What Was the War of Jenkins’ Ear?

Precipitated by competition for trade, the British used the severing of a man’s ear as a casus belli for war against their rival, Spain.

Mar 15, 2024By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma
what was war jenkins ear


Of all the wars in history, few have such a comical name as the War of Jenkins’ Ear. The war, also known as the Anglo-Spanish War of 1739, is generally considered to be part of the War of Austrian Succession and was fought between Britain and Spain.


Jenkins was a real person, and the treatment of his ear may not have been a justifiable excuse for a state of war existing between the two nations, but it was certainly a focal point and a spark for further hostilities between the two belligerent nations. Despite the name, trade was actually at the heart of this clash between the two European empires.


The Early 18th Century: Economics & Empire

north america map 1702
Spanish, English, and French possessions in North America at the beginning of the 18th century. Source: Wikimedia Commons


By the early 18th century, the Spanish Empire stretched from the northern parts of North America all the way down the west coast of the Americas. About half of the Americas were under the claim or control of the Spanish Empire, which was, by far, the most powerful empire in the world at the time. Spain also controlled most of the Caribbean.


An endless flow of ships brought goods to and from Europe and the expansive colonies and attracted a major threat. This was the heyday of pirates and privateers, and the Spanish authorities showed little mercy in dealing with the threat to their commercial enterprise. Privateers operating with the tacit support of British authorities caused severe tension between Britain and Spain, two countries that had frequently been at war with each other.


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The tension was exacerbated by economic beliefs at the time. Trade was seen as a finite resource; success meant taking it from rivals. With Spain trying to maintain its huge network supporting its empire and Britain as a burgeoning upstart beginning to test its capabilities, conflict was inevitable.


samuel scott wagers action off cartagena 28 may 1708
Wager’s Action off Cartagena, 28 May 1708 by Samuel Scott, ca. 1743-1747 shows privateers attacking Spanish shipping. Source: Royal Museums Greenwich


Britain had already won significant commercial rights in the Treaty of Utrecht, which ended the War of the Spanish Succession, as well as gaining Gibraltar on the Spanish mainland – a piece of land that remains a bone of contention to this day.


Despite the tension, trade between Britain and Spain flourished. It also created a sizable black market, and Spanish authorities were granted rights to board British merchant ships sailing to and from the Americas.


The British were wary of a series of what they termed “depredations” against British subjects and were keeping constant track of all the incidents that could be used as a casus belli against Spain. Both empires felt threatened by the other. For the Spanish, this came as British territorial expansion in the Americas. For the British, the relations between Spain and France were improving, and Britain feared being supplanted by France as Spain’s main trading partner.


The historian Harold Temperley wrote in 1909 that the War of Jenkins’ Ear was perhaps England’s first conflict in which the interest of trade was the absolute concern of the war rather than the balance of power.


In this, the War of Jenkins’ Ear marks an important point in world history.


Jenkins & His Ear

jenkins ear map
French map showing major ports and battle sites of the War of Jenkins’ Ear. Source: Wikimedia Commons


In 1731, off the coast of Florida, a Spanish patrol boat, La Isabela, pulled up on the lookout for ships containing contraband. The captain of the ship, Juan de León Fandiño, confronted the other captain, a man by the name of Robert Jenkins.


Several years later, in 1738, Robert Jenkins appeared before the British parliament and testified about his ordeal at the hands of the Spanish. He presented a preserved piece of his ear, which he claimed had been cut off by the Spanish on the day his ship was boarded, and he claimed Juan de León Fandiño had been the culprit. Jenkins further claimed the Spanish had pillaged his ship and set it adrift.


The incident was added to the growing list of justifications for war. When the public discovered what had happened, it drew significant outrage, and in the eyes of the public, the incident was considered the most well-known reason for war against Spain.


Others had also come forward and spoke of the injustice at the hands of the Spanish. This prompted the British to demand the Spanish right to board British merchant ships be repealed. In response, the Spanish canceled a contract with the British South Sea Company, withheld payments, and seized all British ships in Spanish harbors.


The War Begins

battle of porto bello
Battle of Porto Bello, 1739 by William Rayner. Source: Royal Collection Trust


The British main goal was to capture the main Spanish ports in the West Indies through which all trade was conducted. By doing this, they could put a stranglehold on Spain and force the Spanish Empire into making considerable concessions.


