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Starr Center for the

Study of the American Experience

The Voyage of the “Revenge”: Making the World Safe for Slavery in the War of Jenkins’s Ear, a talk by Starr Center Fellow Peter Silver

Date: 5:30pm EDT April 24, 2013

The C.V. Starr Center’s 2012 Hodson Trust-John Carter Brown Fellow Returns to Washington College 

The crew of the “Revenge,” a Rhode Island privateer that cruised against Spanish shipping in the War of Jenkins’s Ear (1739–1743), saw and took part in some of the most emblematic episodes of the war—an Anglo-Spanish conflict, which started promisingly for Britons but ended in fiasco and disaster. The cockpit for the fighting was the Caribbean and the southeast coast of North America, where the tiny, militarized outpost of Georgia teetered between one geographic zone of wholesale African enslavement, in South Carolina, and another of slave liberation, in Spanish Florida. During the war, Georgia’s half-mad commanding general, James Oglethorpe, launched futile attacks against Florida to end its threat to British slave colonies, only to face counter-invasion by free black soldiers from the Spanish Caribbean. The war helped to bring about fires, riots, revivals, the assembling of the largest armada ever seen in the Americas, and an accelerating sequence of slave-revolt panics that stretched from the sugar islands north to New York, where dozens of African ‘conspirators’ were burned and hanged. And the fighting overlapped with many of the English-speaking world’s sharpest transformations, as Britain’s uncoordinated settlements were first imagined as an empire.

This talk, part of a larger, hemispheric history of the War of Jenkins’s Ear, illuminates the reasons for English-speakers’ failure to bring about the sweeping changes to the New World’s power system—setting up client states in South America, unleashing a wave of native insurrections against Spanish rule—that they had begun the war hoping to gain. A war that English-speakers eagerly sought out, as a way to redress the racial balance between their sphere and that of the Spanish—to squelch African insurrections, invigorate the slave trade, put an end to threats of invasion, assert their own honor and mastery over their trade, their cities, their slaves, and themselves—instead led, in the end, to crises that threatened the stability of English-speaking slavery and put the simple survival of British colonies in question.

These events, seen from the deck of the “Revenge” and the shores it floated past, can help us to understand the unexpected impact of war on a fledgling empire that was as loud for liberty as it was eager to enslave.


Peter Silver teaches early American history at Rutgers University. He is the author of Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America (W. W. Norton & Co., 2008), which was awarded the Bancroft Prize and Mark Lynton History Prize in 2008. He grew up in Richmond, Indiana, was educated at Harvard College and Yale University, and was in residence at Washington College during summer 2012 as the Starr Center’s Hodson Trust–John Carter Brown fellow. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.