War of Jenkins' Ear: Admiral Edward Vernon

Edward Vernon
Admiral Edward Vernon. Photograph Source: Public Domain

A distinguished officer in the Royal Navy, Admiral Edward Vernon's career commenced in 1700 and spanned a period of 46 years. This saw him learn his trade under Admiral Cloudesley Shovell before establishing himself as a rising star in the ranks. Vernon saw active service in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) and later in the War of Jenkins' Ear and the War of the Austrian Succession. Though he won a triumph at Porto Bello in 1739, he is best remembered for his invention of "grog", a rum and water mixture, that was provided to the sailors in his fleets. Grog would go on to become a staple of Royal Navy life until 1970.

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 sons 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 (70) in March 1701 before joining HMS Mary (60) that summer.

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 (20), 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.

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.

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.

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. As Vernon was known as "Old Grog" for his habit of wearing grogham coats, the new drink became known as grog. Some have argued that Vernon dictated the addition of citrus juice to the mixture which would led to much-reduced rates of scurvy and other diseases in his fleet as it would have added a daily dose of Vitamin C. This appears to be a misreading of his original orders and was not part of the original recipe.

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.

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 an 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.