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Punch strainer

Punch strainer Silver with engraved text on handles,
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Boston silversmith William Breed crafted this punch strainer from silver captured by John Vryling during the Siege of Cartagena in 1741.

Admiral Edward Vernon of the Royal Navy

British Admiral Edward "Old Grog" Vernon (1684-1757) lives on in memory for the sailor's drink of diluted rum--grog--that he introduced to the Royal Navy, supposedly named for the coarse-woven grogram coat that he habitually wore, and in the name of George Washington's home, Mount Vernon, given the name by Washington's elder brother Lawrence, who had served with Vernon. In his own lifetime, however, Vernon was best known for a series of attacks he led against Spain's colonies in the Caribbean. His career reached its apogee during the War of Jenkins's Ear (1739-1742) when he captured Porto Bello (present-day Portobelo in Panama) and led a massive expedition against Cartagena de Indias (now the city of Cartagena in Columbia).

The War of Jenkins's Ear

Although following the War of Spanish Succession, Great Britain had Spain's permission to trade with and import slaves to her American colonies, smugglers took advantage of the situation, exacerbating tensions between the two powers. In 1731, while searching a British ship for contraband, a Spanish Guarda Costa (coast guard) officer cut off the ear of one Captain Robert Jenkins, who later appeared before Parliament to protest this treatment, displaying his pickled ear in a jar, and providing the colorful name for the conflict that followed.

Britain declared war on Spain on 23 October 1739 and Admiral Edward Vernon--who had announced in Parliament that he could take the harbor of Porto Bello "with six ships only"--was given a small fleet and set out to make good on his boast, taking Porto Bello in November 1739. This victory unleashed a frenzy of celebrations in Britain, accompanied by an inordinate number of commemorative medals. The harbor and fort of Chagres were next to fall. In 1741, augmented by a combined military force of army regulars and a regiment enlisted from Britain's American colonies, Vernon prosecuted an amphibious attack against Cartagena de Indias. Spanish commander Blas de Lezo mounted a brilliant defense which, combined with the effects of tropical diseases on the British forces, proved successful in defeating them. After an ineffectual sortie against Cuba, Vernon was eventually recalled to England, and the focus of the war shifted to the Mediterranean and merged into the War of Austrian Succession (King George's War in North America).

John Vryling, an American Volunteer in Vernon's Campaigns

Responding to the call for colonial volunteers for Admiral Vernon's Cartagena expedition, John Vryling (1714-1744), a Boston merchant and member of the Old South Church, was commissioned as an ensign in Colonel William Gooch's "American" Regiment--a unit of the British Army raised in North America in 1740. Vryling sailed for Jamaica with his regiment in October that year. Yellow fever and other diseases reduced the regiment by a third during the 1741 assault on Cartagena, but Vernon and his military counterpart Thomas Wentworth felt that an offer of land would prove an irresistible draw to sign up new American recruits for an assault on Cuba. Vryling was one of the group chosen to return to Boston with a letter from Wentworth extolling their base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba as "a very rich and fruitful part of the island," and downplaying the reports of illness and loss of life that had reached the northern colonies. Despite rumors circulating about the defeat at Cartagena and the true state of affairs in Cuba, the recruiting captains managed to sign up about fifty volunteers. Vryling returned to the West Indies to serve, making one last visit to Boston in July 1742 to recruit men for a proposed attack on Panama. When the American regiment was disbanded, Vryling returned to Boston where he died in 1744.

Plundered Silver Becomes a Punch Strainer

Between 1742 and 1744, Boston silversmith William Breed made this silver punch strainer for John Vryling, engraved on the handles, top and bottom in Latin that translated reads: "Made from silver that was among the plunder on Sunday 12 April 1741, at besieged Cartagena in New Spain, John Vryling received," with a reference to Virgil's lines from The Aeneid when Aeneas tells his shipwrecked and exhausted crew: "Perhaps some day you will rejoice to recall even this." The provenance of the strainer is further engraved on it, again from the Latin: "In memory of the departed, John Vryling, who died 25 November, 1744; his heirs gave it to his relative and dear friend, Jonathan Tyng" and "At whose death it came to John Loring."

Precious Metals: From Au to Zn, An Exhibition

Whether gold or common copper and zinc, coins and medals are precious for their immediate connection to persons, places, and times past. Between 2 August and 2 October, the Massachusetts Historical Society invites you to enjoy a look at our nation's history through coins, tokens, paper currency, and medals, including the plundered silver in John Vryling's punch strainer and examples of the medals struck to celebrate Admiral Vernon's victories--and even some campaigns that he did not wage--in an exhibition titled, "Precious Metals: From Au to Zn.." The guest curator for the exhibition, John W. Adams, is the author of five books and numerous articles on numismatic subjects, including, with Dr. Fernando Chao (h) and the collaboration of MHS Curator of Art, Anne E. Bentley, an encyclopedic study of the Vernon medals, Medalic Portraits of Admiral Vernon: Medals Sometimes Lie (2010).The exhibition is free and open to the public, Monday-Saturday, 1:00-4:00 PM.For further information contact Anne Bentley at abentley@masshist.org.

Sources for Further Reading

Harding, Richard. Amphibious Warfare in the Eighteenth Century: The British Expedition to the West Indies, 1740-1742, vol. 62 of Royal Historical Society Studies in History. Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1991.

Ranfft, B. McL. The Vernon Papers, vol. 99 of Publications of the Navy Records Society. London: Navy Records Society, 1958.

For an account of the specific battles of Vernon's campaigns in the Caribbean and the ensuing medals, see:

Adams, John W. and Fernando Chao (h). Medallic Portraits of Admiral Vernon: Medals Sometimes Lie. Gahanna, Ohio: Kolbe & Fanning, 2010.


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