A series of escalating trade disputes had already taken place between British and Spanish forces, when the Spanish patrol boat La Isabela drew alongside the British brig Rebecca in 1731. After boarding, Commander Juan de León Fandiño accused the British commander of smuggling. The discussion became heated, when Fandiño drew his sword and cut the left ear off of Captain Robert Jenkins. “Go, and tell your King that I will do the same”, he said, “if he dares to do the same.”
Seven years later, Jenkins was ordered to testify before Parliament where, according to some accounts, he produced the severed ear in a pickling jar, as part of his presentation. This and other incidents of “Spanish Depredations upon the British Subjects” were considered insults to the honor of the British nation and a provocation to war.
A squadron of three 70-gun British third-rates was patrolling off the coast of Cornwall on April 8, 1740, when a mast was sighted to the north. What at first appeared to be a French vessel was revealed to be the 70 gun ship-of-the-line Princesa, when she struck her French colors and hoist the Spanish flag. Outnumbered 3-to-1, Princesa put up a good fight, but the issue was never in doubt. She was brought into Portsmouth for repairs, entering British service as HMS Princess in 1742. What had once been described as “the finest ship in the Spanish Navy”, would serve Her Britannic Majesty for another 42 years.
For the future Georgia colony, the War of Jenkins Ear was an existential threat. Spain had laid claim to Florida, when Ponce de Leon first mapped the territory in 1513. The territory which later became North & South Carolina joined the British Colonies to the north in 1663, leaving the areas in-between in dispute. James Oglethorpe founded the 13th colony of Georgia as a buffer to Spanish incursion, two years after Mr. Jenkins lost his ear.
By 1736, Oglethorpe established Fort Frederica on the barrier island of St. Simon, off the Savannah coast. The Spanish landing force of 4,500 to 5,000 men arrived on St. Simon’s Island in July of 1742, opposed by only 950 British Rangers, Colonial Militia and Indian Allies.
Oglethorpe’s forces attacked a Spanish reconnaissance in force at the Battle of Gully Hole Creek in the early morning hours of July 7, followed by the ambush of a much larger force that afternoon, in what would be known as the Battle of Bloody Marsh. In the smoke and confusion, the Spanish never did figure out how puny the forces were who opposed them. These two victories were as big a boost to British morale as they were a blow to that of their adversary. The last major Spanish offensive into Georgia ended with a complete withdrawal, a week later.
The conflict which began in 1739 ended in 1748, though major operations ceased in 1742 when the War of Jenkins Ear was subsumed by the greater War of Austrian Succession, involving most of the major powers of Europe at that time. Peace arrived with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748.
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