England declared war, and the War of Jenkin’s Ear began with an attack on Spanish ships at the port of La Guaira in Venezuela on October 22, 1739. This action was a failure for the British, and the British squadron of ships involved was forced to retreat to Jamaica for repairs.


Another vital target was Porto Bello to the west of La Guaira. A decade before, during the Anglo-Spanish War of 1727 to 1729, the British had attempted to take this important port but had had to retreat due to a sudden onset of disease that ran amok through the British fleet.


Vice-admiral Edward “Old Grog” Vernon had claimed at the time that he could have taken the port with just six ships of the line. On November 22, 1739, he made the attempt and caught the Spanish by surprise. Within 24 hours, the British flag was flying above the fortress guarding the port.


This action was so decisive that it garnered widespread fame in Britain. “Rule Britannia” was written as a result of the attack on Porto Bello.


Vernon Presses the Advantage

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Castello di San Felipe de Barajas, the fortress protecting Cartagena de Indias. Source: Wikimedia Commons


With the success at Porto Bello, the British attempted to take their prime target, the gold-trading port of Cartagena de Indias on the coast of Colombia. The British had little knowledge of the defenses present there, and an all-out attack was thus out of the question. In previous years, efforts to gain knowledge of the port were blocked, and Vernon decided to send a small squadron of ships to test the Spanish.


The action started on March 13 when a few British ships arrived at the port and disembarked troops whose mission was to gather information on the port, and the Spanish ships moored to the west of the City. Vernon then opened fire on the port in an attempt to lure the Spanish into firing back so he could assess their firepower.


The Spanish admiral Blas de Lezo y Olavarrieta understood the tactic and did not respond the way Vernon had hoped. Instead, he removed guns from the Spanish ships and placed them in defensive positions on land to create a shore battery.


The British then tried their luck and attempted to land 400 soldiers to take the port but came under heavy fire and were forced to abandon their attempt. On March 22, Vernon turned his attention elsewhere but left two ships to monitor the Spanish in the area.


Looking for Another Victory

charles philips admiral vernon
Admiral Vernon by Charles Philips. Source: Royal Museums Greenwich


Immediately after the attempt to take Cartagena de Indias, the British sailed west and set their sights on San Lorenzo el Real Chagres on the coast of what is now Panama. On March 22, 1740, a powerful British squadron of ships began their bombardment of San Lorenzo el Real Chagres. Completely outgunned, the Spanish were only able to resist for a short while and surrendered on March 24.


While this was happening, the Spanish were able to reinforce their positions at Cartagena de Indias by sending troops and a new governor from Spain. British attempts to intercept the Spanish ships failed, and several hundred Spanish troops entered the port, thus further fortifying Spain’s strongest position in the area.


Back to Cartagena de Indias

el almirante blas de lezo
El Almirante Blas de Lezo by unknown artist. Source: Wikimedia Commons


In May, Vernon attempted again to attack Cartagena de Indias but was forced to withdraw when the Spanish maneuvered their ships into a favorable position, making any attempt to land troops suicidal.


It would be another year before the British were able to finish planning and preparing for a bigger assault on the Spanish positions there. The British assembled a considerable force totaling 124 ships, including 29 of the line and 22 frigates. On board the ships were 27,400 military personnel, which included an invasion force of 12,000 soldiers.


Facing them, the Spanish had prepared strong defenses along the shore, augmented by six ships of the line. Around 5,000 soldiers were available to defend the city.


The force left Britain in late 1740 and was beset by misfortune from the very beginning. Unfavorable winds slowed the going, and disease spread through the fleet. By January 1741, typhus, dysentery, and scurvy had killed 500 soldiers and left 1,500 sick.


Among the dead were the commander of the land forces, Major General Lord Charles Cathcart, and the American colonial commander, General Spotswood. With both commanders dead, the command went to Lieutenant-General Robert Wentworth, who had no combat experience.


thomas hudson portrait of george ii
Portrait of George II by Thomas Hudson. Source: Wikimedia Commons


When the British arrived at Cartagena de Indias, the sea was too rough to launch an invasion from their preferred route. The only way to take the city was through the well-defended narrow channel of Boca Chica. De Lezo’s plan rested on slowing the British forces enough so that the wet season, which would begin in April, could spread disease among the British forces and inflict heavy casualties.


