The War of Jenkins' Ear

The War of Jenkins' Ear is perhaps one of the tall-taleish true stories to ever be found. It has a rather romantic background, one of smugglers, pirates, and chicanery, but serious historical consequences (at least, for a war of its diminutive size).

For many years, Great Britain and Spain had been jockeying for control of the New World. 1729's Treaty of Seville gave the Spanish the right to search any ship in their waters. The British were allowed one vessel per year to trade with the Spanish colonies of the Carribean.

However, the crafty English decided that this was simply unacceptable. Someone had a brilliant idea and decided that they would send out several ships, each filled to the brim, and one would restock the hull of the original after it was emptied. This plan was carried off for several years, inspiring dozens of British smugglers and pirates. The Spanish, though aware of this, had very little they could do other than pick off a few pirates every once and a while.

This changed when the unfortunate captain of the ship Rebecca was caught by a Spanish fleet near Cuba in 1731. Robert Jenkins was interrogated and tortured by the Spaniards, before they finally tired of his resistance and cut off his ear. They then released him, telling the poor man to "Show King George what they had in mind for him." (

Jenkins, however, somehow managed to retrieve his ear and put it in a bottle of wine to preserve it. It lay in its vintage tomb for several long years, unmolested.

But in 1738, spurred by some wardoves, Jenkins took the bottle to Parliament as a token of Spanish atrocities. Parliament was theatrically enraged, and though Spain denied the charges, war was declared in 1739 by Prime Minister Robert Walpole.

The war progressed as wars do, with much pretension at invading Cuba and such. It marked a number of firsts, notably the first time the British called their colonists "Americans." The end of the war in 1743 coincides with the beginning of the War of Austrian Succession. Indeed, it is the war that set off a period of deep unrest in Europe, culminating in the empire of Napoleon. Not bad for a pirate captain and some over-eager Spanish coast guards.

My AP European class notes
"War of Jenkins' Ear" {}
"War of Jenkins' Ear" {}

I have been wondering to know, in English spoken forums and English history websites, if it is true that the War of Jenkins' Ear was hidden from English historians through time.

I was not surprised I read nothing more than "began with an ear cut off" and end with the beginning of the war of the Austrian succession, at every english spoken website. Of course, in that war ocurred the biggest and worse humilliation and defeat made to British navy at war.

We already know the war began with an historic ear but in fact it was an excuse. The real motive been the ambition of English businessmen for controlling the Spanish empire due to their weakened power in America after the war of the Spanish succession

The most important episode on this war was the battle of Cartagena de Indias (Colombia). For those who want to know this episode of history, it is necesary to introduce the figures of the Spanish admiral Blas de Lezo, the English admiral Edward Vernon, and the place: Cartagena de Indias, the main port for Spaniards in America.

After the Jenkin's ear episode at the British parliament, the English king George II sent a huge armada, the biggest amphibious invassion to the Battle of Normandy of 1944, composed of 186 ships, 26400 men and 3000 artillery pieces.

The king of Spain, Felipe V ordered Blas de Lezo to defend the city of Cartagena de indias from the English attack, counting for that task with only 3000 infantry soldiers and recruits and 600 indians archers.

Blas de Lezo's legend started during a long period of continuous victories over the English and Dutch navys during "the war of the Spanish succession". In those combats Lezo lost one of his legs, his left eye and a shot in the shoulder leave him a useless arm as well. For all that, he was called half-man or woodleg.

Lezo prepared de port's defence for one year. British arrived at Cartagena on may 5 1741 and on march 13, the English vessels started firing with their canons to the San Luis de Bocachica castle at a rate of 62 canon shots/hour.

After a month of continous bombing, the English disembark and took Bocachica and Bocagrande castles.

Lawrence Washington, half-brother of George Washington, in charge of the 4000 Virginian colonists, spread their troops at La Popa hill. This was the time Vernon commited the mistake of sending a ship with the message of victory to Jamaica. This news were sent to Great Britain where it took an enormous relevance, and George II ordered to fabricate coins and medals conmemorating the victory at Cartagena.

So overconfident was the English admiral about the victory over the outnumbered Spaniards that on April 19 1741 Vernon decided to send their soldiers to the final assault to San Felipe fortress helped for their warships batteries. Meanwhile the Spanish sunk their remaining ships at the ports entrance to divide English troops and hinder their attack.

When they arrived to the fortress walls they realized these beeing bigger as they thought because the Spanish dag up a hole around the fortress and british ladders were too short and useless to take the Fortress.

With that advantage and the British surprised and ensnared, Spaniards opened fire over them, and abandoning their positions, charged against the British, slaughtering them and forcing the reminders to scape back to their ships.

Finally, on may 9th 1741, after 57 battle days, with no food, half of his troops and sailors dead or sick by tropical plagues, Vernon decided to sail back to Jamaica, abandoned many vessels in the way out, due to the lack of people to steer them.

The result:

In the British side:

6000 British died

only 300 of the 4000 Virginian colonist survived.

7500 were wounded or sick and most of them died later on.

