The War of Jenkins’ Ear

1739–1748

The War of Jenkins’ Ear was fought between Great Britain and Spain from 1739 to 1748. Most of the battles were fought in the Caribbean, but it carried over to America, where Georgia and Florida clashed over disputed territory.

James Oglethorpe, Founder of Georgia, Illustration

James Oglethorpe, Founder of Georgia. Image Source: The Spanish Official Account of the Attack on the Colony of Georgia, by Georgia Historical Society, 1913

War of Jenkins’ Ear Summary

The War of Jenkins’ Ear was fought between Great Britain and Spain from 1739 to 1748. Most of the battles were fought in the Caribbean, but it carried over to America. In 1740, the Georgia Colony sent military forces into Spanish Florida, where they destroyed Spanish forts and laid siege to St. Augustine. The Spanish responded by invading Georgia in 1742 but were defeated at the Battle of Gully Hole Creek and the Battle of Bloody Marsh, forcing them to return to Florida. Hostilities continued between the two nations, as the War of Austrian Succession engulfed Europe. In North America, the fight became known as King George’s War.

War of Jenkins’ Ear Facts

  • The War of Jenkins’ Ear is also referred to as the Anglo-Spanish War.
  • The conflict was fought between Great Britain and Spain. In North America, battles were fought between the Province of Georgia, one of the Southern Colonies, and Spanish Florida.
  • The war is generally considered to have started on October 22, 1739, and ended on October 18, 1748.
  • Most of the battles were fought in the Caribbean, however, significant battles were fought between Georgia and Florida in North America.
  • The War of Jenkins’ Ear is loosely connected to the Stono Rebellion. Spain offered freedom to any slaves who could escape from the British colonies and make their way to Fort Mosé in Florida.
  • Fort Mosé was an important Spanish fort located north of St. Augustine. It was inhabited by escaped slaves who were given their freedom by the Spanish government in return for converting to Catholicism and serving in the militia.
  • Fort Mosé is considered to be the first settlement of free Africans in America.
  • The war was eventually engulfed in the larger War of Austrian Succession and King William’s War. Both conflicts were resolved by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle.
  • Britain and Spain agreed to set the boundary between Georgia and Florida at the St. Johns River.

History of the War of Jenkins’ Ear in America

Treaty of Utrecht

In 1713, England and Spain signed the Treaty of Utrecht, which ended Great Britain’s involvement in the War of the Spanish Succession and ended Queen Anne’s War in North America.

Under the provisions of the treaty, Britain was awarded the Asiento des Negros — the license to sell captive Africans to the Spanish Colonies in the New World. British merchants working for the Company were given a contract, known as Navio de Permiso, to sell one shipment of goods per year in the Spanish West Indies. 

However, merchants were known to exceed the treaty’s limits — which the Spanish considered smuggling. Spain was entitled to 25% of the profits, but payments from the South Sea Company typically fell short of estimates, which raised tensions between the two nations.

Treaty of Seville

In 1729, Britain, France, and Spain agreed to the Treaty of Seville, which ended the Anglo-Spanish War (1727–1729). The provisions of the treaty allowed the Spanish Navy to stop British ships and check them for illegal goods. 

Captain Robert Jenkins Loses His Ear

Although the actual hostilities in the War of Jenkins’ Ear did not start until 1740, the incident that is typically said to have sparked the conflict took place in 1731. 

That year, Captain Juan de Leon Fandino, a Spanish naval officer, boarded a British vessel, the Rebecca, near the coast of Havana. Fandino accused the British captain, Robert Jenkins, of engaging in smuggling activities. 

Legend has it that during the ensuing search, a heated argument erupted, culminating in Fandino severing Jenkins’s ear. Fandino threw the severed ear at Jenkins while saying, “Take this to your king, and inform him that I would do the same if he were present.”

Jenkins Testifies to Parliament

Amid escalating tensions between the British and Spanish forces in North America, Jenkins made his way back to London with his severed ear safely stored in a bottle. He was called to testify before the House of Commons where he showed the members his ear. When he was asked what he did to deserve having his ear cut off, he said, “I commended my soul to God and my cause to my country.”

While the Jenkins incident was just one of several encounters along the North American frontier, it became a rallying cry for those who wanted to take action against Spain.

