The War Started over A Severed Ear


A Brief History

On October 23, 1739, the War of Jenkins’ Ear began when British Prime Minister Robert Walpole declared war on Spain following the exhibition in Parliament of the severed ear of a British captain allegedly maimed by Spaniards.

Digging Deeper

In 1731, a British captain named Robert Jenkins captained a British brig sailing off of Florida’s coast.  When a Spanish patrol boat boarded Jenkins’s brig, the Spanish commander cut off Jenkins’s left ear, accusing the British captain of smuggling.  The ear-severing Spaniard then taunted Jenkins, daring him to “tell your King that I will do the same, if he dares to do the same.”

A full seven years later, Jenkins testified before Parliament, possibly even producing his severed ear (not sure why he would hold on to it for seven years…) during his testimony.  Britons considered the Spanish savagery against Jenkins as an insult to their whole nation.

The next year, King George II authorized Britain’s admiralty to launch maritime reprisals against Spanish ships.  The first such attack occurred on October 22, 1739, although war would be officially declared the next day on Saturday, October 23, 1739.  From there, the war would drag on until 1748, lasting nearly a decade and being fought throughout the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.  The combined number of dead and wounded reached as high as 29,500, in addition to perhaps over 500 ships lost on both sides.  Making matters worse, the war ultimately merged with the even larger War of the Austrian Succession, a world war that lasted from 1740 to 1748.  This wider conflict brought in practically all of the great powers of Europe and their colonies.

Sometimes, seemingly little things, such as one man losing an ear, can start some of the biggest events in world history!

Historical Evidence

To learn more about this incident and other weird events in British history, you could check out The War of Jenkins’ Ear, and Other Odd Bits of History.

The War of Jenkins' Ear, and Other Odd Bits of History (Kindle Edition)

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For a more thorough examination of this particular incident and its role in the wider war, see this book.

Dr. Zar

Dr. Zar graduated with a B.A. in French and history, a Master’s in History, and a Ph.D. in History. He currently teaches history at multiple universities.

  • Stephen Ciocca

    I have never heard of this war, but it was very interesting to find out that it started because of an ear! I wonder how true this story is, or if maybe something got lost in translation over time…

  • Amanda McCay

    It is rather ridiculous that it was a full seven years after Robert Jenkins’s ear was cut off that he gave a testimony to the Parliament and that it took another year for the King to decided to fight back. I’m curious to know if Spain realized cutting of Jenkins’s ear was the cause of the war because of how much time passed after it happened.

  • BB

    I agree with Amanda. The time frame for these events to happen is just absurd. While a delay is foreseen, 14 years later they started a war? That is very unbelievable in my opinion. Also, After looking at the cartoon, why did Jenkins and his crew just fight back and kill the Spaniards there and in turn get revenge right away? In my opinion this war was basically started on other causes that were probably too “dark” for Britain to give at the time since a nation’s reputation is everything. Playing a self-defense card would make them look better in public opinion.

  • Allison Pugliese

    I agree with both Amanda and BB that the reason given for the war seems quite absurd. The Spaniards may of had something that the British wanted to obtain but they needed a legitimate reason in order to have the support of the people. If Jenkins’ ear was cutoff for smuggling, maybe the war started because the British wanted to trade freely in that area and this confrontation gave the British leverage to fight for what they really wanted.

  • DM

    I have never heard of this war before either until today and waiting eight years to launch an attack seemed absurd at first but it does make sense. It must have taken a very long time back in the 1700’s for messages to get delivered and decisions to be made. Also, coordinating an attack that large on another European nation must have taken years to coordinate. It is silly to think that an event as small as an ear being cut off could lead to all out war.

  • Emily Danzig

    I agree with DM with the fact that it seems wild that something like cutting off an ear lead to an entire war! It is also very strange that they used this as leverage to start a war so many years later! They were probably waiting for the right time to go to war and used that incident as an excuse to ultimately launch attacks

  • Megan Joyce Doran

    It is scary and unfortunate to think that someone would want to cut off someone’s ear which would in turn start a war. What did Spaniards have against the Britons and Jenkins?

  • Ann

    Either the cutting of someones year was the tipping point for the war, or the action that started it all. It is unfortunate that a long drawn out war happened because of a minimal recorded action. I do agree with the people below and the article that why would he hold on to the ear for 7 years, or care about it seven years later, i think that there has to be some deep personal or even emotional history that happened before the cutting of the ear!

  • Alexandria McDole

    I find it interesting that one mans ear coming off of his head started so much havoc. I think it is weird that he keeps his ear but yet I understand why he would.

  • Holly Damron

    Although the removal of an ear causing an all-out war seems rather ridiculous, based on the ear being kept for years, it seems to have been a symbol of the historical conflict.

  • Nathan

    I hope Jenkins didn’t need glasses.


  • CNC

    That’s disgusting that Jenkins held onto his for seven years. And its ridiculous that seven years passed between the cutting off of Jenkins’ ear and the beginning of the war.

  • Rachel B

    I can’t believe his ear was cut off, yet he still lived. I feel like it would have become infected and he would have died as a result. That is crazy to me!

  • Grace W

    Interesting that it was a full seven years after the fact before he testified and anything was done about it.. GW

  • Jenna Risacher

    It is fascinating that severing somebody’s ear was the threat the Spaniard chose to use against Jenkins. It is also gross that Jenkins would keep his ear. Even if he was keeping it as proof, wouldn’t the fact that he was missing an ear be proof enough?

  • katrina studer

    ….And I thought it was just my mom who got so mad over the smallest things. It’s crazy that this could start a war. Also, I don’t blame him for keeping his ear.

  • Alexandra Bull

    I find it hilarious that this huge historical event was initiated by a man losing an ear.

  • OC

    I find it very inetersting that such a small event like cutting off someone’s ear can cause such an uproar. Then again, the smallest things in life sometimes can spark an outragoues fire. The amount of deaths, is frigetening.

  • Connor Lynch

    The different economic, social, and political factors must have weighed heavily on the scales of war at the time. Its crazy to think that these scales were allegedly tipped towards war by one man losing an ear and somehow storing it for 7yrs.

  • Jake Bon

    Seems there was not much reason for the war to even begin, but it did, and it took many lives surprisingly. A war over an ear, did not think I would ever hear that. Other than Mike Tyson biting off Holyfields ear.

  • Erica Wheaton

    I always knew that the little things caused big conflicts but the lose of an ear causing a war that lost over 500 ships now that is just a little overboard.

  • Ellyn Kilpatrick

    This is why I love learning about history. There are funny tales behind how some of the greatest wars begin.