The Origins of Portobello

The War for a Captains Ear 

Battle of Port Bello 1739

Battle of Port Bello 1739

In 1731 Captain Robert Jenkins commanding the brig Rebecca was returning to England from the West Indies. As well as doing legitimate trade Jenkins was involved in piracy and smuggling. His ship was boarded by the Spanish navy vessel La Isabella. Its commander Captain Julio León Fandino, had Captain Jenkins bound to the mast and sliced off one of his ears. It is reported that Fandino told Jenkins “tell your king that the same will happen to him if he is caught doing the same”. In 1738 Jenkins told his story to the House of Commons, producing what he claimed to be the very ear that had been cut off!  Seen as an insult to British honour, war was quickly declared against Spain which lasted from 1739-1742.

18th Century Porto Bello Map

18th Century Map of Porto Bello Panama

One of the first actions of the British Navy was to capture the Spanish held coastal town of Porto Bello in Panama. On the 22nd of November 1739, Porto Bello was attacked by six naval ships under the command of Admiral Edward Vernon, who captured and destroyed its fortifications, port and warehouses. In Britain the victory was greeted with much celebration, and it saw streets and towns in the British Isles named Portobello to memorialise the victory in Panama over the Spanish.

After the Porto Bello campaign former seaman George Hamilton who served in the naval battle brought a small piece of land near the coast of Edinburgh. He built a small cottage and named it Portobello and eventually the name was adopted by the surrounding settlement. The name was brought to the Otago Peninsula by the Scottish settler William Christie in 1840, who named the area after his birthplace. So our beautiful Peninsula town was named after a battle to defend the honour of a captain’s lost ear.

 

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