War of Jenkins Ear, Jenkins Displays Ear to Walpole, Illustration
This detail from a 1738 political cartoon depicts Jenkins showing his ear to Robert Walpole. Image Source: The British Museum.

Establishment of Georgia Colony

The situation intensified when Britain established a new colony, the Province of Georgia, in 1732. Georgia was intended to be a buffer between South Carolina and Spanish Florida, but the Spanish viewed it as a threat to their ships sailing in and out of St. Augustine. 

Georgia’s first settlement, Savannah, was established at the mouth of the Savannah River — on land that had already been claimed by Spain.

Florida was vital for safeguarding Spanish Cuba and Spanish shipping routes in the Gulf of Mexico and the Bahama Channel.

Savannah Georgia in 1734, Illustration
This illustration depicts Savannah in 1734. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

English and Spanish Forts

As English settlers expanded their communities toward St. Augustine, Spain became concerned about the safety of Florida. 

Under the leadership of James Oglethorpe, English settlers constructed Fort Frederica on St. Simon’s Island and two more forts on Cumberland Island in the 1730s.

The Spanish responded by constructing their own forts, including Fort Mosé, just north of St. Augustine. The forts were intended to protect St. Augustine from overland attacks and attacks from smaller ships that could sail through the islands off the Florida coast.

The Convention of Pardo

In January 1739, the Convention of Pardo was held to try to resolve the differences between Britain and Spain, which included a dispute over the border between Georgia and Florida. After the negotiations broke down, both nations prepared for war.

Britain Declares War

Spain planned to invade Georgia and sent supplies from Cuba to St. Augustine for the expedition. Britain, which was led by Prime Minister Robert Walpole, sent ships with 700 men to Georgia to help Oglethorpe defend the colony and then declared war on October 23, 1739.

Among supporters of going to war was a group known as the Cobhamite Faction, which included George Grenville.

Robert Walpole, Painting
Robert Walpole. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Siege of St. Augustine

General James Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia, received instructions from King George II to “annoy the Subjects of Spain in the best manner.” Oglethorpe spoke to his allies in the Creek Nation and they agreed to carry out attacks against the Spanish and their Indian allies.

On November 13, two British troops on Amelia Island were killed by a Spanish contingent. Oglethorpe responded by organizing a small force of around 200 men, including colonists and Indians. Leading the army himself, Oglethorpe started his march toward St. Augustine in December 1739, intending to capture the city and force the Spanish to leave Florida.

Oglethorpe overran and took control of Spanish forts along the way, including Fort Mosé, which was the first free black settlement in America. He also captured Fort Picola and Fort Pupo.

After capturing the forts, Oglethorpe’s reinforcements arrived from Britain. Overall, his force included 1,200 troops, including Georgians, South Carolinians, Indians, and ships from the Royal Navy, including four 20-gun ships. The Indian warriors were from the Creek, Chickasaw, and Uchee tribes.

After the troops disembarked, the ships from the Royal Navy moved to blockade the port at St. Augustine. The blockade started on June 24.

As Oglethorpe advanced, the inhabitants of St. Augustine sought refuge within the protective confines of the city’s formidable stone fortress, Castillo de San Marcos.

War of Jenkins Ear, Castillo de San Marcos, LOC
This aerial photo of Castillo de San Marcos was taken in 1965. Image Source: Library of Congress.

The Spanish governor of St. Augustine, Manuel de Montiano, quickly sent a plea to Cuba for additional troops and provisions. Similar to their earlier attack on St. Augustine in 1702, the English soon realized that their best chance of winning was to besiege the fort and wait for its defenders to run out of supplies. 

Montiano calculated that he had less than a month’s worth of rations available. In contrast to Governor Joseph de Zúñiga y Cerda, who had defended the fortress in 1702 by adopting a purely defensive strategy, Montiano did not believe he could take a purely defensive stance.

The Battle of Fort Mosé

Montiano decided to send an expedition to attack the British garrison at Fort Mosé. On June 26, Captain Antonio Salgado led 300 Spanish troops, the free black militia — the Maroon Militia — under Francisco Menéndez, Seminole warriors, and other Indian allies in an early morning attack on the fort.

