WAR OF JENKINS’ EAR (1739–1742)


The British invasion of Cuba was a failure for reasons that this map of the well-defended position they established in Guantanamo Bay did not reveal. An attack on the major port of Santiago was planned, but the British troops were landed in the bay more than eighty miles away. This foolishly exposed them to a long and dangerous advance through woody terrain ideal for Spanish guerrilla action. The troops suffered heavily from disease, did not reach their goal and were re-embarked. Santiago was to fall to American attack in 1898. An earlier British attack on Cartagena (in modern Colombia) and a later one on Panama, both in 1741, also failed.

The War of Jenkins’ Ear, an armed conflict between Britain and Spain, arose from longstanding Anglo-Spanish antagonism fostered by illicit British trading activities in the Spanish Caribbean and the determined, often brutal, attempts by Spain’s colonial guarda costa (‘coast guard’) vessels to suppress such ventures. Popular feeling, incited by opponents of the Walpole ministry in London and a vigorous merchant lobby opposed to diplomatic efforts, further intensified pressures conducive to war.  The immediate events that precipitated open hostilities were the alleged sinking of several British merchant ships by Spanish privateers, the suspension of the asiento or slave supply contract, and the intensification of Spain’s search and seizure claims against British smuggling vessels, and, marginally, the ill usage suffered by one Capt. Robert Jenkins, Master of the brig Rebecca. Legitimately bound for London from Jamaica with a cargo of sugar, Jenkins’s ship was plundered and his ear severed by the commander of a Spanish coast guard vessel near Havana on 9 April 1731.

The case received brief publicity, subsided, but then was revived (together with other, similar incidents) during a stormy Commons debate in March 1738. Although modern research has established that, contrary to historical tradition, Jenkins never appeared personally to present the missing ear; his plight was highly dramatized and contributed to the momentum of the political opposition campaign urging an immediate offensive against Spain. This appealed to national sentiment and commercial interests alike. Temporizing, Walpole arranged the Convention of Pardo with Spain, which provided compensation for vessels, lost but avoided the crucial issue: Spain’s continued determination to suppress all smuggling attempts. Confronted with growing public and parliamentary indignation, Walpole finally had to yield and war was declared on 19 October 1739.

In the lacklustre naval operations that followed, Admiral Vernon (1684–1757) sacked Porto Bello (in modern Panama) in November 1739, but the attack on Cartagena (Colombia) in early March 1741 failed due to spirited Spanish resistance, tropical disease, and dissension between British army and navy commanders. Commodore George Anson, operating with a small squadron off Chile, marauded coastal areas, and then circumnavigated the globe in the HMS Centurion (1740–1744), capturing Spanish treasure along the way. Attempts to seize Cuba in December 1741 and raids along the Florida coast were largely fruitless, resulting in heavy British casualties. Gradually the war overseas petered out into desultory forays against Spanish shipping and ineffectual attempts to isolate Spain from her colonies before becoming enveloped and overshadowed by hostilities in Europe (War of the Austrian Succession, 1740–1748) in which Britain, by means of mercenary forces, supported Austria against France (who had joined Spain) and her German allies.

While in its altered, Continental dimension the war enabled Britain to contain threatening Bourbon expansionism in key strategic areas abroad during the period 1742–1748, overseas it failed to achieve the initially anticipated sweeping victory over Spain.  Small-scale Anglo-Spanish clashes in Caribbean and Mediterranean waters produced little monetary or strategic gain, clearly indicating that naval action was not the solution to Britain’s commercial grievances at this time, nor the key to much-needed political stability.

Operational History

The hostilities against Spain that commenced in October1739 were primarily fought out in the Americas. This was wholly appropriate, as the conflict, though the product of Anglo-Spanish tension on a variety of issues, was principally about British access to trade with the Spanish colonies in the New World. The Spanish had taken a tough line on illegal commerce, notoriously lopping off the ear of Robert Jenkins, the captain of a merchant vessel. British commercial interests lobbied for protection, the parliamentary opposition pressed for the Government to take a firmer line, and public opinion became increasingly outraged. In London, particularly, the agitation for war was vociferous. Sir Robert Walpole’s ministry reluctantly accepted the need for hostilities when negotiations with the Spanish broke down. The first major action was Admiral Vernon’s capture of Porto Bello, only a matter of weeks after the formal beginning of the conflict. Vernon’s victory fed absurdly optimistic expectations of easy pickings at the expense of the decaying Spanish empire, and a large expeditionary force was sent to the West Indies in 1740, employing both regular troops from Britain and soldiers raised specifically for the purpose in the North American colonies.

