Why did England and Spain fight over an ear?

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].

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  • 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