Book Review: Disaster on the Spanish Main: The Tragic British-American Expedition to the West Indies during the War of Jenkins' Ear


by Craig S. Chapman

Lincoln, Nb.: Potomac Books, 2021. Pp. xvi, 410. Illus., maps, notes, gloss., biblio., index . $29.95 paper. ISBN: 1640124314

A Forgotten British Disaster in the Caribbean

In 1731 British sea captain Robert Jenkins was caught smuggling in the Caribbean by the Spanish coast guard, and had an ear lopped off by a Spanish officer. British public opinion over the incident festered for several years, while tensions between Britain and Spain grew over other issues, notably access to trade – notably in slaves – to Spain’s colonial empire. In 1739 war was declared against Spain. “The War of Jenkins Ear” turned out badly for Britain. The fighting petered out in 1742, as the conflict became subsumed in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748).

Interest in this now virtually forgotten war has been receiving some new fresh scholarly attention recently, including this new volume by Craig S. Chapman, an army veteran who has produced several works in military history.

Chapman gives us an excellent account of an overlooked campaign, Britain’s unsuccessful 1739-1740 expedition to seize control of the Caribbean from Spain. This was the largest British over-seas effort to that time, in which a substantial contingent from several of the Thirteen Colonies served as marines.

Chapman opens with a look at the origins of the war, the purposes of the British expedition, how a lack of resources hampered preparations for the undertaking, which was compounded by Britain’s convoluted military establishment and, of course, Spanish preparations, a side of the many Anglo-Spanish wars which is often almost wholly ignored in the literature. As he tells the story, Chapman also gives us a lot of information about the conduct of war in the period, the personalities involved, particularly Britain’s “Old Grog” Vernon and Spain’s Blas de Lezo, both able men now largely forgotten. Chapman gives us some useful lessons in navigation and sailing, and a few good battle pieces by land and sea.

Chapman also offers some good analysis of causes of British failure, with very heavy casualties, caused by tropical disease in combination with that very convoluted military system, poor command relationships, as well as British contempt for colonials, and some hard fighting by the Spanish.

Disaster on the Spanish Main is an excellent read or anyone with an interest in the British military in the period, particularly because the campaign helped set the stage for British success in the Seven Years’ War. 




Note: Disaster on the Spanish Main is also available in several e-editions.


StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: A.A. Nofi   

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