Tour Of The Caribbean – On the Way to Jamaica

THE next authorised stopping place in the way of our steamer was Kingston, Jamaica ; but owing to the earthquake it had been decreed that we could not put in there, but must go rather to Port Antonio on the north of the island.

The first intimation of the calamity which had befallen Kingston reached me at Trinidad. The news came in this wise. The ship had hardly dropped her anchor off Port of Spain before we were boarded by the usual miscellaneous folk who emerge from the waters of every tropical haven. Among them was a heated man, in a white linen jacket, who was tense to bursting from something within him. He asked me hurriedly, and in the manner of an irritable policeman, ” Where I was going ?” I said “To Kingston, Jamaica.” He replied authoritatively ” You cannot go there,” as if Kingston were a place from which trespassers were excluded. I asked ” Why? ” He said ” Because Kingston does not exist ; there is no such place.” I was about to inquire who had thus rudely tampered with the map of the globe, when he remarked, with a gush of pent-up breath, ” It has been wiped out by an earthquake ! Clean gone ! Not a brick left!” Before I could explain that I was not going to Kingston in search of bricks he had vanished explosively.

On the journey from San Domingo to Port Antonio the steamer crosses the ocean highway on whose broad bosom was enacted the opening scene of the ” War of Jenkins’ Ear.” The parties to this bitter conflict were the two great European Powers, England and Spain. The war was the outcome of long-existing differences, of petty insults and of irritating reprisals. Relations between the two peoples were clouded and threatening, yet the thunderbolt had not fallen. It was Jenkins’ ear that brought the whole seething, smouldering business to a climax. It was Jenkins’ auricle that caused the storm to burst. The British had been heroically patient, but when they contemplated this fragment of the anatomy of Jenkins their restraint gave way. It was no longer possible to hold back the dogs of war.

Robert Jenkins was the master of the brig Rebecca, and was engaged in trading between the West Indies and London. In April 1731, the unsuspecting Rebecca was returning home to London from Jamaica by this very passage. Robert Jenkins had a full cargo ; he was at peace with all men, and was looking forward to the enjoyment of “the blessings of the land with the fruits of his labours.” He may be assumed to have been sailing along, humming to himself the then equivalent of ” Home, Sweet Home,” when he was brutally attacked by a Spanish Guardacosta, who boarded him in a most offensive and truculent manner. The gentle Jenkins could offer no resistance ; so the Spaniard promptly looted the brig and robbed the master of his little all.

Before the miscreants left the naked and bewildered Rebecca to find her way as best she could to London, a very sickly episode was witnessed on her decks. The exact mise en scene is a little obscure. Probably Jenkins was rude to the officer and very likely ” cheeked ” him, as a sailor from the Lower Thames could do with great power. I expect Robert was chased about the deck cursing, was caught by black-bearded men, who dragged him aft by his coat collar and then tied him with ropes to the mainmast. There he would be in sight of such of his crew as had fled below and, by standing on the table, were able to peep out of the cabin skylight. The scene of martyrdom would be in sight also of Jenkins’ dog who was cowering, with a look of ineffectual compassion, under the bulwarks.

The captain of the Guarda-costa now approached Jenkins with a grin, and taking hold of one of his red ears as if it had been a ripe fruit, lopped it off from his head with a heavy knife. The blood, no doubt, squirted across the deck ; the dog would crawl out to inspect the crimson blotch, would understand its meaning and retire still more humbly compassionate. Any of the crew at the skylight who had a grudge against the ” old man ” may have grinned and have remarked, with leering satisfaction, that ” the skipper had got something for himself this time.”

The Spaniard, with the fine courtesy of his race, placed Jenkins’ auricle on the binnacle with ostentatious care, as if it had been a floral offering. He then earnestly begged Jenkins to take the memento home with him, and, bowing gravely, wished the master of the Rebecca ” Bon voyage ! ”

How Jenkins expressed himself to his shipmates after the visitors had left and while his bands were being loosened is not known. That he commented upon the behaviour of the Spaniards in the vivid language of Wapping is probable ; that he kicked the fawning and too sympathetic dog is also probable.

“First Aid ” would, no doubt, be rendered him by the ship’s carpenter, who, in conformity with the surgery of the time, would staunch the bleeding with crude turpentine, and then dress the stump with a piece of bunting dipped in lamp oil, and secured by a red handkerchief.

One thing Jenkins did not fail to do. He did not forget to bring his ear back with him, as the courteous Spaniard had advised. He probably placed the precious relic between two folds of sail cloth, and then locked it up in the drawer where he kept his sextant, his Bible and his bottle of rum. There at least it would be safe from the rats. The Rebecca was a long time getting home, for she did not reach London until June 11, by which date the stump of Jenkins’ ear, stimulated, no doubt, from time to time by the application of a little tar, must have been nicely healed.

