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War of Jenkins' Ear: 1739

There are frequent clashes in the West Indies between ships of the European colonial powers, usually over issues of trade. The Spanish try to maintain a monopoly on trade with their colonies, which the British and others consistently attempt to break.

British hostility to Spain on this issue is inflamed in 1738 when an English master mariner, Robert Jenkins, appears before a committee of the House of Commons. He produces a withered object which he claims to be his own ear, cut off in 1731 when a Spanish patrol vessel waylayed his merchant ship and seized his cargo.

Jenkins reported the incident in 1731, but it aroused little interest at the time. In the intervening years tension has escalated, over trading issues and Spain's assertion of her right to search British ships for smuggled goods. By 1738 Jenkins' evidence, backed up by his gruesome exhibit, adds strength to existing demands for war.

Walpole, opposed to such a policy, is unable to withstand the prevailing mood. Britain declares war on Spain in October 1739. In November a British fleet captures the important Spanish harbour of Portobelo on the American mainland. But hostilities are soon merged in the wider war of the Austrian Succession, which begins in 1740.

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