The Affair in the Windward Passage on December 27, 1740

The affair in the Windward Passage on December 27, 1740, in English accounts, which would be January 7, 1741, in the calendar being used by the French and Spanish. Britain and Spain were at war but Britain and France were not. Ogle sighted a battle squadron and chased it. During the chase, the leading British ships got the idea that the chased vessels were Spanish ships masquerading as French. There was a similar incident in the Mediterranean.

British, Rear-Admiral (of the Blue) Sir Challoner Ogle
Boyne, 80
Chichester, 80
Norfolk, 80
Princess Amelia, 80
Princess Caroline, 80
Shrewsbury, 80
Torbay, 80
Orford, 70
Prince Frederick, 70
Suffolk, 70
Defiance, 60
Deptford, 60
Dunkirk, 60
Jersey, 60
Montagu, 60
Tilbury, 60
Rippon, 60
York, 60
Litchfield, 50
6 fireships
This list does not include 4 ships of 60-80 guns that parted company as a consequence of storm damage soon after the fleet left England, on October 31/November 11, 1740.

Ardent, 64
Mercure, 54
Diamant, 50
Parfaite, 46

The success at Porto Bello was not to be repeated, however. Attacks in the spring and summer of 1741 on Cartagena in modern-day Colombia and Santiago in Cuba were humiliatingly repulsed. Disease made terrible inroads into the army and navy, and arguments between the naval and military commanders made effective cooperation impossible.

Cartagena de Indias 15 March-20 May 1741


Order of battle of the British forces to attack over Cartagena de Indias (today in modern-day Colombia)

Vice admiral Sir Edward Vernon – Commander in Chief
Rear admiral Sir Chaloner Ogle – Second in command
Commodore Lestock – Third in command

37 ships of line: 8 tree deckers 80 guns, 7 two deckers 70 guns, 16 of 60 guns, 5 of 50 guns. Besides 12 frigates, 9 fire ships and 100 transport ships.
Crew warships: 17,000 seaman

Land forces: General Lord Cathart Death voyage England-Jamaica
General Thomas Wentworth Second, assumed command the land forces compound:
12,000 soldiers:
two regiments – infantry of line 2,000 men
six regiment – marines 6,000
two regiment – Americans 2,500
artilleryman 1,000
armed slaves 500

Total: 29,000 soldiers and seamen.


City governor – Don Sebastian Eslava
Commander Naval forces – Liutenant-General(vice admiral)Don Blas de Lezo.

Ships of His Catholic Majestic:
GALICIA 70 GUNS Capt Don Juan Jordan. Flagship of Lezo – Captured and burnt
SAN CARLOS 70 GUNS Capt Fuentes Scuttled in Bocachica (in the bay)
AFRICA 70 burnt
SAN FELIPE 70 burnt
DRAGON 60 Capt Don Francisco Obando
CONQUISTADOS 70 Capt Don Felix Cedran
The two last was scuttled and today his rest has been recovered and some parts are the Naval Museum.
Crew 2,000

Bay Castles at entrance to the port and Bocachica:
San Luis 85 guns
Santiago 21
Baradero Battery 15
San Jose 21
Total 142 guns

Land Forces
two regiment -infantry 2,000
artillerymen 400
militia 2,000

Total 6,500 soldiers and seamen


The English were defeat by the Spanish guns and the illness as malaria and others.
The English burnt 6 ships that could not sail again.
9,000 soldiers and seamen dead
8,600 wounded and sick

Spanish casualties were 600 dead

A Spanish squadron with 12 ships of line was the Habana and another 12 French ships in Haiti, but these never jointed in for the Cartagena.

