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War of Jenkins' Ear: Admiral Edward Vernon

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War of Jenkins' Ear: Admiral Edward Vernon

Admiral Edward Vernon

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Edward Vernon - Early Life & Career:

Born November 12, 1684 in London, Edward Vernon was the son of James Vernon, secretary of state to King William III. Raised in the city, he received some education at the Westminster School before entering the Royal Navy on May 10, 1700. A popular school for the son of well-placed Britons, Westminster later produced both Thomas Gage and John Burgoyne who would play key roles in the American Revolution. Assigned to HMS Shrewsbury (80 guns), Vernon possessed more education than most his peers. Remaining aboard for less than a year, he shifted to HMS Ipswich in March 1701 before joining HMS Mary (60) that summer.

Edward Vernon - War of the Spanish Succession:

With the War of the Spanish Succession raging, Vernon received a promotion to lieutenant on September 16, 1702 and was transferred to HMS Lennox (80). After service with the Channel Squadron, Lennox sailed for the Mediterranean where it remained until 1704. When the ship was paid off, Vernon moved to Admiral Cloudesley Shovell's flagship, HMS Barfleur (90). Serving in the Mediterranean, he experienced combat during the capture of Gibraltar and Battle of Malaga. Becoming a favorite of Shovell, Vernon followed the admiral to HMS Britannia (100) in 1705 and aided in the capture of Barcelona.

Rapidly rising through the ranks, Vernon was elevated to captain on January 22, 1706 at the age of twenty-one. First assigned to HMS Dolphin, he shifted to HMS Rye (32) a few days later. After taking part in the failed 1707 campaign against Toulon, Vernon sailed with Shovell's squadron for Britain. Nearing the British Isles, several of Shovell's ships were lost in the Scilly Naval Disaster which saw four ships sunk and 1,400-2,000 men killed, including Shovell, due to a navigational error. Saved from the rocks, Vernon arrived home and received command of HMS Jersey (50) with orders to oversee the West Indies station.

Edward Vernon - Member of Parliament:

Arriving in the Caribbean, Vernon campaigned against the Spanish and broke up an enemy naval force near Cartagena in 1710. He returned home at the war's end in 1712. Between 1715 and 1720, Vernon commanded various vessels in home waters and in the Baltic before serving as commodore at Jamaica for a year. Coming ashore in 1721, Vernon was elected to Parliament from Penryn a year later. A staunch advocate for the navy, he was vocal in debates regarding military matters. As tensions with Spain increased, Vernon returned to the fleet in 1726 and took command of HMS Grafton (70).

After cruising to the Baltic, Vernon joined the fleet at Gibraltar in 1727 after Spain declared war. He remained there until fighting ended a year later. Returning to Parliament, Vernon continued to champion maritime matters and argued against continued Spanish interference with British shipping. As relations between the two countries worsened, Vernon advocated for Captain Robert Jenkins who had his ear cut off by the Spanish Coast Guard in 1731. Though wishing to avoid war, First Minister Robert Walpole ordered additional troops to be sent to Gibraltar and ordered a fleet to sail for the Caribbean.

Edward Vernon - War of Jenkins' War:

Promoted to vice admiral on July 9, 1739, Vernon was given six ships of the line and ordered to attack Spanish commerce and settlements in the Caribbean. As his fleet sailed west, Britain and Spain severed relations and the War of Jenkins' Ear began. Descending on the poorly defended Spanish town of Porto Bello, Panama, he quickly captured it on November 21 and remained there for three weeks. The victory led to the naming of Portobello Road in London and public debut of the song Rule, Britannia!. For his achievement, Vernon was hailed as a hero and was granted Freedom of the City of London.

Edward Vernon - Old Grog:

The following year saw Vernon order that the daily rum ration provided to the sailors be watered down to three parts water and one part rum in an effort to reduce drunkenness. To offset the often brackish taste of the water, lemon or lime juice was added to the mixture. As Vernon was known as "Old Grog" for his habit of wearing grogham coats, the new drink became known as grog. Though unknown at the time, the addition of citrus juice led to much-reduced rates of scurvy and other diseases in Vernon's fleet as the grog provided a daily dose of Vitamin C.

Edward Vernon - Failure at Cartagena:

In an effort to follow up Vernon's success at Porto Bello, in 1741 he was given a large fleet of 186 ships and 12,000 soldiers led by Major General Thomas Wentworth. Moving against Cartagena, Colombia, British forces were hampered by frequent disagreements between the two commanders and delays ensued. Due to the prevalence of disease in the region, Vernon was skeptical of the operation's success. Arriving in early March 1741, British efforts to take the city were plagued by a lack of supplies and rampaging disease.

Endeavoring to defeat the Spanish, Vernon was forced to withdraw after sixty-seven days which saw around a third of his force lost to enemy fire and disease. Among those to take part in the campaign was George Washington's brother, Lawrence, who named his plantation "Mount Vernon" in the admiral's honor. Sailing north, Vernon captured Guantánamo Bay, Cuba and desired to move against Santiago de Cuba. This effort failed due to heavy Spanish resistance and Wentworth's incompetence. With the failure of British operations in the region, both Vernon and Wentworth were recalled in 1742.

Edward Vernon - A Return to Parliament:

Returning to Parliament, now representing Ipswich, Vernon continued to battle on behalf of the Royal Navy. Critical of the Admiralty, he may have authored several anonymous pamphlets which attacked its leadership. Despite his actions, he was promoted to admiral 1745, and took command of the North Sea Fleet in and effort to prevent French aid from reaching Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) and the Jacobite Rebellion in Scotland. Having been refused in his request to be named Commander-in-Chief he elected to step down on December 1. The following year, with the pamphlets circulating, he was removed from the Royal Navy's list of flag officers.

An avid reformer, Vernon remained in Parliament and worked to improve the Royal Navy's operations, protocols, and fighting instructions. Many of the changes he worked for aided in the Royal Navy's dominance in the Seven Years' War. Vernon continued to serve in Parliament until his death at his estate in Nacton, Suffolk on October 30, 1757. Buried at Nacton, Vernon's nephew had a monument erected to his memory at Westminster Abbey.

Selected Sources

  • Royal Naval Museum: Admiral Edward Vernon
  • The Royal Navy: A History from the Earliest Times to Present
  • Westminster Abbey: Edward Vernon

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