It’s an anniversary of sorts. It’s 200 years since the end of a war with a dull name and seven more years since the death that may have started it.
The death was that of British Royal Navy sailor Jenkin Ratford. He was hanged from the yard arm. The circumstances of Ratford’s capture precipitated popular feeling for a war. In fact the war could so easily have been called the war Jenkin’s Neck, echoing a conflict from the previous century, universally known as the War of Jenkins’ Ear.
That war, Jenkins’ Ear, was yet another bout between the European heavyweights, England and Spain in 1739. It came about after a Spanish naval captain cut off a Welsh merchant captain Robert Jenkins’ ear somewhere in the Caribbean. The aggrieved captain Jenkins came back to England with his ear in a jar and brandished it to MPs in the House of Commons, demanding action — and action he got.
As it was, the conflict between English and America after Jenkin’s neck was stretched got the unimaginatively prosaic title of The War of 1812.
Everyone has heard about press gangs, right? Londoner Jenkin Ratford had been ‘impressed’ into the British navy under that practice of quasi-enslavement popular with navy recruiters in the age of sail.
In March 1807 this unwilling 32-year old was on a British Man of War on station off the American coast. Jenkin Ratford and a bunch of other seaman were ordered to take a rowboat to retrieve an anchor. “Taking advantage of the dusk of the evening” they rowed like crazy for the shore and waded into America.
Seen in Norfolk, Virginia the next day, Jenkin was parading under an American flag and making his opinion of his old bosses pretty clear. This incensed British officers residing in town.
Not doing the sensible thing and getting as far inland as he could for a year or so, Jenkin rejoined the navy, only this time the American navy. Hearing that Jenkin was sailing on the USS Chesapeake bound for the Mediterranean gave the Royal Navy its chance. The ship was boarded by HMS Leopard just 14 miles off the US coast. Jenkin was found hiding in the coal hole. The Royal Navy affronted US sovereignty when it took him back from what was American territory. Jenkin ended up in Halifax, Nova Scotia for court martial.
His protestations that he hid in the coal hole to prevent his new American masters ordering him to fire on his British countrymen did not cut it at the trial. He knew things weren’t going well when he hear the presiding officer say: “I cannot flatter you with the least hopes of pardon. I, therefore, earnestly recommend your employing the short time you may have to live in making your peace with heaven.” On the last day of August 1807 at 9:15 in the morning Jenkin Ratford was left dangling, dead, above HMS Halifax, to discourage other sailors from deserting.
The mood to start a war comes about when populist outrage and geopolitical economic interests coincide. Often one feeds the other, which in turn sustains the first. The pride of the young nation was outraged that their colonial ex-masters — thrown off in the Revolutionary War less than 30 years before — should attempt to re-assert their will by boarding a vessel of the sovereign US Navy.
Of no small importance to the coming war was the fact that England was fighting Napoleon. America was neutral and businessmen were taking every advantage of the war in Europe. The country’s merchant fleet was growing in size exponentially, serving both the British and the French markets despite the best efforts of President Thomas Jefferson. Ironically, the US civilian fleet was largely crewed by English sailors. The underlying fear in London was that, not only was America helping the enemy during the war, but that when the war ended it could be a commercial rival to Britain’s maritime monopoly.
Then there was Canada. The British sought to keep America occupied by delaying its westward expansion, using incursions from client Native Americans or First Nationers. America toyed with the idea of annexing Canada in retaliation. Eventually the bubbling popular resentment of the British was translated into the Congress’ declaration of war in 1812.
Nowadays in Europe the War of 1812 is only vaguely recalled. Even at start of the war they had more than enough on their plates and were not best pleased at this new front opening up against them. The English were trying to win a land war against the French in Spain and maintain a Europe-wide naval blockade of French shipping, while Napoleon was keeping the allies busy by marching on Moscow. At the start of the War of 1812, the British could not spare men to fight it and the American army was woefully small and under-trained. In early 1814 with Napoleon’s abdication the British could send some of its battle hardened soldiery — but by then the American war machine too had professionalised itself.Actually neither side wanted to continue the war. It fizzled out until it ended messily — officially in December 1814 — though tell that to the 500 or so men who died at the battle of New Orleans, a skirmish which went on sporadically until early January. Some British troops did not get the message to stop until February 1815.
Jenkin would have been 40.