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A Shocking Incident Led to the War of Jenkins' Ear

One man's mutilation instigated a major conflict between Britain and Spain.

the war of jenkin's ear
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  • Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

With a name like the War of Jenkins' Ear—an undoubtedly comical title upon first introduction—one might imagine a small and petty skirmish. However, this mid-18th century altercation between Britain and Spain lasted for nearly a decade, resulting in the deaths of around 35,000 people. And it all began with a vile act of violence exploited as a means to a greedy, war-mongering end.

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The Historical Backdrop

At the beginning of the 18th century, tensions were already high between Britain and Spain. The theory of mercantilism was widespread at the time, asserting that a nation should try to maximize its exports and minimize its imports through barriers to trade. As such, if one country expanded its trade reach, it was believed there would be less wealth to go around for other territories.

The 1713 Treaty of Utrecht opened up markets in Spain's American territories to British merchants, who would be able to export their near-monopoly supply of African slaves, and import dye and wool. The Spanish city of Cadiz saw the importation of British goods, some of which were re-exported to Spanish colonies abroad. However, while highly profitable for Britain, this arrangement was known to be quite the commercial illusion. Over the course of roughly 15 years, only about eight ships actually made it to the Americas from Britain. Instead, British smugglers profited by evading customs and providing Spanish colonists with goods that were in high demand through the black market.

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Rather than stopping trade altogether due to this duplicity, Spain seized the opportunity to implement a new and restricting policy. During the two-year period of the Anglo-Spanish war from 1727 to 1729, French contraband ships were free to come and go to Cadiz. But British ships were stopped for inspection. The 1729 Treaty of Seville permitted Spanish authorities to board British vessels trading with the Americas, thus laying the groundwork for war.

How the War Began

In 1731, Spanish coast guards boarded the English merchant ship Rebecca. When contraband was discovered aboard the ship, the captain, Robert Jenkins, was then maimed by the Spanish authorities, resulting in the amputation of his left ear. At the time of the incident, the general public's reaction to Jenkins' mutilation was relatively tame. It was dismissed as being par for the course with smuggling.

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However, tensions cranked up even higher in 1732 with the establishment of the British colony of Georgia, which Spain considered to be a threat to Spanish Florida and the trade routes associated with it. For Britain's part, they felt threatened by the 1733 alliance between France and Spain, which was seen as the first step in replacing Britain as Spain's largest trading partner.

Eight years after the removal of Jenkins' ear, British politicians used this incident to stir up outrage. They lauded the altercation as an insult against Britain's honor. But ultimately, they saw an opportunity to improve Caribbean trading opportunities, and to put pressure on Spain to uphold their slavery agreement with Britain.

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  • A satirical depiction of Robert Jenkins presenting his severed ear to British Prime Minister Robert Walpole. 

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

How the War Unfolded

After negotiations failed, British Admiral Edward Vernon launched an attack in October of 1739. Three ships under the helm of Captain Thomas Waterhouse intercepted Spanish vessels traveling between Venezuela and Panama. Flying a Spanish flag, Waterhouse entered the port of La Guaira, but Spanish Brigadier Don Gabriel de Zuloaga was prepared for such an offense. Not fooled by the ruse, the port gunners opened fire upon the British squadron until they were forced to withdraw and flee to Jamaica for emergency repairs.

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Shortly after that, the British did manage to successfully take over Portobelo, Panama. They occupied the town for three weeks before withdrawing and destroying its fortifications, warehouses, and port. Encouraged by the victory, British Prime Minister Robert Walpole was pressured to deploy even more forces to ensure future success.

In 1741, rather than launching an attack on Havana as planned, Admiral Vernon planned to capitalize on the success of Portobelo's capture and attack Cartagena de Indias in the colony of New Granada (located in modern-day Colombia). This would become the largest action of the War of Jenkins' Ear. However, Vernon's expedition was undercut by poor organization, internal rivalries, and the logistical nightmare of maintaining a major trans-Atlantic journey.

The attack was repelled due to the strategy of Spanish Commander Blas de Lezo, and an outbreak of yellow fever among the British troops further weakened Britain's forces. It was the loss of this confrontation that heralded the end of Prime Minister Walpole's career.


The conflict was subsumed by the War of the Austrian Succession, which would finally come to an end on October 18th, 1748. At the end of the War of Jenkins' Ear, the Spanish had lost 186 ships and endured 4,500 casualties. The British saw loss in the form of 407 ships and 30,000 casualties. And what was the resolution of this deadly conflict? 

The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle generally acknowledged a stalemate and a status quo ante bellum, meaning things returned to the state of how they were before the war even began. However, some changes naturally took place, which had already been set in motion: British smuggling more or less came to an end and Spain was able to successfully defend its territories in the Americas.