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

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Review by Martin Koenigsberg

Just Finished my 59th Book Review of the Year!!

To the Walpole Government in London, the idea was so simple- in order to punish the Spanish Empire for the surly behaviour of their Navy and Privateers in the Caribbean, the Royal Navy and British Army would cooperate to take the port of Cartagena in what is now in Columbia. In the early 1740s, in the wonderfully named “War of Jenkin’s Ear”, there was to be an expedition and the whole Empire was to take part. The British Army would provide a few regiments, the Navy would send the best ships they could spare from the Home Fleet, and there would be a brigade sized regiment from the American Colonies- “Marines” who would take part in the expedition- and share in the expected prize money. It sounded simple and lucrative- and Craig S Chapman, a noted American author on Military topics tells us how it all went awry- as inter service wrangling, diverging ideas on the campaign, challenging logistics, a stronger than expected Spanish response and most importantly diseases, among them yellow fever and malaria- served to blunt this supposed feat of arms. It was difficult enough to attempt amphibious warfare in the age of wooden ships and iron men, knowing as we do today the close cooperation required between all services in these operation. In the face of the tropics and Admirals and Generals fighting each other more than the Spanish it proved to be well nigh impossible- at enormous cost.

Chapman makes it into a tick-tock of the whole campaign and war. We bounce between sides and locations as the expedition moves around the Caribbean, and the “War of Jenkin’s Ear” becomes a part of the Silesian War/War of Austrian Succession- Frederick the Great’s first European power grab. The campaign develops, new players enter the picture as the French become involved, and the Admirals and Generals bicker. Successes for the expedition are never enough- the American militia turned marines, as the lowest status service members- get overworked and abused at every turn- and poor 18th century hygiene and medicine make sure that the losses mount really alarmingly. Chapman is there as a Military veteran to point out the faults after each episode , so the reader understands the constant drumbeat of failures and mistakes that make this one of the costliest military expeditions in British Imperial History. It’s a prime example of car-crash history- where our author takes us through a disaster, step by onerous step until we thoroughly comprehend all the challenges and all the mistakes. The British Admiral Vernon comes off as a real friction point in this process, but no character comes off unscathed. It’s a very comprehensive job of sifting through this compelling mess.

There are many adult themes and some graphic disease descriptions that make this best for a Junior reader over about 12/13 years, but Chapmans’s direct style will educate. For the Gamer/Modeler/Military Enthusiast, this is a really interesting resource. The Gamer gets a really game ready campaign/scenario, relatively limited forces, both in ships and men. The two brigade and field and siege artillery size of the land force is almost perfect for skirmish size- and replaying the campaign without disease, or command dissension could be very interesting- with or without the French involved. The Modeler gets an interesting subject for Tricorne era dioramas away from Northern Europe, with strong American content-one of the American officers is a Washington(notice the name of their plantation?), But it is the Military enthusiast, as so often who gets the most out of this book- a close step by step account of a too oft forgotten campaign with all the issues and faults laid bare. As a history of Colonial Warfare, Amphibious Operations, Wooden ship warfare, early American Colonial campaigning, Siege Warfare, and Medical misadventures Chapman has fashioned a narrative that captures the attention of the general reader as well as the Military History Buff. A good, if harrowing read.