The British garrison of 170 men was under the command of Colonel John Palmer. They were caught by surprise and nearly all of them were killed in the brutal attack. Palmer and several officers were killed, and the fort was destroyed.

The Spanish victory demoralized the British forces laying siege to St. Augustine.

Bombardment of St. Augustine

Oglethorpe responded by placing artillery on the island of Santa Anastasia and bombarding Castillo de San Marcos for the next 27 days.

However, the fort was not subjected to the full force of the cannon fire due to the shallow waters, which kept Oglethorpe’s ships at a considerable distance. 

Additionally, Oglethorpe faced challenges due to the unique composition of the fort’s walls. The walls were constructed using coquina, a soft limestone formed by compacted shell fragments. Instead of shattering upon impact, the coquina walls remarkably absorbed the shock of cannonballs with relative ease.

Spanish Supplies Reach St. Augustine

The most significant threat facing the Spanish was the risk of starvation. In early July, Montiano reduced rations to half portions. Around the same time, he learned that Spanish relief ships had been sighted approximately 70 miles to the south along the coast. 

However, the British ships were effectively blockading access to the harbor by controlling most of the navigable inlets that provided passage past the barrier islands into the inland channel that led to St. Augustine.

To secure the supplies, Montiano sent five shallow-draft boats on a mission. These boats waited until an English warship was no longer visible at the Matanzas Inlet. Seizing this opportunity, they discreetly entered the inland passage and successfully reached the fort on July 3rd.

By mid-July, Oglethorpe’s men, who were demoralized by the oppressive heat and swarms of mosquitos, were threatening to mutiny.  With the approach of hurricane season, the British ships withdrew, and Oglethorpe was forced to withdraw on July 20.

Skirmishes continued between British and Spanish forces in Florida as the remaining British soldiers found their way home. 

Colonists living in Georgia and South Carolina were shocked at Oglethorpe’s failure to capture St. Augustine and expected the Spanish to retaliate. When Oglethorpe returned to Savannah, he started to make preparations for a Spanish attack.

American Colonists Fight in the Caribbean

The British also directed their efforts towards gaining control in the Caribbean. In November 1739, a small British fleet led by Vice Admiral Edward Vernon successfully seized Portobello, near the northern tip of the Isthmus of Panama.

However, Britain’s attempt to capture Cartagena in 1741, a heavily fortified seaport on the northern coast of South America, ended in a failure. 

The campaign was plagued by diseases and shortages of essential supplies. Out of approximately 3,600 American colonial recruits, only about 600 survived the expedition. 

Following the defeat at the Battle of Cartagena de Indias (March 13–20, 1741), British officers placed the blame on the colonial forces, deeming them untrained and lacking experience. Naturally, a noticeable sense of distrust between the English and American colonials started to surface.

Spanish Invasion of Georgia

In the fall of 1741, King Philip V of Spain ordered Spanish forces to attack Georgia and South Carolina. Governor Manuel de Montiano assembled approximately 4,000 men and marched toward Savannah in the spring of 1742.

Following Oglethorpe’s failure to take St. Augustine, Montiano believed the English defenses were weak and could be easily defeated.

Gully Hole Creek and Bloody Marsh — July 7, 1742

As the Spanish forces marched toward Savannah, Oglethorpe was warned about the imminent attack and he prepared his defenses. A fort was quickly built along the Frederica River, and a garrison of around 1,000 men prepared to defend Georgia from Spanish forces.

On July 5th, the Spanish landed on St. Simons Island and occupied Fort St. Simons, which had been abandoned. Two days later, the two opposing armies clashed. 

The Battle of Gully Hole Creek

The Spanish force moved toward Fort Frederica on St. Simons Island. The British were unaware until the Spanish appeared near Gully Hole Creek, south of the fort. Scouts informed Oglethorpe of the advance and he marched out to meet Montiano.

By the time Oglethorpe arrived, a contingent of Georgia Rangers and Indian warriors were already engaged with the Spanish. Once Oglethorpe arrived, the Spanish were routed and forced to fall back, which set up the Battle of Bloody Marsh.