50 ships were taken or sunk for the Spanish defences or the British who had not enough men to steer them.

1500 destroyed or captured canons.

At the end, about 16000 British died.

In the Spanish side:

800 died

1200 wounded or sick

6 ships sunk

350 canons temporarily taken by the enemy.


In that battle each Spanish soldier and vessel fought and defeated ten English and American colonists.

The English historians hid the battle by order of the king George II with great succes to the present day as far as we can see.

The defeated admiral Vernon was given a hero's burial with the fallacious legend: "He subdued Chagre and at Cartagena conquered as far as naval forces could carry victory."...Neither victory nor conquest, but he became a hero.

Blas de Lezo died months later, undefeated, for the plagues at Cartagena city and was forgotten in history until now. Nobody knows his burial site.

And I can now make sure that if English speakers want to know about this crucial battle for Spanish colonies must go to Spanish history books or websites, although it is quite unknown for common Spaniards.

Some links in english:

This post is intended as a reply to the above article. Specifically I'm challenging the assertion that the War of Jenkin's Ear and specifically the Battle of Cartagena de Indias have been deliberately hidden from the English-speaking world's history books as sensationally claimed.

The battle is certainly forgotten in the British perspective, but it's definitely there in the books: regularly turning up as a chapter in the many books about the British navy and army and their involvement in the Caribbean. One notable account is given by Sir John Fortescue in his iconic 'History of the British Army'. It's not covered that much on the Internet but there are a few sites, starting with Wikipedia, as well as Google Book previews. Try searching under 'wentworth, vernon, Cartagena'.

But basically the 18th century just isn’t a popular period in British popular culture, unlike the Napoleonic or Agincourt eras. Even the era's victories get little coverage online. If you look for accounts of the 1782 'grand assault' on Gibraltar, which was like Cartagena with the roles reversed (and the British even more outnumbered) you’ll find very little – and searching gives you mostly books rather than Internet write-ups. And if you try to find accounts of 'successful Cartagenas' such as the captures of Havana and Manila you'll find virtually nothing, these, like Cartagena, are forgotten in the UK.

It's true that King George did attempt to ‘cover up’ the battle at the time, but hiding defeats from the people was standard practise back then, in fact kings and governments have continued doing it up to today. He was, however, unsuccessful. The expedition's two commanders, Admiral Vernon and General Wentworth, were very quick to publish and distribute pamphlets blaming the debacle on the other. These were followed up by pamphlets penned by resentful veterans condemning the expedition’s mismanagement.

So it was no secret then, and hasn’t been since. British historians do acknowledge it, but of course don't quite see it the same way as the winning side.

Some justifiably proud Spaniards view Cartagena with the winners’ mythology – as the English do the Armada, Waterloo and the Battle of Britain. But when stripped of that mythology and put in the context of military history, Cartagena, though a brilliant and heroic defence, doesn't quite match up to the superhuman event some portray it as (one Spanish acquaintance of mine calls it: "The greatest victory in the history of victories in all the ages.")

There are a number of myths attached to it (besides the cover-up one), some of which are repeated in the article above - which I should add is very good and far more objective than many.

For example, the event is sometimes termed Britain's worst naval defeat, when it wasn't really a naval battle at all. The Royal Navy did suffer heavily, but due to onshore batteries surrounding them in the narrow harbour. In fact, as pompous and ridiculous as Vernon’s epitaph that at Cartagena he “conquered as far as naval forces could carry victory” seems, it is essentially correct. The Royal Navy did achieve its objectives of securing the harbour and landing troops. The Spanish only had six ships, and these were soon captured or scuttled to block the harbour.

It’s on land that the ‘battle’, more correctly a siege, was lost. Essentially that boiled down to the failure of the landing forces (never more than 8000 strong) to capture the town before tropical diseases like yellow fever destroyed it, and the rainy season forced the fleet to depart.

And it certainly wasn’t the largest amphibious assault before D-Day as suggested on some sites. The Ottoman assaults on Rhodes and Malta and the Mongol invasions of Japan are just a sample of pre-WW2 expeditions that used fleets of a comparable or larger size and carried a lot more troops than Vernon’s (and Gallipoli in WW1 dwarfed them all). Even the British expeditionary force to New York at the start of the American Revolution far exceeded Vernon/Wentworth's in terms of men and munitions.

Then there is very loose interpretation of the numbers involved on both sides. Of course it’s tempting to count every sailor and cabin boy as the British ‘assault force’(estimates range from 23-31,000 men). But only 12,000 of these were infantry, half were British regulars and marines with the remainder made up of American militia and machete-armed Jamaican slaves. The British commanders held the latter two components of their force in utter contempt, which may explain the fact they only landed 6-8000 troops during the course of the entire siege.

The major battle of Cartagena involved the British assault on San Lazaro (today's San Felipe), which though not fully developed at the time was well on its way to becoming the era's largest fortification in the western hemisphere. It was a sensationally bloody failure.

