Why did England and Spain fight over an ear?

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.