In April 1731 the brig Rebecca was boarded by a Spanish coastguard off Havana on suspicion of carrying contraband. Her captain, Robert Jenkins, was badly beaten up, and though the Spanish captain failed to find anything, he allegedly cut off Jenkins’ ear with his sword.
Jenkins’ sufferings were reported in the press, and an official complaint was made to Spain, and there it would have rested, had not the case been raised again years later amid rising tensions over trade with Spain’s South American colonies. According to legend, Jenkins even appeared before parliament displaying the violated organ preserved in a jar. This never happened, but Jenkins definitely became a cause célèbre, and the subject of at least one stage play.
The war declared in 1739 became known as the War of Jenkins’ Ear, though his ordeal had little bearing on the real causes. Doubtless it suited patriotic Englishmen to remind themselves of Spanish cruelty, which was ironic considering that one of the things Britain was fighting for was the right to continue selling African slaves in South America.
A few years later, the war, mostly fought at sea, merged into the wider War of Austrian Succession. There is no evidence supporting the legend of my school days that it should be
more properly called the War of Jenkins’ Penis.