All wars have names, and England has taken part in many. The Wars of the Roses, The War of Spanish Succession, The Boer War and, of course World War I and World War II, but the War of Jenkins’ Ear is an odd sounding one! Although this war is not usually studied in history courses, inquiring audiologists will want to know what kind of a war involves the ear! The first question is, who was Jenkins and what did his ear have to do with anything? Robert Jenkins, owner of said ‘ear’, was an English sea captain whose ear was said to have been cut off by Spanish Coast Guards who boarded and searched his ship “Rebecca” suspecting that he was a smuggler.
The situation came in the aftermath of the Treaty of Utrecht, which ended the War of the Spanish Succession, Britain signed a 30-year trade agreement with Spain that permitted British merchants to trade up to 500 tons of goods per year in the Spanish colonies as well as sell an unlimited number of slaves. Though the agreement was in effect, its operation was often hindered by military conflicts between the two nations.
In the wake of the Anglo-Spanish War (1727-1729), Britain granted Spain the right to stop British ships to ensure that the terms of the agreement were being respected. Believing that the British were taking advantage of the agreement and smuggling, Spanish authorities began boarding and seizing British ships, as well as holding and torturing their crews. This led to an increase in tensions and an upswell of anti-Spanish sentiment in Britain.
The incident at sea that appalled the British and gave its name to the war occurred in 1731 when the British brig Rebecca was boarded by the crew of a Spanish coast guard patrol boat, the La Isabela, commanded by Captain Julio León Fandiño. Apparently, the Spanish found a cache of smuggled goods on board the ship in violation of the treaty between Britain and Spain. After boarding, Fandiño cut off the left ear of the Rebecca’s captain, Robert Jenkins, who had been accused of piracy. Fandiño told Jenkins, “Go, and tell your King that I will do the same, if he dares to do the same.”
Upon his return to England Jenkins met with King George II and not much was fuss was initially made over Jenkins losing his ear for his country. Jenkins then went through the laborious process of petitioning the British government for redress of grievances. Seven years later, in 1738, Jenkins was finally called before a House of Commons committee with his severed ear in a pickle jar. When asked, “What did you do?” Jenkins replied, “I commended my soul to God and my cause to my country.”
While there are no detailed accounts of the meeting with Parliament, the House must have been aghast at this story and, it’s reported, they started baying for blood. The incident was considered alongside various other cases of “Spanish Depredations upon the British Subjects,” and was perceived as an insult to the honor of the nation. Though wishing to avoid war, First Minister Sir Robert Walpole was pressured into sending additional troops to Gibraltar and dispatching a fleet to the West Indies. In response, King Philip V of Spain suspended the agreement and confiscated British ships in Spanish ports. Still attempting to avoid a military conflict, both sides met at El Pardo Palace in Madrid to seek a diplomatic resolution, and the resulting Convention of Pardo agreement was signed in early 1739. The resulting agreement proved unpopular in Britain and the public clamored for war. Many merchant captains were extremely unhappy that the British compensation claim had been more than halved, while the South Sea Company was concerned by the agreement allowing the Spanish limited rights to search British ships.
Within months the situation had turned sharply toward war, and the Convention agreement grew increasingly fragile. Both Britain and Spain violated the Convention, and First Minister Walpole reluctantly followed the wishes of Parliament and officially declared the War of Jenkins’ Ear on October 23, 1739. One of the first actions of the British Navy was to capture the Spanish held coastal town of Porto Bello in Panama. On November 22, 1739, Porto Bello was attacked by six naval ships under the command of Admiral Edward Vernon, who captured and destroyed its fortifications, port and warehouses. In Britain the victory was greeted with much celebration, and streets and towns in the British Isles were renamed Portobello to memorialize the victory in Panama over the Spanish.
The War of Jenkin’s Ear later become submerged into the wider War of the Austrian Succession. The issues that had started the war were largely forgotten during the Congress of Breda and the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle that ended hostilities in 1748.
Yet, without doubt, Robert Jenkins’ severed ear is one of the most famous ears in history!
Hickman, K. (2015). The War of Jenkins’ Ear: Prelude to a grater conflict. About Education. Retrieved May 5, 2015: http://militaryhistory.about.com/od/battleswars16011800/p/jenkinsear.htm
Wikipedia, (2015). Robert Jenkins, Master Mariner. Retrieved May 5, 2015: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Jenkins_(master_mariner)
Tarr, R., (2007). The War of Jenkin’s Ear. You tube. Retrieved May 5, 2015: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LP-gAdWxjv4