On the 23rd October 1739 England declared war on Spain in what became known as the War of Jenkins’ Ear. The writer Thomas Carlyle is credited with giving the conflict its name in his 1858 biography of the Prussian King Friedrich II. Jenkins, the captain of a British merchant vessel, had been separated from his ear a number of years before the war broke out, but his testimony in front of the British House of Commons a few years later ignited passions against the Spanish.
Jenkins commanded the British brig Rebecca and was involved in trade with Spanish America. Although Spain had granted permission for Britain to transport limited goods and slaves, numerous smugglers took advantage and brought additional items into port. Spanish patrol boats therefore routinely boarded British ships, and it was on one of these occasions that Jenkins was accused of smuggling. Having been tied to the mast, Jenkins’ left ear was cut off with a sword and he was told to inform the British king that the “same will happen to him if caught doing the same”.
Although Jenkins returned to Britain and relayed the message, his disfigurement was greeted with little interest. However, when opposition politicians began pushing for war against Spain seven years later Jenkins was invited to address Parliament where he reputedly showed his carefully preserved severed ear. Prime Minister Robert Walpole was consequently pressured to declare war.
Although it later became subsumed into the War of the Austrian Succession, the War of Jenkins’ Ear is also notable for coinciding with the first performance of the song Rule, Britannia!