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War of Jenkins' Ear (1739-48)

[¶1] The conflict which broke out between Britain and Spain in 1739 takes its name from a British captain, Robert Jenkins, who was assaulted by the Spanish Guarda Costas eight years earlier, but whose case had been re-publicized in the lead up to this war. On 12 Sept. 1731, Rear-Admiral Charles Stewart had complained to the Spanish Governor of Havana about this assault: he states that "about the 20th April last [N.S.]," one of the Guarda Costas preyed on Capt. Jenkins's ship: "using the captain in a most barbarous inhuman manner, taking all his money, cutting off one of his ears, plundering him of those necessaries which were to carry the ship safe home, without doubt with the intent that she should perish in her passage; but . . . she has providentially got safe home" (Laughton 1889: 743). Captain Jenkins thus lived to tell his tale, and his case became illustrative of what were alleged to be many others, serving as a casus belli.

[¶2] Harold Temperley remarks that this was, "perhaps, the first of English wars in which the trade interest absolutely predominated, in which the war was waged solely for balance of trade rather than for balance of power" (Temperley 1909: 197)--although a case can be made that "the balance of trade" was already a prime consideration in the War of the Spanish Succession. The War of Jenkins' Ear was also hugely consequential in balance of power terms: it drove Spain "into the arms of France" and through the next ninety years posed a dire prospect for British foreign policy: "Spain's alliance with France produced grave complications for England in 1743, contributed to the fall of the greatest of English ministers in 1761, and to the loss of the greatest of English colonies in 1783. The danger of this union was only averted in 1791 by the use of the most skilful diplomacy; it induced the younger Pitt to coquet with Spanish-American revolutionists in 1797, to plan military expeditions to Buenos Ayres in 1805, and it brought Canning to recognise the Spanish-American republics in 1823" (Temperley 1909: 198). This doubleness of the conflict--mercantile motives and geopolitical ramifications--is captured in the ambiguous status of the chief British negotiator with the Spanish, Benjamin Keene, who was not only the British king's ambassador at Madrid but also the agent of the South Sea Company, a private firm that had its own dealings with the Spanish crown (Temperley 1909: 200-01). The changed position of mercantile interests in the British polity is vividly conveyed by another British diplomat, Delafaye, in a letter to Keene of 1 Oct. 1731: "These gentlemen [the Merchants] upon this have assumed a quite different air from what I have formerly known. They used in times past to come Cap in Hand to the Office praying for Relief, now the second word is You shall hear of it in another Place, meaning in Parliament. All this must be endured, and now in our turn we must bow and cringe to them" (quoted in Temperley 1909: 222).

[¶3] British merchants stoked public outrage at what they charged were Spanish "depredations" against them--and there was, no doubt, significant abuse of the kind alleged. But it was not all one-sided, a fact some British figures acknowledged privately, as British seamen and traders abused residents of the Spanish colonies: "One well-informed pamphleteer declared that he had seen Spaniards publicly sold as slaves in British Colonies, and that the seas swarmed with English pirates, often including British logwood cutters from Campeachy Bay [the lower part of the east coast of Mexico]" (Temperley 1909: 207-08). Moreover, the underlying cause of conflict was the "illicit trade, which Englishmen pursued with the Spanish colonies" (Temperley 1909: 204). Thus, the Duke of Bedford, writing to Keene on 11 May 1749, refers to "The contraband trade with the Spanish West Indies, the great bone of contention between the two nations, and the cause of most of the wars that have happened between them" (quoted in Temperley 1909: 204n.2). The Spanish "tacitly intimated that the garda costas would not be checked by Spain until the smugglers were checked by England" (Temperley 1909: 208). (Nor should one omit Spanish unhappiness with the establishment of the colony of Georgia in 1732 on territory, "Gaule," that the Spanish had claimed as their own: in September 1738, Newcastle wrote to Hardwicke, "however the right may be, it will now be pretty difficult to give up Georgia" [quoted in Pares 1936: 58; Temperley 1909: 220]--more or less acknowledging the British appropriation of Spanish territory.)

