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Forgotten history: ‘The War of Jenkins’ Ear’

Forgotten history: ‘The War of Jenkins’ Ear’

Recently I posted another first to my list of lifetime accomplishments: I managed to hit myself in the head with a lawn mower.

When I pulled the self-propelled mower from the garage, the back wheels weren’t turning. After discovering a bit of twine had become entangled around one of the wheels, I got my pocket knife from the house, braced the front wheels of the mower against a concrete slab, raised the mower from the rear, and hacked away at the cord with the knife while holding the back of the mower aloft with my left hand. 

My hand slipped, and down came the mower, with the handle hitting my right temple and my ear.

No bloodshed ensued, but the burst of expletives I unleashed undoubtedly moved me a few steps farther away from the Pearly Gates. 

By now, readers are probably scratching their heads and wondering, What the heck does getting whacked on the ear with a mower have to do with a book review?

Well, that same day I slammed that mower against my ear I was reading for review Robert Gaudi’s The War of Jenkins’ Ear: The Forgotten Struggle for North and South America 1739-1742 (Pegasus Books, 2021, 364 pages). It struck me as ironic and humorous that I had just fought and survived the War on Jeffrey’s Ear.

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Though I recollected bits and pieces of The War of Jenkins’ Ear from my university days as a history major and graduate student, I realized how little I knew after finishing Gaudi’s superb history and the important place of this war in American history.

In 1731, Robert Jenkins was a Welsh captain of a trading ship whose vessel was boarded near Havana, Cuba by the Spanish guarda costa. Under the auspices of local Spanish governments and as a part of a treaty that had given the slave trade for this region to Britain, these outfits had the right to stop and search British ships for contraband, goods smuggled into the Caribbean and South America. The guarda costa used this law to ransack British ships, pilfering their wares and often torturing or even murdering their officers and crews. 

On this occasion the Spaniards tortured Jenkins, cut off his left ear, stripped his crew of their clothing, stole whatever they could lay their hands on from the ship, including navigational equipment, and forced Jenkins and his men to steer by the stars to return to England. Though Jenkins sought redress from British officials, the incident was nearly forgotten until for a variety of reasons, largely economic, the tensions between Spain and England escalated into war. At that time, Jenkins — along with the ear which he had preserved — appeared in Parliament and eventually the conflict became associated with that missing member of his anatomy.

Despite its silly name, this conflict might have changed the history of the Western hemisphere. The British, who did most of the losing in the war, made attempts to take Spanish possessions that might have opened South America to conquest. Near the end of the fighting, the Spanish in Florida made a failed run at Georgia, intending to bring that colony back into the Hispanic fold and perhaps the Carolinas with it. 

Because most of us are unfamiliar with this event and because the treaties and commercial interests are complicated, Gaudi gives a good deal of helpful background information so that readers know the where, what, and why of events. 

But what attracted me most to this account were his skills as a biographer. We meet people ranging from the brilliant and irascible British admiral Edward Vernon to the castrato Farinelli, an Italian operatic “rock star” in his day who was wooed to Spain to sing for that country’s mad King Felipe in an early attempt at music therapy. 

The character most interesting to me as an American, however, was James Oglethorpe (1696-1785). I knew him as the man who founded Georgia as a colony for debtors, but had no idea of the adventurous life he led nor of his opposition to slavery, which became an institution in Georgia only after he’d left his post. Most of all, his turning back the attempted Spanish invasion of Georgia by dint of his daring, his deceptions on the battlefield, and his sheer determination mark him as an American who deserves broader recognition and honor.

Also commendable in The War of Jenkins Ear are Gaudi’s humor and his ability to draw lessons from history. His account of Felipe several times had me laughing out loud. Dressed in one of his wife’s filthy night gowns, for example, “more than once he flung himself from his bloody, neon bedding, seized a sword and ran around the palace screaming “Murder, murder!” at the top of his lungs — until subdued by specially appointed guards.”

Here Gaudi says of Admiral Vernon: “An unforeseen danger comes with possessing a top-notch intelligence honed by an excellent education: the world is full of too many glib idiots who will resent the hell out of you.”

And of the inept, overly-cautious British general Thomas Wentworth, who did everything by the book, mostly because the book was all the inexperienced commander knew: “Sensibility in warfare is often exactly the wrong quality, as warfare is not an inherently sensible undertaking.” 

Excellent storytelling, good writing, insight into human nature, and wit and a sense of the absurd: Gaudi’s The War of Jenkins’ Ear is history at its finest.

(Jeff Minick reviews books and has written four of his own: two novels, Amanda Bell and Dust On Their Wings, and two works of nonfiction, Learning As I Go and Movies Make the Man. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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