The War of Jenkin’s Ear

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The Battle of Cartagena de Indias (1741)

War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739 – 1748)

Fought between Britain and Spain, this small-scale war took place mostly in and around the Caribbean; its latter stages became subsumed into the War of the Austrian Succession. It is regarded as a Spanish victory. The bizarre name was not used at the time but was invented in Victorian times by Thomas Carlyle; a better name for it is the Spanish version – La Guerra del Asiento (”The Asiento War”). An Asiento was licence to trade in Spanish territories in South America, but those colonies were a closed market, except for one thing – slaves. Essentially it was a licence to sell slaves to the Spanish.

Robert Jenkins of Llanelli was a master mariner whose ship was detained by a Spanish privateer La Guardia in 1731 and accused of smuggling. It is alleged that the Spanish captain Juan de León Fandiño sliced off Jenkin’s ear with a cutlass and bade him show it to King George as an example of how to deal with smugglers. Although reported at the time it attracted little attention until 7 years later it was brought up as a pretext for conflict with Spain by South Sea company interests.

The British South Sea Company was a joint-stock corporation holding a monopoly on South American trade; the British Government was a major shareholder and had established it to pay off public debt. Included in its charter was an Asiento – a licence from the Spanish government to sell African slaves in its territories. Escalating tensions between Britain and Spain led to the withdrawal of the licence; this was a key revenue stream for the company, since South America was a closed market and slaves were practically the only thing they were allowed to sell there. Its removal was a spur to war, as was the opportunity to acquire fresh colonies in the Caribbean. The Jenkins incident became the casus belli (stated reason) for the conflict but protecting and improving revenues of the South Sea Company was the underlying cause.

The war began with a British success; the capture of Porto Bello in Panama in 1739 in a surprise attack by just 6 British warships was celebrated throughout Britain and British America. Portobello Road in London, Portobello district in Edinburgh and Porto Bello in Virginia are all named after it.

After that little went right for the British. Small forces and an unfamiliarity with fighting in the tropics led to mounting losses, many from disease. In 1741 they launched a major amphibious attack on Cartagena de Indias in Columbia by 12,000 marines and 15,000 sailors in 54 ships but were bloodily repulsed with 10,000 dead and 6 ships sunk. This is noted in British histories as Britain’s worst ever defeat at sea. In 1742 a force of British American troops from Georgia failed in an attempt to capture St Augustine in Florida – the failure of Royal Navy to prevent the Spanish from re-enforcing the town was a key factor in the Spanish Victory. A Spanish attempt to invade the colony of Georgia was also defeated in the same year. In 1748, a British force ambushed a treasure fleet and its escorts as it left the harbour Havana, Cuba; it defeated the escorts, but the treasure ships got away. This was the last action of the war.

By now the conflict had become merged into the War of the Austrian Succession which had broken out in Europe, so Britain withdrew its forces from the Caribbean and combat operations ceased. The treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748 formally ended the war, but the issue of the Asiento was not mentioned. This was finally resolved in 1750 with an agreement that Britain would renounce any claim to the Asiento in return for a payment of £100,000 and improved trading rights in South America. This turned out to be to the Company’s advantage; even with an Asiento the Company made surprisingly little money from the slave trade – there was a glut of slaves and the price was low – they made far more from smuggling goods in the slave ships, since Spanish colonies were a closed market for all other goods. Prior to the war the Company had struggled to make a profit; wild expectations of profit growth had pushed up the share price and led to the Financial crash of 1720, known as the “South Sea Bubble”. The ending of its slave trading activities and the opening up of legitimate markets led to a revival in the Company’s fortunes and it finally began to turn a profit and continued to do so until it was wound up in 1853 at the outbreak of the Crimean War.

 

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