The Battle of Bloody Marsh

The British pursued the Spanish and the Spanish prepared to launch a second attack. Oglethorpe prepared by sending men to hide in a wooded area near the swamp, which was called Bloody Marsh, which the Spanish would have to march through.

When the Spanish appeared, the British opened fire and were protected by the thick vegetation that covered the area. In contrast, the Spanish, who were confused by terrain, found themselves easy targets of British gunfire. They ran low on ammunition and were forced to withdraw from the fight. 

Within a week, Montiano decided to end the invasion and started to march back to Florida.

War of Jenkins Ear, Battle of Bloody Marsh, Illustration
This illustration depicts British troops at the Battle of Bloody Marsh. Image Source: First Lessons in Georgia History by Lawton Bryan Evans, 1922, Archive.org.

James Oglethorpe — Hero of Colonial Georgia

Oglethorpe’s effective defense against the Spanish erased the memory of his previous defeat at St. Augustine and he was hailed as a hero.

Additionally, the Spanish failure to take Fort Frederica effectively ended their campaign to conquer Georgia, a colony that Spain considered illegal and believed to fall within the territory of Florida. 

The British victory also ended the dispute between Britain and Spain over the border between Georgia and Florida.

Oglethorpe Invades Florida in 1743

In March 1743, Oglethorpe tried to take St. Augustine again. However, refused to fight and remained in Castillo de San Marcos. Oglethorpe was eventually forced to withdraw, ending the British attempt to use force to remove the Spanish from Florida.

Following the failed invasion, Oglethorpe sailed to Europe, where he fought in the War of Austrian Succession and rose to the rank of General.

War Continues and Escalates

By 1744, the conflict between British and Spanish forces was at a stalemate. The War of Austrian Succession escalated in Europe and incited King George’s War in North America. The War of Jenkins’ Ear essentially became part of the larger conflicts.

Important Forts of the War of Jenkins’ Ear

Fort Frederica, Georgia

Fort Frederica, a British fortification, was built in 1736 on St. Simons Island, south of Savannah, Georgia, and to the east of Brunswick. Construction \was carried out under the directives of Georgia’s founder, James Oglethorpe. 

It was one installation in a series of fortifications that Oglethorpe built along the eastern and coastal regions of Georgia. The purpose of them was to defend against Spanish troops in Florida from moving into Georgia and seizing disputed territories.

Oglethorpe also saw the fort as a strategic base from which he could mount offensives against the Spanish in St. Augustine.

War of Jenkins Ear, Ruins of Fort Frederica, Illustration
This illustration depicts the ruins of Fort Frederica, circa 1922. Image Source: First Lessons in Georgia History by Lawton Bryan Evans, 1922, Archive.org.

Oglethorpe identified St. Simons Island as the ideal site for the fort, which was his military headquarters. He chose a spot on a bench in the Altamaha River, next to a marsh and thick forests. This strategic placement on the bend allowed the fort to monitor any approaching ships and quickly respond.

Following a peace treaty with Spain in 1748, Fort Frederica was left abandoned, and a significant number of residents in and around the area decided to relocate. In 1758, a fire destroyed much of the deteriorating fort and the structures in the adjacent town.

Fort Mosé, Florida

Fort Mosé was a Spanish fort built in the mid-1730s, known as Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mosé. It was located roughly two miles north of St. Augustine, Florida, and was the first settlement for free Africans in America. 

This fort served as the home to a militia composed of free Africans, known as the Maroon Militia. While it offered a limited defense for the inhabitants of St. Augustine, the fort was important because of its population of free Africans.

As part of its colonial policy, Spain offered freedom to any slaves who escaped from the British colonies and could make their way to Fort Mosé. It is widely believed the slaves involved in the Stono Rebellion intended to make their way to Fort Mosé.

Because of its location Fort Mosé served as an early warning system for St. Augustine. If any armed force approached St. Augustine from the north, it would have to deal with the militia at Fort Mosé. 

War of Jenkins Ear, Fort Mose, Illustration
This illustration depicts an artist’s rendering of Fort Mosé.

The fort was constructed near a small creek and featured an earthwork wall and a wooden palisade. In front of the wall was a three-foot-deep dry moat filled with Spanish yucca, also known as “bayonet cactus” due to its razor-sharp blades.

