A Very Oddly Named War

In 1739, Britain went to war after a quarter century of peace. It ended the longest period of peace that Britain would experience over the next three-quarters of a century. Yet the start of this turbulent period was started for the most humble of causes -- an ear. Captain Jenkins ear. His supporters claimed he was an honest merchant captain, brutally abused by Spanish customs official, who sliced off the good captain's ear to insult the English. His detractors countered that Jenkins was a scoundrel who had lost his ear at the pillory, while being flogged for theft, or worse.

Regardless of how Jenkins lost his ear, Britain was bored. It seized the opportunity to pick a fight with Spain, seeking spoils and wealth in the Spanish Main, and Great South Sea. The War of Jenkins Ear (as it was named), started as a colonial adventure involving Spain and Britain. By the time it ended in 1748 it had grown into a major global conflict over the issue of of who would inherit the Hapsburg throne -- the War of Austrian Succession. Battles were fought not only in the Americas and Europe, but over virtually every ocean and Indian subcontinent.

The cast of characters, and stages on which the drama was played out are simultaneously famous and obscure.

Mount Vernon gained its name from the war. The estate was named for Admiral Vernon, who commanded an expedition against Cartegena. Among the participants was an obscure -- and childless -- colonial officer from Virginia. His nephew, George Washington inherited the estate, and the rest is history.

Anson conducted his circumnavigation during this war, in the process acquiring the Manila Galleon, and experience that propelled his reforms of the Royal Navy. Nelson's victories were the final fruit of Anson's reforms.

John Byron sailed with Anson as a midshipman. As an admiral in the American Revolution Byrons propensity for sailing into bad weather gained him the sobriquet "Foul Weather Jack," and lost Britain the Americas.

The American colonists acquired the Breton fortress of Louisberg -- capturing it from the French with minimal support or encouragement from the mother country. It was the first time the colonies participated in a joint military endeavor -- but not the last.

In Europe, Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Duke of Cumberland, Marshal Saxe and Frederick the Great entered the great stage of history, as did Fontenoy, Madras, Toulon (where the Fighting Instructions ensured everyone would lose), the '45, and Culloden.

It was a period of high drama, high adventure, and high absurdity, three properties vital for good fiction. Many tall ships authors have tackled this obscure war, because there were so many good stories to tell

Long before inventing Jack Aubrey, Patrick O'Brian wrote his first two nautical books set during this period -- The Golden Ocean (1957), set on Anson's Centurion, and The Unknown Shore (1959), about the Wager's shipwreck during the same expedition.

Victor Suthren used the period to set both his Paul Gallant and Edward Mainwaring series. Gallant (The Black Cockade, 1977; A King's Ransom, 1981, and In Perilous Seas, 1983) presents the war from the French side of the conflict. Mainwaring (Royal Yankee, 1987; The Golden Galleon, 1989; Admiral of Fear, 1991; and Captain Monsoon, 1993) relates the adventures of an American Colonist in the Royal Navy.

F. Van Wyck Mason set two of his finest novels during this war. The Young Titan (1959) explores the action surrounding the siege of Louisberg. Not terribly nautical, but a great read. The Manila Galleon (1961), is another, and magnificent retelling of the Anson circumnavigation.

Davenport Steward placed Carribean Cavalier (1957) at the beginning of the war. It is the tale of a professional soldier, on his way to visit a dying brother in Georgia who gets captured and abused by the Spanish in the war's opening days. After escaping, he gets revenge as a privateer.

The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748) provides an account of the siege of Cartagena and Random's other nautical adventures in that war. The grandpappy of the nautical adventure tale, its author, Tobias Smollett (1721-1771), wrote it the year the war ended.

James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) set The Two Admirals (1842) in the '45. It examines the actions of two friends on opposite sides of the rebellion.

Finally, if you are interested in a sardonic fictional review of the entire war, read Odell and Willard Shepard's novel Jenkins' Ear (1951). It well captures both the adventure and absurdity of a forgotten conflict whose impact rippled over the next 75 years, with a seminal effect on tall ships fiction.

Mark Lardas
Palestine, TX

Copyright 1997 by Mark N. Lardas
Commercial reproduction prohibited without written consent of the author.

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