Why did England and Spain fight over an ear?

Robert Jenkins shows his severed ear to British Prime Minister Robert Walpole in a 1738 depiction of his presentation at Parliament.
Robert Jenkins shows his severed ear to British Prime Minister Robert Walpole in a 1738 depiction of his presentation at Parliament.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the cult classic 1986 David Lynch film "Blue Velvet," a young, relatively naive man named Jeffrey Beaumont finds a severed human ear in a field. Jeffrey's curiosity over the identity of the ear's former owner grows into an obsession. In his quest to find the person to whom the ear was formerly attached, Jeffrey is led into a strange underworld of vice and darkness, populated by equally strange and sinister people.

About 300 years earlier -- and in real life -- an unattached ear made a splash in the British House of Commons. In this case, there was no question as to the ear's rightful owner; it was presented to Parliament by a man who claimed to be its owner. Had he not pickled it, the ear would have been mummified by this time. It had been separated from the man's head for more than seven years by the time he carried it into the House of Commons and lodged his protest.

The man's complaint went something like this: His name was Robert Jenkins. He'd been the captain of a commercial trading vessel named the Rebecca. On April 9, 1731, the Spanish coast guard from Havana, Cuba, boarded the vessel. The Spaniards suspected that the Rebecca was carrying smuggled goods and demanded to inspect the ship's cargo and its manifest. Once they did, they found there was, indeed, contraband aboard the ship.

­As punishment,­ the Spanish captain, Juan de Leon Fandino, drew his sword and severed Capt. Jenkins' ear from his head. According to Jenkins, Fandino claimed, "Were the King of England here and also in violation of the laws, I would do the same for him!" [source: Brainard]. This last part must've really hit a nerve -- a year after Jenkins' testimony, England declared war on Spain.

It's not entirely clear why Jenkins waited seven years before he lodged his complaint. It's even less clear why Jenkins carried the ear around with him. What is clear is that it wasn't just the severed appendage that started what came to be known as the War of Jenkins' Ear. Relations between Spain and England were already strained long before Jenkins' mishap. What led to a war prompted by the forced removal of an ear? Find out on the next page.­

The Buildup to the War of Jenkins' Ear

King Charles (Carlos) II, ruler of Spain from 1665 to 1700
King Charles (Carlos) II, ruler of Spain from 1665 to 1700
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The War of Jenkins' Ear is closely tied to tension among the monarchies of Europe generated years before. These old squabbles would spill over into the New World, where European nations competed for dominance.

In the 1690s, Spain's King Charles II was dying, and he had no clear heir to his throne. The superpowers of France and Austria both had claims of lineage on the Spanish throne. Dynastic families often married into one another so that a royal born in one country could very well end up ruling a foreign nation. This was the circumstance at the end of Charles II's reign.

Even though Charles was still alive, France and Spain didn't waste any time. The nations set about plotting to get a family member who was sympathetic to both nations onto the Spanish throne. The Emperor of Austria and the King of France also divvied up the Spanish territory of Italy between them. Out of spite, Charles willed his throne to a French prince. Suddenly, France had trouble remembering the alliance it had just made with Austria. After all, a French ruler was guaranteed the Spanish throne. In retaliation, Austria declared war on France, and Europe was plunged into the War of Spanish Succession.

The alliances that developed are important because the combatants in the War of Jenkins' Ear -- Spain and England -- came to disdain each other during the war of Spanish Succession. Both were proxy players in the War of Spanish Succession; it was really a war between Austria and France. So Spain and England's animosity was like that of two opposing toadies jumping in once the gang leaders begin to fight.

The Treaty of Utrecht (which ended the War of Spanish Succession in 1713) established some ground rules for the two nations, which were dominating adjacent areas in the New World of the Americas. Primarily, the treaty set guidelines over trade, allowing the English to legitimately operate commercial routes into the Spaniards' American territories. To ensure that English commercial ambitions didn't exceed what was granted to them by the treaty, the Spanish increased their naval presence around Florida.

It wasn't too difficult for the Spaniards to uncover English smuggling -- it was rampant among all nations operating in the New World during the early 18th century. The Spanish regularly intercepted English vessels, harassed crews and confiscated cargo, regardless of whether the ships were functioning legally. It was on one of these stops that Robert Jenkins had his unfortunate encounter with the Spanish captain's sword.

The War of Jenkins' Ear lasted three years, from 1739 to 1741, but it didn't amount to much. Find out about what happened during the War of Jenkins' Ear on the next page.

The War of Jenkins' Ear

A depiction of the fortress at St. Augustine, Florida, circa 1671
A depiction of the fortress at St. Augustine, Florida, circa 1671
Kean Collection/Getty Images

When Jenkins lodged his complaint against the Spaniards to Parliament, his firebrand call to arms was justification enough for England to declare war on Spain in the New World. In addition to the harassment England endured from the Spanish on the high seas, there had been an ongoing dispute over the border between the Spanish colony of Florida and the English colony of Georgia. The ear was simply the last straw.

As far as wars go, the War of Jenkins' Ear didn't accomplish much. Most of the war was composed of British naval retaliation against continued Spaniard molestation of its ships. The battles on the ground took place largely in Florida and Georgia.

The war rallied both imperialist European nations present in the New World as well as indigenous tribes who had allied with the English. The French-Spanish alliance was still strong, and France had a presence to the west of Georgia -- the area that would be secured by the United States 100 years later through the Louisiana Purchase. But the French were kept from entering the war in earnest by the Creek, Cherokee and Chickasaw tribes, all of whom allied with the English and formed a barrier between the French colonies to the west and the Spanish and British colonies to the east.

Founder of the Georgia colony, James Oglethorpe, led an invasion of Florida, attacking St. Augustine, but eventually retreated. The Spanish retaliated at St. Simons Island, off the Georgia coast, attacking a fort there. Don Manuel de Montiano, the governor of St. Augustine led the attack on Fort Frederica in July 1742, two years after Oglethorpe attacked St. Augustine. This, the Battle of Bloody Marsh, ended in Oglethorpe's defeat of the Spanish.

If you're beginning to notice a tit-for-tat pattern that produced few results for either side, then you've got a grasp on the War of Jenkins' Ear. In fact, history doesn't name a clear victor in the war [source: Global Security]. It was simply absorbed into the larger King George's War, which broke out in 1740. This war resulted from revived animosity between the French and English -- a larger rivalry than that between the Spanish and English.

But before it became part of King George's War, the War of Jenkins' Ear spread to the West Indies (the Caribbean and Central America). A 1740 expedition of about 3,000 colonists was organized under British command. The group launched an attack from the British territory of Jamaica on Spanish-ruled Cartagena, Columbia. Only 600 of the colonial regiment made it back from the poorly executed assault, most dying from equatorial diseases [source: Global Security].

For more information on colonialism and other related topics, visit the next page.

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Sources

  • Brainard, Rick. "The War of Jenkins Ear." History 1700s. http://www.history1700s.com/articles/article1070.shtml
  • Sweet, Julie Ann. "Battle of Bloody Marsh." Baylor University. February 13, 2003. http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-806
  • "History of the War of the Spanish Succession." History World. http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=ad06
  • "Plot summary for Blue Velvet (1986)." Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0090756/plotsummary
  • "War of Jenkins Ear." Global Security. April 27, 2007. http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/jenkins_ear.htm­