Inside the fort, former slaves enjoyed privileges that were denied to enslaved Africans in the British colonies and many of them converted to Catholicism as a requirement of their freedom. Any male of age was also required to service in the Maroon Militia.

The community at Fort Mosé largely governed itself, with the guidance of a Franciscan Priest who lived in the fort, including the election of political leaders.

Fort St. Simons, Georgia

Fort St. Simons was a British fort built in 1738 at the southernmost point of St. Simons Island. The location of the fort played an important role in guarding the Georgia coast and strengthening British claims to the area.

The fort was located 400 yards from Fort Delegal and 6 miles from Fort Frederica. Fort St. Simons and Fort Delegal were strategically positioned to defend the sound from enemy ships and protect the access road that led to Fort Frederica. 

The fort was manned by the 42nd Regiment of Foot, whose soldiers alternated between Fort St. Simons and Fort Frederica.

On June 28, 1742, the garrison at Fort St. Simons spotted a fleet of 36 Spanish ships sailing northward. Spanish Governor Juan Francisco de Güemes had issued orders to Manuel de Montiano to launch an attack on St. Simons Island. 

By July 5, Montiano’s fleet had entered the sound, despite cannon fire from Fort St. Simons. Several thousand Spanish troops disembarked at Gascoigne Bluff, which was located two miles north of Fort St. Simons.

In response, Oglethorpe issued orders for the defenders of Fort St. Simons to abandon the fort and remove any vessels. Before departing for Fort Frederica, the soldiers deliberately destroyed any vessels they could not bring with them. 

The next day, Spanish troops advanced and took control of the now-abandoned Fort St. Simons. They established the fort as their headquarters for planning an attack on Fort Frederica.

Following the defeats at the Battle of Gully Hole Creek and Bloody Marsh, the Spanish withdrew from the fort. Before they left, they destroyed it and it was never rebuilt by the British.

War of Jenkins’ Ear Significance

The War of Jenkins’ Ear is important to United States history because Spanish forces were unable to take Georgia, which helped establish the border between the 13 Original Colonies and Spanish Florida.

War of Jenkins’ Ear APUSH, Review, Notes, Study Guide

Use the following links and videos to study the War of Jenkins’ Ear, the Stono Rebellion, and the British Southern Colonies for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

War of Jenkins’ Ear APUSH Definition

The War of Jenkins’ Ear was an armed conflict that occurred from 1739 to 1748 between Great Britain and Spain, primarily fought in the Caribbean and along the border of Georgia and Florida. It was sparked by a dispute over alleged Spanish mistreatment of a British seaman, Robert Jenkins, who claimed his ear was severed by Spanish forces. This conflict was part of the larger War of the Austrian Succession. While the war did not lead to significant territorial changes, it was an important Colonial War that set the stage for further conflicts in North America.

War of Jenkins’ Ear Video  for APUSH Notes

This video from the History Guy discusses the War of Jenkins’ Ear.

War of Jenkins’ Ear Suggested Reading

The War of Jenkins’ Ear: The Forgotten Struggle for North and South America: 1739-1742 by Robert Gaudi. The following is from Amazon.com’s review of the book:

“With vivid prose, Robert Gaudi takes the reader from the brackish waters of the Chesapeake Bay to the rocky shores of Tierra del Fuego. We travel around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Pacific to the Philippines and the Cantonese coast, with stops in Cartagena, Panama, and beyond. Yet even though it happened decades before American independence, The War of Jenkins’ Ear reveals that this was truly an American war; a hard-fought, costly struggle that determined the fate of the Americas, and in which, for the first time, American armies participated.

In this definitive work of history—the only single comprehensive volume on the subject — The War of Jenkins’ Ear explores the war that established the future of two entire continents.”

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title The War of Jenkins’ Ear
  • Date 1739–1748
  • Author
  • Keywords The War of Jenkins Ear, Who fought in the War of Jenkins Ear, What caused the War of Jenkins Ear, When did the War of Jenkins Ear take place, Where did the War of Jenkins Ear take place, How did the War of Jenkins Ear affect the Province of Georgia, Siege of St. Augustine, Battle of Fort Mose, Battle of Gully Hole Creek, Battle of Bloody Marsh
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 14, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 22, 2024

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