The War of Jenkins’ Ear

Wars have been started for any number of reasons: money, land, religion, xenophobia… you name it. But one of the strangest beginnings to any war in history has to be the War of Jenkins’ Ear (1739-1748).

Under the terms of the Treaty of Seville (1729), the British agreed not to trade in Spanish colonies. To enforce the treaty, the Spanish were allowed to board and inspect any British ship in Spanish waters.

In 1731, the British ship Rebecca was boarded and searched under the terms of the treaty. However, it seems that the Spanish minister and the British ship’s captain – Robert Jenkins – had some sort of disagreement that resulted in the Spanish minister cutting Jenkins’ ear off. For some reason, this news didn’t make it back to Westminster until 1739, but when it did the British public weren’t happy. British Prime Minister Robert Walpole reluctantly declared war on Spain, and the War of Jenkins’ Ear had begun.

The war itself wasn’t particularly interesting – which is why you’ve probably never heard of it before – but several interesting things did result from the war:

The main British victory in the war was the capture of the Spanish silver mining town of Puerto Bello in what is now Panama. A street in London was renamed in honor of the victory, and thousands of tourists visit the world-famous Portobello Road Market each year.

The admiral who led the attack on Puerto Bello was named Edward Vernon. Vernon was famous for wearing an old wool coat called a grog whilst on deck. It was during the War of Jenkins’ Ear that he issued his famous order that the Royal Navy’s daily rum ration was to be cut with water. Because the admiral was known as “Old Grog” behind his back, the drink quickly became known throughout the Royal Navy as “grog”, and thus a naval tradition was born.

A victory banquet was held in Vernon’s honor upon his return to England. It was at this banquet that Britain’s nation anthem – “God Save the King” – was first performed publicly.

And lastly, the captain of the Royal Marines who served under Vernon on his flagship was an American named Lawrence Washington. Washington would be so impressed with Vernon that he would return to Virginia and name his mansion, Mount Vernon, after him. As you’ve probably figured out by now, Washington’s half brother George would go on to inherit the mansion after Lawrence’s death in 1752.

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