[¶4] By March 1738, the British court was reported to be considering issuing Letters of Reprisal to British subjects whose ships had been seized or looted by the Spanish (though the merchants themselves wanted the government to take action against the Spanish, not to be forced to do so themselves) (Temperley 1909: 210). Even though no such letters were issued at this time, the threat raised tensions and provoked a sense of urgency. Then, on 17 March 1738, "Captain Jenkins is believed to have presented to a sympathetic House of Commons his tale of woes together with his ear in a bottle" (Temperley 1909: 210). The British public's outrage and bellicosity was raised to a new pitch:

Seldom had English indignation swelled higher--one speaker talked of Englishmen in chains, another of Englishmen crawling with vermin in Spanish prisons. Every artifice of malice or ingenuity was used--the Spanish were cruel, the Spaniards were proud, the days of Elizabeth were remembered with regret, the days of Cromwell were appealed to with pride. Let there be an end of the haughtiness and cruelty and tyranny of the Spaniard by the assertion of the freedom of the Protestant Briton and the like. (Temperley 1909: 211)

[¶5] British ships and troops were ordered to be sent to the Mediterranean and to Minorca, and to defend the newly-founded colony of Georgia (Temperley 1909: 213). But even as these movements toward war were afoot, negotiations had been progressing, on a separate tack, for a financial settlement of the complaints raised by British merchants. Indeed, by the winter of 1738, "after much haggling Spain agreed to pay England 95,000l.," as a preliminary to a general adjustment of disputes (Temperley 1909: 216). The British and Spanish negotiators signed the Convention of the Pardo on 14 January 1739 (N.S.), formalizing this payment (due within four months) as a settlement of all existing claims (Temperley 1909: 217). But the prospect of a peaceful resolution of affairs was not embraced by a portion of the British public. Opposition voices--Argyle, Pitt, Pulteney, Wyndham--denounced the Convention in Parliament, particularly from March 1739 (Temperley 1909: 227), and a pamphlet war erupted, with publications such as the following written in support of the Convention: The Convention Vindicated, etc., from the misrepresentations of the enemies of our Peace (1739), Bordon's Appeal to the Unprejudiced concerning the present Discontents (1739), Popular Prejudices against the Convention with Spain (1739), the Grand Question whether War or no War with Spain (1739). Francis Hare, who characterized the dissension as "the greatest party struggle" since the Revolution of 1688-89, stated, "The Patriots were resolved to damn it [the Convention], before they knew a word of it, and to inflame the people against it, which they have done with great success" (quoted in Temperley 1909: 227n.1).

[¶6] In their negotiations with the Spanish, the British ministry was willing to constrain the illicit trade with the Spanish colonies insofar as this trade was carried on by interlopers (from the New England and Caribbean colonies)--but they were unwilling to place any pressure on the South Sea Company, which had strong ties with the political class in England, to restrict the illicit trade carried on by its own members. Howard Temperley argues that, "it was [this] refusal to put any sort of pressure upon the Company that was to be no slight occasion of the eventual rupture. From the first to the last the action of the South Sea Company and its manner of advancing its claims hampered the Government, increased irritation, and exercised a sinister and disastrous influence on negotiations" (Temperley 1909: 223). By the terms of the Assiento (the contract to supply slaves to the Spanish colonies), the South Sea Company owed the Spanish crown 68,000l. "as a fourth share in the proceeds of the annual ship sent to Spanish-American shores," and they were obliged to produce their accounts for examination (Temperley 1909: 223). The Company refused to do either and claimed that it was owed three times as much money in return, for damage inflicted by the garda costas. After having previously stated that the Asiento was in jeopardy unless cooperation were forthcoming, the Spanish government declared the Assiento suspended on 17 May 1739 (N.S.): "Nothing contributed more to the eventual wreckage of all negotiation than this affair, and the complication of the business of a private company with the interests of the two nations was extremely objectionable" (Temperley 1909: 224).

[¶7] In the event, the British sent Counter-Orders on 10 March to their fleet in the Caribbean to stay put; the Spanish suspended the Assiento (as we have seen) on 17 May and refused to pay the 95,000l. (due on 5 June) as stipulated in the Convention; hostilities began before the end of July, and the British formally declared war on 19 October 1739 (Temperley 1909: 231-32). In his First Letter on a Regicide Peace, Edmund Burke reviewed this war, arguing that "the War was unjust, that it was provoked by opposition clamour, and was 'the fruit of popular desire'"--claims that Temperley argues are basically "true" (Temperley 1909: 235).


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[revised 28 May 2008]