"Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war." – The British, the Spanish, and the War of Jenkins Ear

I realize this wonderful line from Shakespeare’s play, “Julius Caesar” is too sweeping and evocative to use as an introduction to this brief post on the War of Jenkins Ear but the juxtaposition appealed to me.

On 9 April 1731, near Havana, the Spanish coast guard sloop La Isabela intercepted the British merchant brig Rebecca. Robert Jenkins, the master of the merchant vessel, was accused of violating certain trade regulations which then existed between the Kingdom of Spain and Great Britain. It is thought that harsh words were exchanged between the master of the Rebecca and the captain of the Spanish warship. In great anger, to say the least, the Spanish captain drew his sword and cut off one of Jenkins’ ears.

Robert Jenkins shows his severed ear to Prime Minister Robert Walpole in this 1738 satirical cartoon which depicts Prime Minister Robert Walpole swooning when confronted with the Spanish-sliced ear, which led to the War of Jenkins’ Ear in 1739.

Subsequently, the Spanish began to harass other English merchant ships for violating some of these same regulations. Government was even slower back then than it is today but this news filtered back to London and finally in 1738, some seven years after the incident, Jenkins was summoned to appear before the House of Commons. He recounted his tale of rough handling by the captain of the Spanish sloop and, while no corroboration exists in the official records, it was said that Jenkins held up his severed ear to further his point.

The English were looking for an excuse to go to war with the Spanish and the severed ear provided it. While no battles of consequence were fought, the two countries took potshots at each other and the Royal Navy cuffed the Spanish navy about. This conflict continued for a handful of years and is known in history as, “The War of Jenkins Ear.”

George Anson’s capture of a Manila galleon by Samuel Scott. George Anson captured the Spanish galleon on 20 June 1743 off Cape Espiritu Santo capturing more than a million gold coins.

Curiously, when I googled the line, “Cry ‘Havoc’, and let slip the dogs of war:” to make sure I had it correct, I read an explanation of the phrase, “Cry ‘Havoc’…which explains why ‘Havoc’ is capitalized and offset in quotes. Seems that in the Middle Ages when the English were always fighting in Europe, once they had stormed a city and driven off the enemy, the commanding officer would cry out ‘Havoc.’ This order gave the soldiers permission to plunder, which turned them into an armed mob. All valuables were stolen, buildings ransacked, livestock killed or taken away along with any other food supplies. Any wine, beer, or liquor found was consumed which usually resulted in the soldiery setting the place on fire, killing the men and raping the women.

Since these men were barely paid and not well feed, they fought in order to plunder. Officers actually stayed out of the way since they, quite rightly, feared for their lives at the hands of their own men. While the English officers would shelter the local aristocrats, everyone else was at the mercy of the soldiers.

[Images courtesy of Wikimedia.]

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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