Jenkins, when he had berthed his brig in the Thames, lost no time in proclaiming his martyrdom and in bringing his sufferings before a horrified country. The ear no doubt was exhibited upon many a tavern table to both publicans and sinners, and was shown as well to the shocked parson and to the indignant squire. If the repeated narrative made Jenkins thirsty they were many who were proud to relieve that thirst if only they might hold the seaweed-coloured remains for a moment in their very hands. Jenkins’ dead ear became the badge of an infuriated faction, just as was once the red rose of Lancaster and the white rose of York.

In 1738 the master of the Rebecca gained to the fountain head, for he was examined before a committee of the House of Commons. Seven years had now elapsed since the operation and, as antiseptics were not then in use, Jenkins’ pinna, or external ear, must have been sadly changed. Its outlines would probably have become as indefinite as those of a crushed date.

That the captain attended at Westminster in his best clothes and with his hair nicely tied up in a pigtail may be assumed. That the amputation stump was. not looking its best at the time is probable. Jenkins, however, at the inquiry brought forth the relic, or rather, as the historian says, ” he produced something which he asserted was his ear.” This something he no doubt extracted from his trousers pocket with great solemnity and deliberation. It was a dramatic moment. The something would be between two layers of much-thumbed sail cloth. Jenkins would proceed to separate the parts as a man would open a sandwich to demonstrate what was within it. Then to the sickened legislators would he reveal a horrible thing called by its owner an ear, but which might as well be the shrivelled husk of some ill-smelling fruit.

There appears to have been no anatomical examination made of the ” specimen.” The committee were indeed quite uneasy until it was wrapped up and lurched back into Jenkins’ pocket again.

The captain made one mistake. He was asked by an inquisitive member of the committee how he felt under the operation. Jenkins was ready for this. Drawing himself erect, and removing the tobacco quid from his cheek for clearer speech, the injured mariner, with eyes turned to heaven and with uplifted hand, said ” I committed my soul to God and my cause to my country!” Now this was not like Jenkins. This was not the speech of Gravesend nor of Port Royal. It was very beautiful, very noble, but it was not Wapping.

Anyhow the ear, or the something asserted to be an ear, led to the war, which same was declared some few months after Jenkins’ inspiring speech. It was not a very successful campaign ; so people began to turn against Jenkins. They began to regard his story as ” extremely doubtful,” if not a pure invention. They considered him, in short, a liar. The least kindly disposed went so far as to say that the disgusting thing that Jenkins had hawked about for seven years was not a human ear at all, and that if it was, then Jenkins had lost it in the pillory in the ordinary course of justice.

The island of Jamaica, which we are now approaching, has been in the possession of England since 1655. It was captured in that year by Penn and Venables, who had been sent out by Cromwell with general instructions “to obtain establishment in that part of the West Indies which is possessed by the Spaniards.”

These two warriors are always spoken of as “Penn and Venables ” as if they were members of some commercial firm. They were a very curious couple. Penn was an admiral and Venables a general. They left England on Christmas Day 1654, and made for San Domingo, which they reached in April of the next year. Here Venables landed with a fore of 7000 men for the purpose of taking the city. His army was undisciplined, ill paid, and ill equipped. He was disgracefully repulsed, for his men turned and fled from a small party of negroes and Spaniards who burst out upon them from an ambush with horrible yells, close under the walls of the city.’

Venables declined to try again ; so the firm left Espanola and moved on to Jamaica. They reached Passage Fort, the seaward fort of the old capital, on May 10. Penn had had, by this time, quite enough of soldiers and more than enough of Venables,. so he led the attack himself in a little galley called the Martin, stormed the fort and took it, and, with it, Jamaica.

The military partner in the firm did not land until he saw that all resistance was over, and although the British boats came by cheering, close to the ship on which he stood, ” he continued walking about, wrapped up in his cloak, with his hat over his eyes, looking as if he had been studying of physic more than the general of an army.” It may be here said that the costume and attitude of Venables during this crisis are not characteristic of the modern medical student during periods of disturbance, although it may be a correct picture of the budding doctor in Cromwellian times.

It is probable that Venables, as he stalked the deck with his hat over his eyes, was thinking of trout and dace fishing, for he was the author of a work entitled ” The Experienced Angler, or Angling Improved.”

The experienced angler reached England on September 9 1655, ” almost a skeleton,” and was promptly sent to the Tower, where he possibly occupied his enforced leisure by fishing in the moat.

Admiral Penn, when he returned from the wars, was also at once sent to the Tower, as if it had been a convalescent home for officers. His imprisonment, however, only lasted a few weeks, for the charge against him was merely that of returning home without leave.

Penn, who had suffered so much from the acts of his junior partner, is described as “a mild-spoken, fair-haired man, with a comely round visage.” He would seem, therefore, to have been a gentle creature of the type of the Cheeryble Brothers, but Pepys, who was his surbordinate, hated him with a poisonous hatred. He has made him immortal in his famous Diary, where he refers to him as “a mean and cunning rogue,” as “a very villain,” and finally, in the delirium of his wrath, as ” a coxcomb.”