Today (October 19) in London History – The War of Jenkins’ Ear

October 19, 1739, the House of Commons – Declaration of War on Spain. The War of Jenkins’ Ear. This Today in London Podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

This one comes with a warning. 

This podcast contains violent content which may be too intense for some listeners. Listener discretion is advised.”

Which is by way of saying, this one’s serious. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is, it’s got a keynote. In musical terms the keynote would be the final, unbearably sad note of the Last Post – what Americans call Taps – as it fades away, over hill and dale. It – the keynote to this one – is the story of John Kipling. Lieutenant John Kipling. You’ll recognise the surname of course. But maybe not the Christian name. John Kipling was the son – the only son – of the great English novelist, poet and short story writer, Rudyard Kipling. Yes, that Rudyard Kipling, the champion, the great standard bearer – in words – of the British Empire. When World War I came along Rudyard Kipling was very keen for his son John to join the army, go and fight the good fight. John Kipling was extremely short-sighted. He had no chance of passing the physical examination. His father pulled strings – called in favours – to get son John into the army, get him to the front. On September 27th, 1915 Second Lieutenant John Kipling was killed at the Battle of Loos. He was a boy. He’d only just turned 18. His body was never found. Almost certainly he was vaporised by a high explosive shell. As were several of his fellows officers and 27 soldiers under their command.

All that was found was 2nd Lieutenant John Kipling’s iron-rimmed spectacles. Granny glasses. 

His father’s grief – and regret – well, you can take your own measure of that.

We do have the haunting elegy his father wrote about his son, wrote about all the sons, the legions of them.

Here’s the poem.

That flesh we had nursed from the first in all cleanness was given…

To be blanched or gay-painted by fumes – to be cindered by fires –

To be senselessly tossed and retossed in stale mutilation

From crater to crater. For this we shall take expiation.

But who shall return us our children?

That’s almost unbearable. But Kipling went further. Went further with what I call the twelve words, the apophthegm.

The elegy is father-speak. The apophthegm is sacrificed son-speak. It’s the nightmarish doppelganger of the biblical Abraham and Isaac tale. The horrific doppelganger – the doppelganger where Abraham the father goes through with it. Kills his son. Sacrifices him to a false god.

Here are the twelve words, the apophthegm:

“If any question why we died, tell them, because our fathers lied.”

Ok, that’s the keynote.

Curtain up now on the main scene.

A couple of times for this series I’ve tapped into a reference book called The London Book of Days. For today, October 19th, its entry reads: “1739: Captain Jenkins produced his pickled ear before Parliament, claiming it was cut off by a Spaniard. On this day Walpole declared war on Spain.”

It’s phrased very carefully, that. It’s easy to take that to mean, On this day, October 19th, Captain Jenkins showed the House of Commons his pickled ear, whereupon the prime minister declared war on Spain.” Makes a great story. Gives us a bull’s eye date for the war that came to be known as The War of Jenkins’ ear. The only problem is that very careful, clever, clever phrasing. It telescopes into one tremendously dramatic moment in the House of Commons two events that were in fact separated by a very long stretch of time. The show-and-tell episode of the pickled ear – that did happen – but not on the same day that Walpole declared war on Spain.

Ok, some back story. 

Robert Jenkins was a merchant naval officer. He was Master of the smuggling brig Rebecca. His ship was bound for Jamaica. On April 9th, 1731, off Havana, the Rebecca was boarded by sailors and officers from the Spanish sloop San Antonio, a coastguard vessel. The Spanish were searching for contraband. Jenkins was beaten and strangled by the Spaniards. They tied a rope around his neck and hoisted him up the main mast. Three times they did that. They were trying to persuade him to tell them where he’d hidden the contraband. Captain Jenkins wasn’t forthcoming. We don’t know – but chances are he couldn’t tell them where the contraband was because at that point on the Rebecca’s voyage, there wasn’t any contraband.

Finally one of the Spanish officers – we’re not absolutely certain of his identity – some say it was Lieutenant Dorce, others the Captain himself, Juan Leon Fandino, anyway an officer, Dorce or Fandino, took out his cutlass, took hold of Jenkins’ left ear, and applied the blade. Sliced Jenkins’s ear. Then another of the Spaniards took hold of the ear, tore it off and handed it to Jenkins.  Sneeringly he said, “take this to your Master King George.”

Well, you can imagine how that tale went down with the British public when Jenkins got home, with his ear, like a pickle, in a jar. It was a double affront. The insolence toward His Majesty. And the barbarous treatment of one of our countrymen.

