Robert Jenkins hands a swooning Prime Minister Robert Walpole his Spanish-sliced ear which led to the War of Jenkins’s Ear in 1739. His companions lift off his wig to show the scar while one of Walpole's associates displays total indifference, preferring to converse with a lady. Satirical Cartoon, 1738, British Museum.
Returning home from the West Indies in command of the brig Rebecca in April 1731, Captain Jenkins' ship was stopped and boarded by the Spanish guarda-costa La Isabela. Though no proof of smuggling had been found her commander, Captain Julio León Fandiño, had Jenkins bound to a mast, then sliced off one of his ears with his sword and told him to say to his King "same will happen to him (the king) if caught doing the same".
There are various conflicting contemporary stories about this episode. Jenkins was allowed to appear before the king with his story shortly after his return to England in June the same year but the matter was dropped and only revived again during the agitation of 1738 when political capital was eventually made out of the incident. Brooke in his 1806 History of St. Helena relates that: Captain Jenkins was insulted, tortured, and had one of his ears torn off, which, upon his arrival in England, he exhibited at the bar of the House of Commons, and, being asked by a member what he thought and did when they mangled him, made that memorable reply, "I committed my soul to God, and my cause to my country."
The evidence from parliamentary records is inconclusive. It is recorded in the House of Commons Journal that on 16 March 1738 it was 'Ordered, that Captain Robert Jenkins do attend this House immediately'. He obviously did not do so because again on 17 March it was 'Ordered, That Captain Robert Jenkins do attend, on Tuesday morning next, the Committee of the whole House to whom the Petition of divers merchants ... interested in the British plantations in America ... and many others is referred'. After that there is no mention of him at all, even though reference is made to the petitions 'of divers merchants ...' etc. several times on 21-22, 28 and 30 March. The MP William Pulteney, however, refers to the Jenkins case in a speech after the Committee had reported to the House and other contemporary accounts state that Jenkins did in fact appear before the Committee.
Unfortunately detailed records of the proceedings of the Committee of the whole House do not exist for this period. According to the Dictionary of National Biography Jenkins produced something which he asserted was the ear which was cut or torn off, which suggests that it need not have been the actual ear. Indeed, it seems highly improbable that he would have kept it for seven years. After all, he was not to know in 1731 that his story was going to be brought back into the limelight and become an important factor in bringing about war with Spain so many years later. During the popular excitement following the Committee's report it was said that Jenkins paraded around showing off his 'ear' wrapped in cotton wool and kept in either a box or a bottle. Producing the alleged ear in the House of Commons (described as a retrospective put-up job) helped to force Walpole into what became known as the ‘War of Jenkins’ Ear’ against Spain in 1739, which then merged into the War of the Austrian Succession between 1740 and 1748.
On St. Helena the second administration of Governor Pyke, starting in March 1731, was notable for his arbitrary conduct. White inhabitants were ignominiously whipped and imprisoned for trivial offences and military officers fined and suspended without courts martial. He was eventually judged unfit to be any longer trusted with the power he so grossly abused, the Court of Directors dismissed him, but prior to the receipt of their orders to this effect, in July 1738, he died. The Court then confirmed the senior member of Council, Mr John Goodwin, as Governor. The next ranking individual was Mr. Duke Crisp who Brooke describes as; “a man not deficient in talents, and possessed of no common share of knavery and cunning. He was concerned in trade with Governor Goodwin, had an entire influence over him, and was, in fact, the grand spring which regulated all the measures of Council. The Company's lands were disposed of for a tenth part of their value, the stores embezzled, the most infamous frauds committed by erasure and false entries, and the treasury robbed of nearly four thousand pounds”.
In 1739 Goodwin died and Crisp succeeded him as acting Governor but he had neglected to give a due share of the plunder to G. Powel, one of his colleagues in Council, a man still more artful than himself, and equally devoid of principle. Powel turned informer, and from the nature of the intelligence he secretly transmitted to London, it was judged proper that a person of integrity should be immediately sent out, with extraordinary powers, to investigate the charges, and even, if necessary, to supersede the Governor and Council. The man selected for this was Robert Jenkins who was appointed Supervisor of all the Company's affairs at St. Helena. Under this title he left for the island, where he arrived in May, 1740, and, pursuant to his instructions, landed in the first boat, and immediately proceeded to the Castle, accompanied by Mr. John Godfrey, his assistant. Announcing that he had charge of dispatches, a Council was instantly assembled. He then opened his commission, summoned the chief Supercargoes, and Captains of the Company's ships then at the island, and in their presence demanded the keys of the treasury. The cash found, and counted on the spot, amounted to only six pounds sterling. Mr. Crisp and the rest of the Council (with the exception of Mr. Powel), were declared to be no longer in the Company's service, and Jenkins assumed the government and formed a Council. A thorough investigation was started and most ample proof found in support of the accusations made by Mr. Powel, who was in consequence made second in Council; and the estates of the guilty were seized to the extent of the Company's losses, which were calculated at six thousand two hundred and eighty-four pounds.
May 9th 1741.—Governor Robert Jenkins arrived with Powell as deputy Governor—and Mr. Godfrey 3rd in Council. Agreeable to our Hon. Master's orders we immediately demanded of Messrs. Duke Crispe and Bazett the keys of the Castle. We found Cash in notes £94 7 6 and the Cash Book brought up to 31st March by which there appears to be due to the Company only £6 19 0.
Mr. Crispe and Bazett being told they were not to go hence until they have satisfied our just demands they answer the late Mr. Goodwin was cashere they therefore consider him to be wholly culpable with respect to the deficiency. Resolved, as they have refused to give the security asked that there be a guard upon their persons until the Dane ship now riding in the road was sailed.
Letter from Gov. Jenkins to Directors, 11th May 1741.—Your Honours Estate here is in a worse condition than we expected. The frauds are so errant and so open that Mr. Crispe and Mr. Bazett have confessed them only they scruple being made accountable. Mr. Goodwin we find (unhappily for him) was concerned with Mr. Crispe. We would if we could point out who has been the chief actor therein but all that we are able to say is that it is evident that Mr. Crispe has been the wheel by which the other two have blindly moved—the total deficiency is £6284. The Estates of the late Mr. Goodwin and Mr. Bazett are more than sufficient to make good their proportions. Mr. Crispe gave an Inventory 1st of £1,427, afterwards one of £2,461—now we assure your Honours we know not what to say of this gentleman.
Council Proceedings 10th June.—Mr. Crispe owns to having burnt papers and letters which were taken by him from a file of Mr. Goodwin's a few hours after he died. Council agreed that Mr. Crispe appears to us in such colours as is not possible for us to paint.
June 4th 1742.—Mr. Crispe finds Bonds for £1145 and is allowed to leave by next ship.
Jenkins, having executed his commission, was succeeded by Major Lambert who arrived on the 22d of March, 1741, in the ship Harrington, of which Captain Jenkins was directed to assume the command for the remainder of the voyage. Lambert didn’t last long as Governor, dying on July 20th the same year and nothing further is on the record relating to Robert Jenkins, though he is remembered in the name of one of the houses at Prince Andrew School. During his time on the island Jenkins lived in a cottage on the Sandy Bay road, on the right after the Baptist Chapel almost as far as it was possible to be from Jamestown. Ian Baker gives the detail that “you might just make out a black stone built into the corner of one cottage:
Rob. Jenkins Esq.,
December 16th AD