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The war of Jenkins's Ear was one of the wackiest wars in military history.  The West Indies was once a key part of the balance of world power, particularly since the islands were the entry point to the lucrative Spanish trade market. Thus, the West Indies became both a battleground and a pawn in major trade wars. One such war came shortly after the War of the Spanish Succession. This war, at first, involved only Britain and Spain, but the war of the Austrian Succession soon absorbed it.

 

The war started over the loss of an ear. This war known as the War of Jenkins Ear, one of the wackiest wars in military history. Before we look at the cause of this war, let us get some background on the political and economic situations that led to this conflict.

Background

Philip V, a Frenchman who surrounded himself with his fellow countrymen, ruled Spain then. Thus, France gained a valuable lead in the lucrative Spanish West Indies trade market.

Britain did have a legal foot in the door, but it was a narrow one. This was through the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), which ended the war of the Spanish Succession. The Spanish did not particularly like the French, and they hated this concession to the British because it threatened the concentrated monopoly of trade.

The asiento provision, part of the Treaty of Utrecht (1713) between Spain and Britain, gave the British South Sea Company the monopoly over the slave supply to the Spanish American colonies, 4800 slaves annually for 30 years. It also allowed one ship to engage in general trade once a year in Spanish America. This limitation of trade between Britain and Spanish America would lead to the War of Jenkins Ear.

The Cause

To enforce the trade laws of this treaty provision, the Spanish had a coast guard in their American waters. This was no easy task considering that both sides were violating laws by smuggling goods to and from the Spanish Americas. To make matters worse, the Spanish coast guard harassed British merchantmen by confiscating their cargoes and, in some cases, abusing the crews of these ships. This practice would lead to the infamous Rebecca Incident.

On April 9th, 1731, a Spanish coast guard sloop (the San Antonio) commanded by a certain "Juan Francisco" intercepted near Havana, the British merchant brig Rebecca that on its way from Jamaica to London. According to the Spanish, the logs and cargo were incongruous. Thus, the captain of the merchant vessel and his crew were accused of violating the trade laws specified in the treaty. Captain Robert Jenkins supposedly insulted the Spanish captain, Juan de Leon Fandino. For this insult, Fandino used his sword to cut off one of Jenkins ears. Reportedly, Fandino had said, "Were the King of England here and also in violation of the laws, I would do the same for him!" (2)

In 1738, before a committee of the House of Commons, Jenkins reported the incident and exhibited his severed ear. In this report, he said that his ear was "cut off in April 1731 in the West Indies by Spanish coast guards who had boarded his ship, pillaged it and then set it adrift." (3)

This report provided an excuse for the British to declare war on the Spanish in October 1739. There were a few sea skirmishes, but no major battles.

References

  1. Juan de Leon Fandino: The Man who helped start and name a War
    This article by Robert Hawk examines the Spanish Captain who is supposed to have cut off Jenkins ear.
  2. A Very Oddly Named War
    This page by Mark Lardas describes some of the consequences and little known events that took place because of this war.
  3. Maryland's Involvement
    From the archivist Bulldog September 1987 issue, learn about the American Colonies involvement in this odd little war by Phebe Jacobsen.

Further Note: The Pennsylvania Gazette's October 7, 1731, issue has an account of this incident.