And in due course Jenkins and his ear were paraded through the House of Commons. Feelings were whipped up. It was important to teach the Spanish a lesson. Lots of huffery and puffery.

But the matter burbled for most of the 1730s. The declaration of war did finally come on this day in 1739. Many months after Jenkins had had his freak show moment in the House of Commons. And of course the war was known as The War of Jenkins’ Ear.

But here’s the thing – there was a lot of manoeuvring, a lot of politicking to make the war happen. There were plenty of vested interests – parties who stood to make a lot of money – if they could get a war going. They were deeply cynical. Truth be told, they didn’t give a damn about Captain Jenkins’ ear. Nor about insolence to his majesty. Nor, for that matter, about teaching the Spanish a lesson – they wanted a war because they were going to make a lot of money out of it. In the end, they got what they wanted. And unless you were born yesterday you know that deep deep cynicism and sharp practice like that is par for the course. 

Think of LBJ, Vietnam and the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Think of William Randolph Hearst – the mighty American press magnate – lusting for American intervention in the Cuban Revolution in 1895. And his sending illustrator George Remington to cover the insurrection. Remington cables Hearst to say there’s no war to cover. Hearst cables back, “you furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.” And on it goes, war after war. Some people do very well out of war. But their profits come at a cost. A cost paid by other people. And what a cost. Those other people lose their lives, their limbs, their minds. Or at one remove, their loved ones. Their sons. 

I’m always reminded of that scene near the end of the Coen brothers’ film, Fargo. Marge Gunderson, that fine human being, that wonderful woman, the heavily pregnant police chief, has just arrested the thick-as-two-planks Swedish sociopath and petty crook and now murderer Gaear Grimsrud and she’s driving him back to the police station to lock him up…and she says to him, So that was Mrs Lundegaard on the floor in there? And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’t you know that?   And here y’are. And it’s a beautiful day.

 Well, I just don’t understand it.

There’s plenty of times when I’m thinking about these things – or reading about them – wars, I mean – and that scene in the Coen film – especially that bit of dialogue – though it’s not dialogue because the Swedish sociopath is sawdust for brains, verbal expression is beyond his fathomless stupidity – anyway, I’ll be thinking about these matters and that scene will come to mind and instead of the character Gaear Grimsrud sitting there in the back seat of the police vehicle, I see LBJ or Dean Rusk or Robert McNamara sitting back there and of course it’s not five bodies, it’s a million dead Vietnamese and 58,000 dead GIs. And I hear Marge Gunderson say, “all for a little bit of money” – I don’t understand it.”

And she’s speaking for me. I don’t understand it.

And here’s the linch-pin for this piece. We had the keynote – the John Kipling story. 

We had the main chapter – Robert Jenkins and his ear and the war on Spain and the bearing, for me, of that scene in the film Fargo on these matters generally. And now we get the linchpin. Which is this.

The whole is more important than the particular (much as I like particulars).

In this case, as tempting as it is to roll everything into that one moment – Jenkins in Parliament with his pickled ear and Pitt declaring War on Spain – and having done with it, oh isn’t it fun, isn’t it silly, isn’t it quirky – that single snapshot of The War of Jenkin’s Ear – I think you have to resist that temptation. That scene is the particular. The whole is more important than the particular. The whole arcs all the way across the decade that the war was fought, all the way across to the body count. 30,000 British casualties, 4,500 Spanish casualties. Loos, Vietnam, the Spanish-American war, the War of Jenkins’ Ear, it’s the same horrifying story over and over again – all those people shovelled into the maw of war –like coals into the furnaces of a locomotive’s steam engines. The War of Jenkins’ ear – indeed, our getting the famous London placename Portobello Road from that war – that’s not something fun and quirky. That’s something horrifying. Something as horrifying as nothing being left of Rudyard Kipling’s son except his spectacles. The whole is more important than the part. The part is those spectacles – or that pickled ear – the whole is the abattoir of war, its victims stretching out as far as the eye can see, stretching out to the crack of doom.

Well, I warned you this was a serious one.

And a Today in London recommendation. Something cleansing, I’d say. Let’s go to the Wallace Collection in Manchester Square. Maybe avoid the armour collection. Start with Frans Hal’s The Laughing Cavalier, go on to Fragonard’s The Swing, and then Ruben’s The Rainbow Landscape. And then, purified, whatever else you want to see in that magnificent collection.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

One response to “Today (October 19) in London History – The War of Jenkins’ Ear”

  1. Elaine says:

    A wonderful piece ☺️

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