War of Jenkins' Ear

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Walpole drives the British lion after a Spanish plowman who has harnessed four British merchant sailors. In the background, Robert Jenkins loses his ear while a British warship loses out to a Spanish ship (English caricature, 1738)

The War of Jenkins 'Ear ( English for war for Jenkins' ear ) or Guerra del Asiento ( Spanish for Asiento war ) was a colonial war between Great Britain and Spain that took place from 1739 to 1742. It is named after the severed ear of the merchant captain Robert Jenkins , who presented it to the British Parliament in 1738 as evidence of violent Spanish attacks against British seafarers .

The war waged by the British in the Caribbean and the southern colonies of North America was aimed at breaking Spanish supremacy in the West Indian region and eliminating Spanish overseas trade. In their attacks on Spanish bases, however, the British only achieved significant success in the first year of the war by taking the Spanish portobelo . After all other operations, carried out as amphibious operations by units of the fleet and landing troops of the British infantry, failed and the British expeditionary corps had melted further and further through guerrilla actions and tropical diseases , the fighting was finally stopped in the course of 1742 with no result. The street name " Portobello Road " in London still reminds of the British victory at Portobelo .

History and nomenclature

Soon after the Peace of Utrecht (1713), the British began to use the Asiento , in which Spain had granted the British South Sea Company the exclusive right to import slaves into the South American colonial areas of Spain, for extensive smuggling as well. The attempt by the Spaniards to stop this smuggling trade and to have British ships searched for contraband by the Guarda Costa (Spanish coast guard boats) led to tensions between Spain and Great Britain. When the British merchant captain Robert Jenkins finally presented his alcoholic ear in front of the British Parliament in March 1738 and stated that it had been cut off by a Spanish coastal patrol in 1731, the already latent anti-Spanish sentiment in Great Britain heated up further. Although an agreement drawn up by British Prime Minister Robert Walpole and the Spanish Ambassador , under which Spain undertook to pay large amounts of compensation for illegally confiscated British shipments, was ratified in January 1739 (the so-called "El Pardo Convention"), it came after a British one Fleet demonstration off the Spanish coast (Admiral Nicholas Haddock ) to denounce Asiento by the Spanish government and in October 1739 to declare war between the two states.

The name for the conflict was coined by the essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle in 1858 , one hundred and ten years after the end of hostilities. Carlyle mentioned the ear in several places in his story of Frederick II (1858), particularly in Book XI, Chapter VI, where he made specific reference to the "War of Jenkins's Ear".


The West Indian theater of war

The West Indian theater of war

Since the British were far inferior to the Spanish (and their potential allies, the French) in Europe in terms of troop strength, a single blow against Spanish overseas trade promised success. The core of this trade was the Spanish silver fleet, which picked up South American silver at the Portobelo and Cartagena trade fairs and brought it to the Spanish motherland after a stop in Havana , the last supply station before crossing the Atlantic. In order to disrupt the silver transports to Spain as effectively as possible, it was necessary to capture one of these trading bases by British troops.

After the British government's war plans had initially concentrated on Havana and Cartagena, the British Vice Admiral Edward Vernon managed to capture the Spanish Portobelo in a surprise coup on November 21, 1739. Since Vernon had all defenses razed by his soldiers, the place was left unprotected and worthless after the return of the British to Jamaica. Only a short time later Vernon succeeded in the same with the fortress of San Lorenzo at the mouth of the Río Chagres , so that Spain had already lost all its bases on the Isthmus of Panama in the first months of the war.

When a number of British infantry regiments, specially transported across the Atlantic, arrived in Jamaica in early January 1741, attacks on larger Spanish bases were possible for the first time. Since Havana was too far from Jamaica to be able to defend both permanently, an attack on Cartagena seemed the most promising. While Vice Admiral Vernon commanded the British fleet, the British infantry - reinforced by troops in the North American colonies - was under the command of General Thomas Wentworth. On the part of the defenders, the Spanish admiral Blas de Lezo was in command. On March 9th, the British began their siege of Cartagena . In the course of the operation, however, it turned out that the British had not only underestimated their opponent, but also had considerable difficulties with the combined use of their sea and land forces. After heavy losses, the attack was finally canceled on May 9, 1741 without success.

