April 9 is Jenkins’ Ear Day

Today is Jenkins’ Ear Day, also known as Jenkins’s Ear Day. It commemorates an event that took place on April 9, 1731, and remains one of the strangest rationalizations for war in human history.

jenkins' ear dayIt’s difficult to find any time in the early 18th century when England and Spain weren’t at odds or war. At various points, diplomats were given the miserable task of trying to impose order. The Treaty of Utrecht of 1713 was one such attempt, signed as the War of Spanish Succession begun in 1700 wound down.

The agreement awarded England an exclusive 30-year contract to supply an unlimited number of slaves to the Spanish colonies. Although it allowed only 500 tons of goods per year, many traders, now able to weigh anchor for “legitimate” business purposes, used the opportunity to smuggle goods into and out of the Spanish colonies.

Skirmishes over trade and ongoing disputes about the contested land between the British colony of Georgia and Spanish-ruled Florida culminated in one of many Anglo-Spanish wars. Most historians agree it ran from 1727 to 1729; some say it began in 1726. With the level of hostility between the two nations, it was hard to tell when the war started.

In 1729, the Treaty of Seville was signed. One of its provisos gave the Spanish the right to board and search English vessels and to seize any contraband they found. It’s not surprising that mutual distrust and enmity resulted in the detainment and delay of many ships, regardless of suspicious activity. Captains began to report harrowing tales of abuse and theft of legal cargo.

One such incident occurred on April 9, 1731, when the crew of a Spanish sloop from Havana, Cuba, boarded the British ship Rebecca and claimed to have found contraband. Not much is known about Captain Robert Jenkins. In some accounts, he is described as a master mariner; in others, he is called a notorious smuggler.

Jenkins may or may not have been lashed to his ship’s mast and tortured by Spanish captain Juan de Leon Fandino. Someone drew his cutlass and sliced off Jenkins’ left ear. According to Jenkins’ account, the blade was not entirely successful in removing the ear. Another Spanish sailor then grabbed it, tore it off and handed it to Jenkins, who was told to present it to his king with the message that Fandino would do the same to him.

We can’t be sure of the details as we don’t know if anyone on the Rebecca spoke Spanish or Fandino’s crew, English. We assume it would have been hard for Jenkins to hear, what with only having the one ear and that most likely being filled with the sounds of his own screaming.

In any case, his traumatic auriculectomy didn’t garner much concern in Parliament, possibly because it was in no hurry to start a fresh war. Perhaps it wasn’t considered too upsetting because the cropping of ears (and noses) was a common punishment dating back to the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi in 1754 BC.

One case worth mentioning took place in 1538 when Englishman Thomas Barrie was pilloried in the Newbury town square. To intensify his humiliation, his ears were nailed to the pillory on either side of the head hole. At the end of the day, he was released by having his ears cut off. He later died of shock.

What was Barrie’s crime? He spread rumors that Henry VIII had died. This displeased the king, who was very much alive and not amused. Barrie was the proto-Twitter troll. Imagine if this punishment were still in use today. There would be a lot of people cupping their hands to their heads, saying, “What? What?”

Back to our story. In 1738, politicians sought to gain support for a new war. Victory was expected to provide new business opportunities in Spanish America in part by forcing Spain to honor (and renew) the slave trade treaty which would expire in a few years. They needed to drum up outrage to generate nationalistic fervor.

Jenkins was called to testify before the House of Commons. Apparently, he was still attached to his ear, although it was no longer attached to his body. Afterward, some stories claimed he took it from his pocket where it was wrapped in cotton wool. Others insisted he had pickled and stored it in a jar, which he held aloft so that every member of the august assemblage might be afforded an unimpeded view.

A flaw in this version of events is that parliamentary records, normally exhaustive, show only that he was called to appear on two separate occasions. Surely a man brandishing an ear would have been noticed. Even without the visual aid, his visit would almost certainly have been documented, especially when it was to be used for political purposes.

It’s more likely that he was at sea. He was a ship’s captain, after all. If he returned after the war began in 1739, he wouldn’t have been amazed, as some histories suggest, to find the conflict was named after his ear. It didn’t become known as the War of Jenkins’s Ear until Thomas Carlyle coined the term in 1858, 110 years after it concluded.

Have a happy Jenkins’ Ear Day!

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays


December 5 is Krampus

KrampusOn Santa’s List Day, we suggested that children who learn the list of who’s naughty and nice has been finalized might be tempted to misbehave in the remaining days before Christmas, with no fear of reprisal. Krampus, today’s holiday, should thoroughly dispel that idea.