British contemporary sources put the number of troops committed to the San Lazaro assault at 1,500; Spanish sources, when they mention numbers at all, tend to assume the full 6-8000 strong landing force was committed - not acknowledging or understanding that this figure actually covers multiple troop landings at different times. Of course some less objective Spanish sources remain studiously silent on the subject of numbers, leaving the reader to infer there were 23,000 British soldiers swarming up the fort walls (which were held by around 600 men).

It's really no wonder that with this kind of misinformation some Spanish people feel the fact Cartagena isn't counted as one of the world's greatest victories can only be the product of some kind of Anglo-conspiracy.

Spanish numbers also get played down. They are often given as only 3600, but besides his regulars, marines and native auxiliaries, Admiral de Lezo also had sailors, armed townspeople and slaves. According to the Cartagena Tourist Board there were up to 6000 defenders - fighting from well-prepared fortifications with hundreds of guns.

Taken in the context of other siege situations in history, de Lezo wasn’t in too bad a position, especially as he knew he only had to delay the attackers until the onset of disease and the rainy season. He was certainly aided in this by the grotesquely incompetent Admiral Vernon, whose bickering with the oddly dithering infantry commander Wentworth wasted a lot of time they didn't have. Notably he refused to supply battery support for the ground assault on San Lazaro on the dubious grounds the harbour was too shallow. This meant the infantry force had to attack without artillery forcing them to storm the walls with ladders - a brave but suicidal tactic thwarted by de Lezo's digging around the walls so the ladders couldn't reach. British casualties were 169 killed outright and 450 wounded.The Spanish then appear to have launched a bayonet charge into the shattered and retreating British as they became entangled in the trenches outside the fort. I say 'appear' because a minority of modern Spanish sources present a very different account of the bayonet charge, describing it as a surprise assault on the British camp - this is an intriguing discrepancy because the latter is actually what the British defenders did to the Franco-Spanish force at Gibraltar, and it would be somewhat ironic if the two assaults had become conflated.

The article above repeats the fiction that the Spanish bayonet charge drove the British back to their ships. This is not true, once they were clear of the killing zone of San Lazaro's walls and trenches the British actually made an orderly covered retreat the long distance back to their camp. After all, they still had more than enough troops to finish the job. Or so their commanders thought. Following the assault's failure, Vernon ordered a siege and bombardment of San Lazaro only to be told yellow fever had reduced the artillery and infantry to a point that it simply wasn't possible. The landing force returned to their ships and the British eventually departed, utterly defeated, their numbers halved by disease.

The estimates of British battle casualties range from 600-3000 killed, up to 7000 wounded, though accounts seem confused regarding the ratio of battle-disease casualties. The higher figures are heavy but not extraordinary for an amphibious siege assault on multiple heavily-fortified and -gunned strongholds. At Gibraltar the Franco-Spanish assault force lost a similar number in a couple of days.

It was diseases such as yellow fever that cut down the British fleet and army in the thousands, not for the first or last time during Britain's Caribbean ventures. It's no wonder British sailors and soldiers considered posting to the Caribbean to be the equivalent of a death sentence. It's also no wonder contemporary Spanish called yellow fever the 'patriotic fever' because it defended Spain's new world territories from would be invaders with far deadlier effect than any armed force could.

As one historian wryly noted: had the British been successful in capturing the city they would simply have had the privilege of dying a diseased death inside its walls, as their more 'successful' compatriots did in Havana, rather than in the harbour and on the voyage back to Jamaica.

Disease also hit the Spanish side, with the heroic de Lezo succumbing soon after seeing the British off.

So it was a brilliant victory crowning the career of a brilliant man. But Britain has suffered worst defeats, and in open battle situations, and for that reason Cartagena de Indias is remembered in British perceptions more for the shocking disease toll, and is cited as a lesson in what happens when different armed branches (in this case the navy and army) don't cooperate. But in general it has been largely forgotten, just as few Spanish people are aware of the reverse event at Gibraltar despite that occurring on what is, at least rightfully, their soil.

As for the coins? Once again, reporting victories before the fact was common practice before modern communications, though in that case it went spectacularly wrong. I'll never understand why George Washington's half-brother named his estate after Vernon, he was there after all, and Vernon tried to put some of the blame on the American forces. In fact Cartagena sometimes turns up in books exploring the build-up to the American Revolutionary War, as an example of the intense ill-will between British regular troops and colonial forces.

Ultimately, in Brtish eyes, Cartagena de Indias just goes down in the long list of failed/successful imperialistic land grabs that modern Britain no longer wants to think about. Spain would pay it back in kind during the American Revolutionary War and neither side can claim moral superiority - there's no honour amongst thieves and frankly that's all colonialist and imperialist powers are.

Had Vernon been successful, what then? Perhaps Columbia would have been another Belize or Jamaica with English-speaking masters rather than Spanish, for a while at least. Both England and Spain’s days in the New World were already numbered.

Ultimately my main point is that Cartagena de Indias hasn't been struck from the history books as some have sensationally claimed. It's just viewed with the loser's pragmatism rather than the winner's mythology.

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