British sailors lie in a Spanish prison in the Caribbean. Sitting on a cloud, the ghosts of Admirals Cavendish, Raleigh and Blake summon British warships to defend trade (English caricature, 1738)

The port of Santiago de Cuba was the next target of the combined British armed forces, as it was from there that the strategically important Windward Passage between Spanish Cuba and the French part of the island of Hispaniola could be controlled. Since the strong fortifications of Santiago and the narrow port entrance made it impossible to capture the sea, the British decided to land in the Bay of Guantanamo . On July 23, 1741, British troops under General Wentworth went ashore, but soon realized that the planned attack from this point was impossible because of the poor road conditions. Instead, it was decided to establish a permanent British base north of the landing site. During the fortification work on the inland camp and the anchorage in the bay, however, more and more soldiers fell victim to the rampant tropical diseases, so that the company finally had to be abandoned in December and the remaining British forces returned to Jamaica.

In January, the British, now reinforced by new troops from Europe, decided to attack Spanish Panama . For this purpose, Portobelo should be taken first and then advance south to Panama. However, like the two previous attacks against Cartagena and Santiago de Cuba, the company launched on March 5, 1742 quickly turned into a disaster. Due to a hasty attack by the naval units under Vice Admiral Vernon on Portobelo (the original plan called for an attack by infantry from the land side), the garrison stationed there was able to flee and Panama was warned. As a result, the company had to be terminated as hopeless at the end of March 1742, around a month after the start of the action.

The role of France

Due to the close ties between Spain and France ( Bourbon Family Pact ), France was also drawn into the conflict. Cardinal Fleury responded to the dispatch of the British naval associations by sending a French fleet under Admiral Antoine-François d'Antin to the West Indies, which, however, after long before Saint Domingue to unite with the Spanish fleet, caused epidemics and supply difficulties was forced to return to France without a fight. As a result, there was no further support for Spain from France and thus a de facto armistice between Great Britain and France at sea, which lasted from 1741 to 1744.

The Georgia and Florida clashes

The establishment of the British colony of Georgia in 1733 had served the British to achieve various goals. In addition to commercial (planting of mulberry trees and production of silk, flax and hemp) and philanthropic arguments (settlement of released prisoners from British guilty prisons and Protestants persecuted in Europe), the main focus was on protecting the economically valuable British colony of South Carolina against the Spanish in Florida and the French in Louisiana . After the Spanish carried out a surprise attack on Savannah as early as 1735, James Edward Oglethorpe , who at the time exercised the powers of Georgia as governor, began the systematic expansion of a defensive line and the raising of troops to protect the young colony. After the western flank was secured by treaties with local Indian tribes, Oglethorpe was able to adopt an aggressive policy against Florida after the outbreak of the Anglo-Spanish War. On January 1, 1740, the British began their attack on Florida. Despite the great expenditure of troops and material, the siege of the Spanish St. Augustine , which began on May 31, 1740, failed when the Spanish received reinforcements from Havana in early July. This ended the British enterprise just as unsuccessfully as a counterattack by the Spaniards on Georgia two years later (July 1742).

Lisbon negotiations

From August 1746, negotiations began in the city of Lisbon in neutral Portugal in order to reach a peace settlement. The death of Philip V of Spain had his son Ferdinand VI . Brought to the throne, and he was more ready to reconcile on trade issues. However, due to their obligations to their Austrian allies, the British were unable to agree to Spanish territorial claims in Italy and talks broke off.