In command of the British fleet, Vernon began the battle on March 13 with several days of bombardments to take care of the Spanish shore batteries. Thereafter, the British sailed up the Boca Chica channel and prepared to engage the Spanish there. The channel was defended by two small forts; the Fort of San Jose was on one side of the channel, while the Fort of San Luis protected the other.


The British landed troops and attempted to take San Luis. They constructed a battery, and San Luis was pounded from the sea and land over the next few weeks. By the time the British created a breach and stormed the fort on April 5, De Lezo had already withdrawn his men under the cover of night. The attack was costly and took valuable time away from the British, who lost several hundred men to combat and another 600 to disease.


Around this time, Vernon sent word to King George II that victory was imminent, so sure was he of victory. Commemorative coins and chinaware began being manufactured in Britain to mark this victory in advance.


vernon cartagena coin
A commemorative coin minted for a victory that never happened. Source: Sovereign Rarities


The attack on the main fort of San Felipe was the next and final target. De Lezo’s last stand would happen there. The British decided on a nighttime assault on the side facing the city, where the walls were the lowest. The rest of the attack was a complete disaster. The attack was delayed by several hours and only started at 04:00 on April 20. The ladders they carried were not tall enough to scale the walls, and when the sun rose, the bombardment from the cannons in the city began.


To make matters worse, the guides the British employed were Spanish deserters who misled the British troops into direct danger.


Seeing absolute disaster unfolding before him, Vernon withdrew the British forces. By May 20, the fighting had concluded, and the British counted their losses. Up to 11,500 had been killed, and another 7,500 were wounded or sick. By comparison, the Spanish lost only 800 dead and 1,200 wounded.


This defeat was a massive blow to the British, but the war continued.


Further Actions

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Statue of General James Oglethorpe. Source: Wikimedia Commons


In September 1740, another British squadron set sail, but its objective was to attack Spanish possessions on the Pacific side. Commodore George Anson was in command of this squadron, and the mission was incredibly long and dangerous. Disease, bad weather, and pursuing Spanish ships took their toll on Anson’s squadron. One of their main objectives was to intercept the annual Spanish Manila Galleon sailing out of Acapulco.


This they failed to do and Anson returned home to England, circumnavigating the world in the process. Only one-tenth of the crew set out three and a half years earlier made it back alive.


On the North American continent, actions were also undertaken. In 1740, under General James Oglethorpe, the British took Fort Picolata and Fort San Francisco de Pupo in Florida and laid siege to the Spanish-fortified town of Saint Augustine with 1,000 men but were repelled.


In August 1741, Vernon attempted an invasion of Cuba, which met with defeat.


In 1742, the Spanish attempted to invade Georgia with 2000 men but were beaten by the British at the battles of Bloody Marsh and Gully Hole Creek. Georgia had been founded in 1733, just six years before the outbreak of hostilities, and the War of Jenkins’ Ear presented a grave danger to the newly founded colony. Georgia survived the war intact, and the victory by the colonists and their native allies against the invading Spanish forces is still celebrated to this day.


In 1743, with a much-weakened fleet, the British made another attempt to take La Guaira but were beaten back by a resilient Spanish defense.



johann tobias sonntag duke of lorraine crossing the rhine before strasbourg
Duke of Lorraine crossing the Rhine before Strasbourg during the War of the Austrian Succession by Johann Tobias Sonntag. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The War of Jenkins’ Ear did not end with any definitive outcome. In fact, it could be said that it didn’t have an end, as it merged with the wider War of the Austrian Succession. During this war, hostilities between Britain and Spain continued, and with the majority of action taking place in Europe, the American theater played a secondary role. Much of the combat there was limited to privateering to attack enemy shipping.


The war also served to weaken the relationship between Britain and its colonies. Spanish privateers raided coastal settlements of the American colonies. Beaufort and Brunswick in North Carolina were forced to pay tribute and proposed defensive constructions were never built by the British. As such, the war drove a wedge between colonists and the motherland in that the colonists felt their interests were not being looked after and were superseded in importance by a broader English desire.


The War of Jenkins’ Ear is known mainly for its name. Beyond that, it had little effect on the overall course of history. Neither Spain nor Britain managed to effectively neutralize the other in the West Indies, and the war was superseded by a much larger conflict.

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By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.