The Weird Tale Of Jenkins’s Ear

Governments looking for a pretext to justify a predetermined course of action will undoubtedly find one.  Some outrage can be seized upon, some barbarity can be dangled before the public, or some looming danger can be created to whip up support for a policy.  It is an ancient stratagem, and an effective one.  A convincing casus belli needs only the correct manner of its deployment. 

Few today remember the war between England and Spain colorfully named the “War of Jenkins’s Ear” that took place between 1739 and 1748.  It was an important colonial conflict, in that it was a contest for control of trade and shipping in the Caribbean Sea.  The war’s name is derived from a strange incident that allegedly occurred in 1731 off the coast of Florida, which at that time was a province of the Spanish Empire.  After first reading about the story in a book of colonial history, I decided to delve more deeply into it; and the more I learned, the more elusive and dubious the whole tale became.

The 1730s was a decade of intense political partisanship in London.  Robert Walpole, the British Prime Minister, was deeply unpopular; he was opposed by men of ability like William Pitt the Elder and Bolingbroke, who were determined to unseat him.  England and Spain were also at that time engaged in a fierce competition for influence in the West Indies.  Relations between the two countries were badly frayed.  From the British perspective, the Spanish behaved in a selfish and domineering way to foreign nations who attempted to trade with her domains in Central and South America.  From the Spanish perspective, the British merchant marine was actively engaged in unscrupulous practices—such as smuggling—that undermined local authorities of the Spanish Empire. 

The truth was that there was blame enough to attach to both sides.  England and Spain were the sole European powers in North America, since France had shown little interest in colonizing and policing her domains in Louisiana to the same extent as her rivals.  Spain and England were destined to be competitors; and as England ruled North America and Spain South America, it was only natural that the two powers would come to blows at the fault line of these two tectonic plates:  the Caribbean Sea. 

It was Spanish practice to have its coast guard board and search any foreign vessel suspected of smuggling goods into its colonies.  Unfortunately, it is clear from contemporary accounts that such searches were often conducted in a needlessly violent manner.  Merchant crews were manhandled and roughed up by the Spanish; a captain caught with contraband aboard could expect to suffer physical retribution, imprisonment, and the forfeiture of his cargoes.  We are told that, between 1728 and 1738, no less than fifty-two British merchant vessels were seized by the Spanish under such forfeiture provisions.  Smuggling continued, however, because it was so profitable. 

Stories of Spanish misconduct on the high seas—real, exaggerated, or imaginary—circulated for years in England and America.  Walpole’s opposition in Parliament knew that the British people despised the Spanish and would support a punitive war against her.  A foreign conflict, they surmised, might also serve as a useful tool in ridding them of the hated Walpole.  In October 1737, a group of politicians petitioned George II about Spanish admiralty abuses, and asked him to lodge a formal protest in Madrid.  Speeches and attacks against Walpole gained momentum steadily; he was accused of not doing enough to safeguard trade and security in the New World, as well as failing to protect the dignity of England.  Members of the opposition, most notably Lord Mansfield, began to parade alleged victims of Spanish barbarity before the House of Commons, to allow these simple sailors to “tell their stories.”  The opposition’s goal was to put pressure on Walpole either to declare war, or to step down. 

Satirical illustration showing Robert Jenkins presenting his ear to PM Walpole

The most articulate and effective of such witnesses was an obscure merchant seaman named Robert Jenkins.  It is not clear who summoned him before the House, or how he suddenly found himself thrust into the limelight.  His story was that his ship, the Rebecca, was stopped in 1731 near Cuba by a Spanish coastal guard vessel, the La Isabela, commanded by Juan de León Fandiño.  The Rebecca was a Scottish sloop sailing from Jamaica to England.  According to Jenkins, Captain Fandiño boarded his ship, searched it, and then sliced off Jenkins’s ear with a cutlass, telling him, “If your King George were here, I’d cut off his ear, too.”  Jenkins preserved his ear in a jar of suitable liquid; upon returning to England, he sought an audience with the king.  He told George II his story, and then produced the amputated ear for the king’s inspection! 

However, the king took no action on Jenkins’s behalf.  He had probably concluded that the man was a crank seeking attention.  But the political winds in London were blowing very differently seven years later, as we have related; in 1738 Jenkins was invited to tell his grisly tale to the House of Commons.  This he apparently did.  When the ear was displayed to the House, it generated a storm of anger against Spain; even the poet Alexander Pope involved himself in the incident.  In Epilogue to the Satires (Dialogue I), he refers obliquely to the matter:

In Sappho touch the failings of the sex,

In reverend bishops note some small neglects,

And own, the Spaniard did a waggish thing,

Who cropped our ears, and sent them to the king.

Walpole now found himself backed into a corner.  Attempts were made to reach an agreement with Madrid to resolve Anglo-Spanish differences, but these came to nothing.  Jenkins had become a celebrity, and was clearly enjoying his moment; he took to displaying his severed ear around London to anyone who asked to see it.  By 1739 Walpole was carried along by the public’s ardent desire for war; soon he was making bellicose public statements just like those from his opposition.

But once the war began, Robert Jenkins faded into obscurity.  We are told that he was given command of a merchant ship of the East India Company.  From 1740 to 1741 he held a post on the island of St. Helena, which was then, as now, one of the most remote and forlorn places on earth.  For a long time, the veracity of the Jenkins story was doubted; Horace Walpole in 1761 commented that Jenkins “died with both ears on his head.”  In October 1889, however, the English Historical Review published documentary evidence that the weird tale was based on fact.

Jenkins did, in fact, provide a deposition to the king.  The House journal entry for March 16, 1738 commands Robert Jenkins to “appear before the House” without delay—in effect, something similar to a modern subpoena.  We have no eyewitness account of his appearance before the House, and must rely on reasonable conjecture that he did, in fact, make such an appearance.  It is difficult to imagine that someone with Jenkins’s taste for publicity would decline such an unprecedented chance for notoriety. 

What remains certain is that Jenkins was maneuvered into place like a pawn on a chessboard, and used as a propaganda tool, by political forces that had a very specific agenda.  The wheels of political mechanisms demand a certain kind of grist; outrage and hysteria are two of the most effective. And in this, the affair of Jenkins’s ear has a decidedly modern and familiar ring.   



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