Conclusion and consequences

After the British attempt to attack Panama in March 1742, the British expeditionary force in the Caribbean consisted of only around 1,500 men ready for action. Further attacks on Spanish bases in the West Indian region had become hopeless. While the commander of the infantry, General Wentworth, proposed a transfer of his troops to Georgia, Vice Admiral Vernon finally got his way with his proposal to distribute all operational men to the warships under his command. The open Georgia question was only officially resolved by the Treaty of Aachen in 1748. Therefore, different dates for the end of the war often appear in the literature. With the dissolution of the British expeditionary force in 1742, the conflict overseas known as the "War of Jenkins' Ear" can be considered over.

In the period that followed, the British began a large-scale pirate war in the Caribbean and thus almost completely stopped the large transports of precious metals from the Spanish colonies to the mother country. At the same time, the British and Dutch smuggling trade flourished.

In Europe, the confrontation between the great colonial powers was overshadowed in 1740 by the outbreak of the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748).


  • 1738
    • March: Captain Jenkins presents his severed ear to the House of Commons.
  • 1739
    • October: Great Britain officially declares war on Spain
    • November: Admiral Vernon takes Puerto Belo and Chagre
  • 1740
    • January: British troops from Georgia under Colonel James Oglethorpe besiege St. Augustine, Florida.
    • July: Oglethorpe breaks off the siege of St. Augustine following the intervention of Spanish troops from Havana
    • November: A fleet with a total of ten British regiments on board sets off for the Caribbean, but is held up several times by bad weather.
    • November: France sends a fleet of 22 ships under Admiral d'Antin to the West Indies to support the Spaniards.
  • 1741
    • January: The British Expeditionary Force arrives in Jamaica.
    • March – May: Two months of unsuccessful British siege of the Spanish fortress of Cartagena
    • July – December: Another unsuccessful attempt by the British to take Santiago and establish a British base on Cuba
  • 1742
    • January: Due to disease, the British troops have now melted down to four regiments.
    • May: Failure of a British attempt to take Panama by fresh troops from Great Britain
    • July: A Spanish counterattack on Georgia is rejected by the British.
  • 1743
    • March: British troops attempt to invade La Guaira but are defeated.
    • April: The British attempt to invade Puerto Cabello but are defeated again.
  • 1748
    • April – October: The Royal Navy attacks the colony of Cuba with a defeat in Santiago de Cuba and a tactical victory in Havana.
    • October: Peace of Aachen


  • Herbert William Richmond: The Navy in the War of 1739-48. 3 vols., Cambridge 1920. (The classic from the pen of the British Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond (1876–1946). Richmond's reconstruction of the British-Spanish conflict represents the first scientific-source-based examination of the subject)
  • Larry E. Ivers: British Drums on the Southern Frontier. The Military Colonization of Georgia, 1733-1749. Chapel Hill 1974, ISBN 0-8078-1211-0 . (Description of the Spanish-British conflicts in North America)
  • Richard Harding: Amphibious warfare in the eighteenth century. The British Expedition to the West Indies, 1740-1742. Woodbridge 1991, ISBN 0-86193-218-8 . (Harding's work can be seen as a reference work on the military-historical aspect of the British expedition to the West Indies in the War of Jenkins' Ear.)
  • Philip Woodfine: Britannia's Glories. The Walpole ministry and the 1739 War with Spain. Woodbridge 1998, ISBN 0-86193-230-7 . (Analysis of British-Spanish pre-war diplomacy up to 1739 and an important work on the genesis of the war)
  • Ignacio Rivas Ibañez: Mobilizing Resources for War: The Intelligence Systems during the War of Jenkins' Ear . PHD UCL, 2008.
  • Lawrence James: The Rise and Fall of the British Empire . Abacus, 2001, ISBN 0-312-16985-X .

Web links

Commons : War of Jenkins' Ear  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. David Olusoga: Black and British: A Forgotten History . Pan Macmillan, 2016, ISBN 9781447299745 , p. 24
  2. Lodge pp. 202-07.
This article was added to the list of excellent articles on May 8, 2005 in this version .