War of Jenkin's Ear

1739-1748: Conflict over smuggling between Britain and Spain leads to a war

Although Spain and Britain had been engaged in a battle for supremacy in the Caribbean for more than two centuries, they had arrived at a relative peace during the early decades of the 1700s. But throughout history, British smugglers had flouted Spanish trade restrictions.

In the late 1600s, the Spanish Queen Regent authorized the first privateering commission, giving the rights to ships known as guarda costas to search British ships for illegally purchased Spanish cargoes. They would seize these ships and take them to Spanish ports for sale.

But after 1714, the guarda costas took more than 200 ships in just 23 years, and most of these ships were condemned in Spanish courts. While Jamaican smugglers were making a great deal of money through illegal trade, the Spanish seized smugglers as well as legal merchant ships during this time.

War for an Ear

Although the politicians in Spain and Britain had argued over these seizures for a quarter of a century, the political climate in Britain was finally ready for war in 1738. At this same time, Captain Jenkins came to the House of Commons in England, showing them what he claimed was his ear, cut off by a Spanish captain.

There is some dispute over whether this was truly his ear, or if he simply made up the claim and his ears were safely under his wig; historians may never know for sure. However, what is clear is that this led Britain to call for war against Spain. This war would later combine with the European War of Austrian Succession, and the ending treaty never addressed these guarda costa attacks.

War-Time Traditions

The British began fighting this war with privateers and made attacks throughout the Spanish Main, though fighting forces were still unable to capture Spanish islands. However, Admiral Edward Vernon did take Porto Bello in 1739 and Chagres the following year. He attacked Cartagena as well. These attacks were particularly successful because they occurred before the sailors could become ill with tropical diseases.

In 1741, Vernon and General Wentworth led a larger fleet in a long siege, but most of their troops died from tropical diseases. Cartagena was able to withstand the attack after the pillaging by Du Casse and the French in 1697. Less than one-third of the force lived through the fighting and returned to Jamaica.

Although the fleet was decimated, the British brought in fresh troops and sailed to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and took the city with intentions to march on toward Santiago. However, many of the soldiers again became ill, and the fleet once again returned to Jamaica. The plan to capture Panama City was also cut short because of disease in 1742, and a second attempt to take Santiago in 1748 also failed.

Only the deputy governor of Anguilla managed to lead a successful land attack. He captured the French part of Saint Martin and Saint Barthélemy in 1744. A small French force that attacked Anguilla in 1745 was unsuccessful against the island's militia. The war ended with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748.

This war ended when the War of Austrian Succession did, but tensions remained high between England and France, both in Europe and in the Caribbean.


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