NOTES: This was a great British defeat. They came to Cartagena with the commemorative medals for the victory and had go home with them.

In opening battle of Bocahica 18,000 canon shot were fired in 21 days of combat, day and night between the fortress, Spanish squadron and the English warships.

The British troops, after having remained inactive on Jamaica for some months, were ordered home at the end of 1742. Thereafter, only limited operations took place in this theatre while the Spanish were Britain’s only enemies. Some attempts were made to foment native rebellion on the mainland from British bases on the Mosquito Shore of Nicaragua, and an attack was made by a Royal Navy squadron on Spanish ports on the Caracus coast in early 1743. By this time, the war on the North American mainland had similarly run out of steam. Georgia, the southernmost British continental colony, had been a source of irritation to the Spanish since its foundation in 1732, though from the British perspective one of the virtues of the new settlement was that it could act as a buffer to protect valuable South Carolina, and its lucrative rice trade, from Spanish incursions. Unsurprisingly, therefore, as soon as hostilities began in 1739, there was sporadic skirmishing on the frontiers of the colony. James Oglethorpe, the governor, led an expedition of troops from Georgia and South Carolina against the great Spanish fortress of San Agustín in Florida the following year. The defences were too strong for Oglethorpe’s force to make any impact, and the siege was lifted. In 1742 the Spanish attacked Georgia, only to retreat in the face of stiff resistance. Desultory raids were carried out by both sides into 1743, but effectively the war on this front had settled into a stalemate.

In the Pacific Ocean, meanwhile, Capt. George Anson was engaged in his famous circumnavigation. The original intention was that Anson would sail to the Pacific coast of Central America to attack Panama while Vernon was taking Cartagena. However, his ships and crews suffered terribly in rounding Cape Horn. Anson raided Paita (now in Peru), and then decided to set out across the Pacific for home. By the time he reached Canton, the expedition had been reduced to one ship only. The captain’s fortunes then brightened: on 20 June 1743 he captured the Nuestra Señora de Covadonga, a Spanish treasure ship carrying much gold and silver to Manila from Spanish America. Anson and his tiny band of surviving sailors reached England, to a hero’s welcome, in June 1744. When the Spanish war began, there was some anxiety about a landing in Britain or Ireland. But no such attack was launched, despite the precedent in earlier Anglo-Spanish conflicts, most recently in 1719, when a small Spanish expeditionary force reached Scotland with the intention of supporting an uprising on behalf of the deposed Catholic Stuart dynasty, which had been removed from the thrones of England, Scotland, and Ireland in 1689-90. Nor did the outbreak of fighting in 1739 lead to the dispatch of British troops and ships to attack the Spanish mainland, which again was at odds with the experience of previous eighteenth-century wars. In the Spanish Succession struggle, some 29,000 British or British-paid troops were serving in the Iberian Peninsula by 1707, and were to remain there until near the end of the conflict. Although operations inland were difficult and ultimately unsuccessful-which might have deterred repetition-there were some spectacular successes on the coastal fringes of Spain: Gibraltar and Minorca were seized in 1704 and 1708, respectively, remaining as British possessions after the war. Even in the brief Anglo-Spanish conflict of 1718-20, there had been a raid on the Atlantic coast of northern Spain, in which Vigo’s fortifications and shipping were destroyed. But if there were no landings on the Spanish coast, the port towns of which were judged to be too strongly defended to risk an attack, a British fleet under Adm. Nicholas Haddock was supposed to blockade Cadiz and prevent Spanish troops from being deployed in Italy. British efforts in the Mediterranean were no more effective than in the Americas: the Spanish and French fleets successfully transported a Spanish army to Italy in November 1741. Adm. Thomas Mathews, the new commander of the British naval forces in the Mediterranean, began a loose blockade of Toulon the following April, and in February 1744 there was an indecisive engagement with the Franco-Spanish fleet, which resulted in an acrimonious (and highly political) dispute between Mathews and his subordinate, Vice Adm. Richard Lestock.

Facts stranger than fiction: the story of Don Blas de Lezo

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