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Weird History: The War That Started Over An Ear
History|Feb 10, 2022

Weird History: The War That Started Over An Ear

It Lasted For Years, 35,000 People Were Killed, And It All Started Over An Ear.
Ben Pobjie

Ears have, of course, played a large part in the history of warfare. The Anzacs at Gallipoli used their ears to tell whether the Turkish guns had stopped firing or not. George Washington, in commanding the revolutionary forces in the American War of Independence, famously had two ears and regularly used them both. Being able to hear is, generally speaking, an asset in battle. 

But, though ears have been a constant on battlefields for centuries, very few wars have actually been caused by ears. The one notable exception being, of course, the War of Jenkins’ Ear, in which Great Britain and Spain came to blows over the titular appendage. 

The whole affair began in the 1730s, during the historical Age of European Nations Constantly Fighting Wars Over Basically Nothing. At the time, South and Central America were mostly owned by Spain, which had acquired them by sailing there and saying, ‘This is ours now’.

Britain was allowed to trade with Spanish America, but by the same token, Spain was allowed to stop British ships and search them for contraband. Such was the fate of the HMS Rebecca, commanded by the plucky Welshman Robert Jenkins, which was sailing home from the West Indies in April 1731 when the Spanish ship La Isabela stopped it on suspicion of smuggling. 

Jenkins was deeply offended by the accusation, but he was even more deeply offended when the Spanish captain, Juan de Leon Fandino (a bit of a show-off) had him tied to a mast and cut his ear off with a sword. ‘Go and tell your King that I will do the same, if he will do the same,’ said Fandino, not realising that it was pretty unlikely the King of England would personally sail to the Caribbean to smuggle contraband. In any case, cutting off the king’s ear would’ve been extremely unwise: that’s the kind of thing that really riles kings up.

Of course, as it happened, just cutting off some random Welshman’s ear turned out 
to be a bit of a faux pas itself. Not immediately, mind you: at the time, losing an ear while trading with the West Indies was seen as simply the cost of doing business, and Jenkins seen as a bit of a sook for complaining about it. 

In any case, cutting off the king’s ear would’ve been extremely unwise: that’s the kind of thing that really riles kings up

But as the 1730s went on, the situation changed. Great Britain started getting itchy feet. Spain, it decided, was really annoying, what with all its ship-searching and general bossiness. What’s more, Spain had been cosying up to France as a preferred trading partner, and being friendly to France was seen by the British as basically equivalent to getting into bed with Sauron. For its part, Spain was kind of pissed off too, as Britain had just founded the colony of Georgia. History might suggest that this in itself was an extremely offensive move, but the

Spanish complaint was that Georgia was a bit too close to Florida (in the 21st century this is also Florida’s complaint) and might be a threat to Spanish control of the hot swampy bit down the bottom of North America.

So things were set to explode, when in 1738 the British government realised that it had been nine whole years since it had a war with Spain, so no wonder it had been feeling so tense and moody. But you couldn’t just declare war on a major European power: you needed some piffling little bit of nonsense to use as a pretend excuse. And that’s where Jenkins’ Ear reared its ugly head.

Someone in the government remembered the heinous act of aural severance seven years previous, and called up Robert Jenkins to parliament, where he informed those present that yes, indeed, the Spanish had whacked his ear off, and yes, indeed, it had hurt like a bastard. With many a huff and a puff, the assembled members decided that, in light of this outrage, Britain had no choice but to use military force to enforce dominance of trade in the New World, and so it came to be.

The War of Jenkins’ Ear, as it came to be known, lasted from 1739 to 1748, although the major hostilities had mostly fizzled out by 1742, when it was absorbed for purposes of efficiency into the larger War of Austrian Succession, a huge conflict in which everyone in Europe lost their minds and started caring about who succeeded in Austria. Jenkins’ Ear was quickly forgotten and the war relegated to the minor leagues of wars, although 35,000 people managed to get killed in it, which isn’t at all a bad haul – for a war that was started over an ear.