Krampus may have originated as a pagan figure in Europe’s Alpine regions, becoming associated with St. Nicholas in the 17th century. The word Krampus is derived from the Old High German word for “claw”(Krampen). He is a goat-headed devil with fangs, a pointed tongue and two cloven hooves or one hoof and one human foot.

Unlike the Santa Claus of North American tradition, St. Nicholas only pays attention to the good children. He brings Krampus along on his rounds to deal with little miscreants for whom receiving a lump of coal is the least of their worries. He carries chains, birch branches or a whip to mete out punishment and sometimes a sack or basket to capture bad children so he can drown them, eat them or deliver them to Hell.

Europeans have been exchanging greeting cards featuring Krampus for two centuries. Greetings from the Krampus (Gruß vom Krampus) cards feature humorous verse and depict the devil looming over children or pursuing buxom women. Modern cards tend to have a cuter, less menacing version of Krampus.

Although its tastefulness and propriety have been questioned during the past century, the holiday’s popularity has grown; celebrations have cropped up all over North America, including Toronto, Dallas, Philadelphia and Washington, DC. We assume that the successful completion of chores has skyrocketed in those towns.

Happy Krampus!

Copyright 2016 Worldwide Weird Holidays

Columbus Day

Columbus Day might not seem to qualify as a weird holiday, but why not take a closer look?  Why do we celebrate the second Monday in October every year? How did this become a federal holiday in 1968? A Congressional Research Service report entitled Federal Holidays: Evolution and Application explains:

By commemorating Christopher Columbus’s remarkable voyage, the nation honored the courage and determination of generation after generation of immigrants seeking freedom and opportunity in America….Such a holiday would also provide “an annual reaffirmation by the American people of their faith in the future, a declaration of willingness to face with confidence the imponderables of unknown tomorrows.

christopher columbusAlthough that’s a laudable goal, most of us have outgrown the sanitized version of events we learned in school. Can we celebrate the beauty of an idea while acknowledging the ugliness beneath the surface? It’s a complex subject, worthy of impassioned debate. For our purposes, however, let’s lighten the mood and debunk a few myths about Christopher Columbus.

MYTH: Columbus set sail to prove that the world was round.

Roughly 2,000 years before Columbus’ voyage, Aristotle showed the earth’s spherical nature by pointing out the curved shadow it casts on the moon. By Columbus’ time, virtually all educated people believed that the earth was not flat.

Columbus was a self-taught man who greatly underestimated the Earth’s circumference. He also thought Europe was wider than it was and that Japan was farther from the coast of China than it was. He believed he could reach Asia by sailing west, a concept considered foolish by many—not because the Earth was flat, but because Columbus’ math was so wrong. Columbus essentially got lucky by bumping into land that, of course, wasn’t Asia.

The flat-earth myth perhaps originated with Washington Irving’s 1828 biography of Columbus; there’s no evidence of it before the book’s publication. His crew wasn’t scared of falling off the Earth. Irving’s romanticized version, however, made Columbus an enlightened hero overcoming myth and superstition and that is what became enshrined in history.

MYTH: Columbus discovered America in 1492.

The first Native Americans likely arrived in North America via a land-bridge across the Bering Sound during the last ice age, roughly 20,000 to 30,000 years ago. When Europeans arrived, there were approximately 10 million Native Americans in the area north of present-day Mexico.

If Columbus discovered America, he didn’t know it. For the rest of his life, he claimed to have landed in Asia, even though most navigators knew he hadn’t.

What Columbus “discovered” was the Bahamian archipelago and then the island that now comprises Haiti and the Dominican Republic. On subsequent voyages, he went farther south, to Central and South America. He never got close to what is now called the United States.

MYTH: Columbus did nothing of significance.

While Columbus was wrong about many things, he contributed to knowledge about trade winds, specifically the lower-latitude easterlies that blow toward the Caribbean and the higher-latitude westerlies that can blow a ship back to Western Europe. His voyages initiated the pilgrimage of Europeans to both North and South America.

News of his landing’s success spread like wildfire and set the stage for an era of European conquest. We can argue whether that was good or bad for humanity—that is, the spread of Christianity, rise of modernism, exploitation and annihilation of native cultures, and so on. But it ‘s hard to deny Columbus’ direct role in quickly and radically changing the world.

CRS Report for Congress –
Top 5 Misconceptions about Columbus –
American Myths: Christopher Columbus –

Copyright 2016 Worldwide Weird Holidays