War of Jenkin's Ear

1739-1755: The War of Jenkins' Ear and Jamaica's Troubled History

The quarter-century that follows Jamaica's period of burgeoning prosperity is one of almost continuous warfare. Whether fighting the French, the Spanish, or their own slaves, the British were almost constantly engaged in battles.

Jenkins' Ear

The War of Jenkins' Ear began in 1739, but high tensions between Spain and Britain had been leading up to it for several years. Spanish ships called guarda costas stopped and searched British ships, ostensibly looking for illegal materials. These Spanish ships were known for their poor treatment of British crews.

The War of Jenkins' Ear is named for the story of a sailor named Robert Jenkins. He was arrested by the government of Jamaica due to complaints by the Spanish, but escaped and was picked up by the guarda costa. He claimed that the captain slashed off one of his ears and told him to take it to England as a warning of what would happen to the British who broke Spain's trade laws.

Jenkins took this story, along with an object he claimed was his ear, to England. However, most people - particularly those who knew Jenkins - did not believe this fantastical tale of Spanish cruelty, and instead thought that his ears were safely hidden beneath his wig.

Whether or not the story was true, the outcry against this alleged act was strong, and Britain's Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, declared war against Spain in 1739. Squadrons flocked to the region to take part in historic battles.

One British Admiral, Edward Vernon, boasted that he could take Panama's Porto Bello from the Spanish with only six ships. He was granted the ships and given instructions to destroy Spanish settlements in the West Indies. He did indeed take Porto Bello with just six ships. The British achieved other victories throughout the war, as well, but not everything went so well.

Because it was close to Spanish strongholds in Panama and Cartagena, Colombia, Jamaica's Port Royal served as the base of operations for most of the British operations in these Caribbean battles. However, this position turned out to be devastating to British soldiers when yellow fever broke out among them; their proximity to Jamaican swamps quickly encouraged the spread of the disease.

France joined Spain in the fight against the British in 1744, and the war ended four years later with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. However, the treaty never addressed the issue that caused the war: Spain's claim to the right to search British ships.

Jamaica's Island Troubles

While the war begun by a Jamaican's ear waged on the high seas, those who had settled in Jamaica had their own problems. A hurricane and earthquake destroyed much of Port Royal and damaged much of Mosquito Point, now called Fort Augusta. Large portions of Kingston and Old Harbour were swept away by the storm.

The island enjoyed fairly peaceful politics at the end of Trelawny's governorship. But his successor, Admiral Knowles, managed to undo much of the good feeling on the island with one simple idea. He moved the capital of Jamaica from Spanish Town to Kingston in 1755. Unfortunately, by the time the king overturned the plan, three years had passed and Knowles had returned to naval service. Governor Henry Moore returned the island's official documents to Spanish Town.

Though tensions were high throughout Jamaica during this period, other historic changes also took place. George Ellis had rare, imported birds, and was given guinea grass seed to feed them. However, this seed was thrown out when the birds died. This was the beginning of the growth of this new type of grass on the island, one that the island's cattle enjoyed particularly. In 1754, Moravian missionaries come to Jamaica to teach slaves about Christianity. Island life kept moving forward, despite any setbacks the islanders faced.

This would not be the end of Jamaica's problems, nor the end of the conflicts between the three European powers. The Seven Years' War was soon to come, followed by 10 years of uneasy peace.


Back to Jamaica History Overview

History Resources, References, and Further Reading


Help us improve! We welcome your corrections and suggestions.