Note: Due to time constraints on the author this week, please enjoy a timely excerpt from my little book with the big title: “A Historical Crash Course on Coastal Georgia and the Golden Isles.”w
Just about everybody in these parts has heard at least something about The War of Jenkins’ Ear, but scarce few know anything at all about Robert Jenkins’ actual ear.
The ear holds a place in local lore because of its connection to the famous Battle of Bloody Marsh, which unfolded 276 years ago on July 7, 1742., on St. Simons Island.
But the so-called Battle of Bloody Marsh was not really all that bloody, according Coastal Georgia historian and author Buddy Jenkins. And it was not nearly as significant in squashing Spanish designs on possession of Georgia territory as was a brutish ambush that took place earlier that day near present-day Oglethorpe Point Elementary School.
The battle is tied closely with Georgia’s founding as a British Colony, so a little background is helpful. Georgia began as a private enterprise with lofty ideals. British Gen. James Oglethorpe founded the colony as a means of easing the misery of those languishing away their lives in England’s crowded debtors’ prisons.
“Georgia really became a philanthropic endeavor,” noted Sullivan, a Darien native. “They had begun to look at ways to deal with debtors.”
But the whole debtor relief idea never really caught on, Sullivan said.
“Very few debtors ever came to Georgia, even though this is the reason Georgia was established,” Sullivan said.
But the colony was still infused with high ideals. For one, Georgia originally banned slavery. Also, hard liquor was not tolerated — colonists could quench their desires for alcohol with beer and wine only.
What the colonists did have was a tough and competent leader in Oglethorpe.
“Oglethorpe was the key to the whole thing, the glue that held it together,” Sullivan said. “I can’t emphasize enough how crucial Oglethorpe was to the colony of Georgia. He made it clear: if you don’t work, you don’t eat. He had a lot of energy and passion.”
The new colony also boasted almost complete religious freedom. The colony welcomed worshippers of all stripe, from the German Salzburgers to the Dutch Reform Church to the Presbyterian Scottish Highlanders. For that matter, some of the first Jews in the New World settled in Savannah. It seems everyone was welcome — except the Catholics. Catholics were banned from the colony.
However, this ban was largely a product of Britain’s long-standing feud with Spain, which was a nation of Catholics. Spain held a tenuous foothold in Florida while the British occupied everything to the north. Britain’s newest colony was considered disputed territory and a point of contention by the Spanish.
Britain’s first settlement in Georgia was Fort King George, established in 1721 near present day Darien. Fort Frederica came along in 1736, built along the Frederica River on St. Simons Island’s north end.
The fort’s soldiers included the sturdy Scottish Highlanders, renowned at the time for a deadly-efficient style of guerrilla warfare.
“Heaven forbid you make fun of the kilts they wore with their uniforms, because they were fierce warriors,” Sullivan said. “Fort Frederica was the most ambitious military fortification of its time in North America.”
All of which brings us to The War of Jenkins’ Ear. “It’s a very unusual name for a war, isn’t it?” Sullivan quipped.
The war that forever settled any claims Spain eyed north of Florida had as its origins an incident in 1731 in the West Indies. A Spanish military captain boarded the merchant ship of British sea trader and suspected smuggler Robert Jenkins. The captain demanded to see Jenkins’ papers. Jenkins refused. The captain grew irate. Very irate.
“He lost his temper, cut Jenkins’ ear off and stormed off,” Sullivan said. “Jenkins put the ear in a jar of brine, went on to London and said, ‘Here’s my ear. A Spanish captain cut if off and I did nothing to provoke him.’”
Oglethorpe went on the offensive in 1740, launching a failed attack on St. Augustine. Two years later, the Spanish came calling on St. Simons Island, bringing with them some 3,000 troops loaded onto about 40 ships.
After landing on the south end of St. Simons Island, the Spanish sent a reconnaissance force north to scout Fort Frederica. Instead, the Spanish stumbled into an ambush at Gully Hole Creek. Highlanders, soldiers and natives commanded by Oglethorpe fired away with devastating results on the Spanish, who left behind 36 dead or captured as they fled in panic.
By the time the legendary Battle of Bloody Marsh unfolded farther south on St. Simons Island later that day, Spanish commanders apparently were looking for any excuse to get off the island. After a comparatively benign exchange of gunfire, the Spanish boarded their ships and returned to Florida with tales of being woefully undermanned for the mission.
“I know we’ve all heard of Bloody Marsh, but the real battle was Gully Hole Creek,” Sullivan said. “It was much more important than what happened at Bloody Marsh. The Spanish were soundly defeated at Gully Hole Creek.”