The War of Jenkins’ Ear
“In 1739 [Captain Robert] Jenkins came home from the Spanish Main [Florida] with one of his ears pickled in a bottle. He had been deprived of this unlovely exhibit, he averred, by the Spaniards and called upon his country to avenge the mutilation. So effectively did he state his case that a wave of propaganda was started that inflamed public opinion sufficiently to start the War of Jenkins’ Ear. There were of course, more powerful interests at work behind the earless Jenkins, but the significance lies in the way that a popular demand for war was created by propaganda over an ear. “
Quoted from Propaganda In The Next War by Sidney Rogerson, 1938
Captivating language skilfully put casts its spell, whilst ignoring a key fact that Jenkins lost his ear in 1731 but reprisals were not commenced until 1739.
This is a wonderful throwaway casual paragraph from a time when the upper classes were less careful about telling the truth to the common folk who may be driven to read such a work. It is contained in what is possibly the most important book concerning World War 2, since it predicts accurately the propaganda attitudes of the participating belligerents with remarkable accuracy considering it was written in 1938. But this piece is concerned with the War of Jenkins’ Ear.
Robert Jenkins was a British sea captain who exhibited his severed ear in a pickle jar to Parliament. The tale of the ear’s separation from its owner followed the boarding of his vessel by Spanish coast guards in 1731. He was accused of smuggling by the Spanish off the coast of Florida.
It is very difficult to believe that an entire country would go to war over a perceived slight, and a singular ear is not worth a man’s life let alone an entire war. It is worth examining why this was used as a rallying cry for war.
It is looking closely at the phrase “more powerful interests at work” line of thinking. War is a business at the end of the day, so please indulge me a while to follow the money. Firstly let us discuss the following
1. South Sea Bubble
2. Triangular trade route, involving negro slaves from Africa
3. The ultimate arbiter of power, Sir Robert Walpole Prime Minister, the Sovereign or the banks
The big earner for British interests at that time was the triangular trade route involving slaves from Africa being sold in the Americas. The Spanish Empire had reluctantly given licence to the British to trade slaves within their territory, referred to as “Asiento”. Indeed the Spanish name for the same war is Guerro del Asiento.
Putting a veneer of respectability and decency on the slave trade was important even in 18th century Britain. After all who would actually wish to know their society was profiting from the misery of other humans? So, our rulers – the monsters who treated humans as commodities to be bought and sold, concocted a story (his-story) which would not frighten the children.
The South Sea Bubble
Continual war with France had immersed the Government into massive debts it could not realistically hope to repay. Govt had debts it needed to restructure (negotiate a lower interest rate). It was proposed to buy the debts of Government in exchange for South Sea Company stock. Govt was a winner as this lowered the effective interest rate but the poor hapless public was effectively being conned. This scheme relied on an inflated price for the stock of the South Sea Company.
Investors had to believe that the company was on to a winner, namely trade in the New World in the rich Spanish Empire, there was talk of Spain ceding 4 fortified towns from which the South Seas Company could do business. In truth Spain was giving nothing away without a fight. There were no fortified towns and trade was very limited, only a few ships per year and profits had to be paid to the Spanish King, so even if things went well there were already more fingers in the pie than pie to go round.
As a result the inflation of the stock price of the South Sea Company beyond anything that could possibly justify it meant that naked (gullible, innocent) investors were queueing up as well as the govt annuity investors who had had their stock swapped for South Sea Company stock, soon to be vastly devalued. The public creditors of the Govt took up the Company’s offers with an enthusiasm untouched by reason.
Of course the bursting of the bubble ruined the lives of thousands of investors but had performed its purpose to transfer the debt of the government’s annuities into South Sea stock. The company continued to trade until 1750 mainly in slaves and subsequently in Government securities until 1854.
The Triangular Trade Route
The Big money of the time was made by a triangular trade route sailing from Europe to Africa with manufactured goods, selling these and buying human slaves from Africa. The unfortunate human cargo was transported to the Americas where the slaves were sold for precious metals and raw materials which were subsequently transported back to Europe. Profits translated into modern terms may have been approximately £10,000 per slave transported. Not surprisingly all parties were extremely keen to stick a finger in the pie, even Royalty. Plenty were happy to profit from human suffering and it seems nothing changes.
Sir Robert Walpole
The uncovering of the Atterbury plot made Walpole’s career and secured the Hanoverian dynasty. It was a sign of Walpole’s declining powers that he was unable to prevent the drift into war in 1739. The War of Jenkins Ear was initially successful. Admiral Vernon became a popular hero when he captured the Spanish settlement of Porto Bello in 1739. But this victory was followed by several defeats and Britain soon became embroiled in a wider European conflict, the War of the Austrian succession.
At the time of the War of Jenkins’ Ear there was not even the pretence of equality or of a sham democracy. However it was as difficult to determine who was really calling the shots then as it is today. As Jenkins lost his ear in 1731 and war with Spain did not break out until 1739 we can confidently discount this as the real cause of the war. We can also conclude that Britain’s politicians did not engineer the war or at least the ones nominally in office at the commencement of hostilities did not. Did the King start the war or was it the bankers? Is there really any difference between the bankers and the Crown?
The term the “War of Jenkins’ Ear” is a slightly humorous way of referring to something more serious without stating it directly, almost an “in joke” for those who comprehend at the expense of those who do not. Can you think of any modern duplicitous terms that may be an “in joke”?