at hand (pre trained mercenaries being a quick way to expand a smallish army). Also, I don’t think the “pond” had a great deal of impact on the ability to support the troops, as long as the sea lanes remained open. The huge superiority of maritime transport compared with the wagons, pack horses, etc. used to move goods on land actually made getting support – such as ammunition – to the ports on the American littoral a comparatively easy task. Gathering transport to move inland was another matter.

          As for ammunition shortages, I will have to look into this. The only ones I had heard of were amongst Grant’s men, and these were quickly replenished by boats from the fleet. Running low on powder, at least, is going to be a very short term problem when you are supported by age of sail warships.

          • How would you describe the incidents along the China-India border? They are very much premeditated and mandated from above. the media refers to them as skirmishes but I would go with reconnaissance in force, as they are a test to see how how India responds and, more importantly, how much territory they can carve up along the line of control
            It is part of the incremental provocation strategy both China and Russia are deploying to weaken the designated victims of their expected quick victorious wars.
            The term I’ve seen is Gray War and in Taiwan’s case it is designed to degrade the Taiwan AirForce by forcing them to use operational time on planes and pilots, inflicting wear and tear.
            These aren’t large scale win or die border conflicts but they have intent and purpose.

            • In purely military terms, within the hierarchy of combat, I would still call them skirmishes. However, this distinction is less significant than in the 18th and 19th centuries when, at least for European powers, battles were large scale but short duration “formal” affairs, and it was perfectly possible for a campaign to proceed with little or no violence (at least directed at the enemy’s combatants) between actual battles. So the Duke of Wellington, for example, could actively disapprove of such operations outside the battlefield as producing a useless loss of life on both sides.

              Warfare has changed since then and modern battles can sometimes seem to be made up of an aggregation of skirmishes (though directed towards some planned end rather than a random meeting of enemies). This is probably a particularly post Korean – or maybe post Vietnam – thing, though the Australian’s “aggressive patrolling” during their attacks in the later parts of the war in Papua New Guinea provide a WW2 example of this approach.

              As for China. this is a good way of infiltrating and occupy territory in the extremely difficult terrain along the line of control, but I don’t understand the psychology of President Xi well enough to work out why he actually cares about the border with India. What Chinese interests are actually involved? Are there not places/countries less logistically challenging to fight over?

              • The chinese interests are water. And its a strategic imperative.

                We are entering an age of resource wars and China (since before Xi) needs to control the Himalayan melt. For their own use and to have the power to deny it to others in tbe region.


                That’s why they won’t let Tibet go and are China-izing it.

                Resource wars are an old SF trope, even before the Club of Rome reports. It is the floated cause of the 2077 nuclear war between the US and China in the FALLOUT games (specifically, alaska arctic oil) and day by day it’s becoming more likely.

                There’s a fair chance of a near term war betwen Egypt and Ethiopa over a massive dam upstream on the Blue Nile. There are already several face-offs and clashes over water in the ‘stans. Those are existential conflicts.

                On tbis side of the pond the US and Mexico are at odds over tbe Colorado river and, internally there are multiple interstate conflicts over water allocations going back a century. Georgia has a border dispute with Tennessee over access to the Tennessee river and just last week their dispute with Florida was adjudicated by the SCOTUS. For now.

                So the China India border clashes are neither unplanned nor random. They are serious strategic business.

                Going back to the eighteenth century, the key issue in the imperial conflicts in the Americas was the command and control loop. Unlike the continental conflicts, the rulers could only issue general guidance so clashes *could* arise unplanned and accidentally, unlike in Europe. Not an issue today when high command has access to real time C&C. (Doesn’t mean the use it wisely.) Which is why the next big war’s first act will be ASAT attacks. And why the USSF is firmly supporting STARLINK, which is (mostly) ASAT-proof and an effective GPS fallback. (Hard to take out 10,000 satellites at once.) But that’s a different mess incoming.

                (Lots of SF tropes are becoming real. And not just the good ones.)

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