Here Are 10 of the Pettiest Conflicts from History that Will Make You Shake Your Head
Here Are 10 of the Pettiest Conflicts from History that Will Make You Shake Your Head

Here Are 10 of the Pettiest Conflicts from History that Will Make You Shake Your Head

D.G. Hewitt - March 18, 2018

Here Are 10 of the Pettiest Conflicts from History that Will Make You Shake Your Head
Jenkins brought his ear back to show the British Premier, sparking action. New Historian.

The War of Jenkins’ Ear

Over the centuries, the Brits have fought countless wars, not least in the name of ensuring that the British Empire continued to reign supreme. But no conflict can match this one when it comes to strange names – and even more bizarre backgrounds. For, while the war may well have had complex roots, there was indeed an ear involved, even if the appendage was used as an excuse to stir up hostilities rather than being the sole cause of the first shot being fired. But first, a little background…

Under the terms of 1729’s Treaty of Seville, Spain earned the right to board British ships sailing in its waters in order to check that they were complying with long drawn-up trade rules. While the two countries were not at war, there was some serious distrust between them, and Spanish sailors would often rough up their British counterparts, not least when they were suspicious that a ship was going over the agreed limit for transporting slaves or other precious cargo. It was in such a tense atmosphere that in October of 1731 Spanish patrol boat stopped and boarded a British ship being skippered by Captain Robert Jenkins in the West Indies.

After boarding the ship, the skipper of the Spanish vessel sought out his opposite number and, upon accusing him of smuggling, proceeded to cut one of his ears clean off. Now, while this may have been a traumatic event for poor Captain Jenkins, the news hardly caused a murmur back in England. Indeed, even the sight of the detached ear, preserved in a jar of a pickle by the angry Jenkins, failed to get the British government rattling their sabres. Much to the disgust and disappointment of Captain Jenkins, it looked like the act would go unpunished. But then, things changed.

In the spring of 1738, almost seven full years after the ear had been cut off, the British public was at fever pitch, riled by numerous stories of Spanish outrages on vessels flying the Union Jack. Opponents of the Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole accused him of lacking the necessary toughness or leadership skills to deal with the growing Spanish menace on the high seas. The PM’s critics summoned Jenkins to Parliament. And, like every old sea dog, he was only too happy to tell his story again, even bringing along his pickled ear to show the house.

The PR stunt did the trick. Walpole could ignore the public sentiment or his political opponents no longer, so from October of 1739, he ordered the British Navy to start attacking Spanish vessels in the Caribbean Sea. The naval skirmishes continued for seven years, finally being brought to an end by a treaty signed in Lisbon in August 1746. By this point, however, the conflict had become just part of the wider struggle that would become known as the War of the Austrian Succession, a Europe-wide set-to that involved everyone from Prussia to the Dutch Republic and even Russia. In fact, this small incident might have been lost to history had it not been for the essayist and historian Thomas Carlyle. It was he, writing in 1858, who coined the term the War of Jenkins Ear, a name that has stuck until today.

Here Are 10 of the Pettiest Conflicts from History that Will Make You Shake Your Head
The French navy set sail to fight the Pastry War with Mexico.

The Pastry War

It may sound like a televised baking competition, but the Pastry War was an actual war fought between Mexico and France for several weeks in the 1830s. And yes, it did involve pastries, even if an unpaid bill for sweet treats was only the final straw that ignited simmering tensions between the two countries. And, while it may be one of the silliest-named conflicts in the history of warfare, it was not without bloodshed. In fact, by the time it was over, the Pastry War had claimed more than 300 lives and had a major impact on the development of the young Mexican republic.

Even though it managed to win its independence from Spain in 1821, the new Mexican republic was far from a paradise. In fact, for the first few years of its existence, the fledgling nation was a hotspot of conflicts both big and small. Rebels keen to get a good deal for themselves under the new regime fought running battles with the Mexican government, often rioting in the streets and looting everywhere they went. In 1832, this civil unrest came to Tacubuya, a barrio on the edges of Mexico City, and a pastry shop belonging to a certain Monsieur Remontel was targeted.

Now, while the average Mexican citizen had nowhere to turn if their property was damaged in the rioting, foreigners were usually able to get compensation from the Mexican government. As such, the distraught French baker went to the authorities to claim compensation. When this was not forthcoming, he took his complaint directly to King Louis-Phillipe of France, saying that he was owed a massive 60,000 pesos, even though his shop had been valued at a mere 1,000 pesos. This was far from the only such claim the French monarch had received. Indeed, dozens of such complaints from French citizens living in Mexico had been sent to Paris in the months and years following 1821. The King was forced to act.

In the spring of 1838, then, Louis-Phillipe called on President Anastasio Bustamente to pay France 600,000 pesos in compensation. When the President did no such thing, the King sent his navy to blockade all of Mexico’s Atlantic ports. Caught in a stalemate, the Mexican leader soon ordered all men of fighting age to be mobilized and, on 27 November 1838, he declared war on France. However, despite this signal of strength, Mexico soon received a bloody nose, with the French marines easily capturing the important port of Veracruz. The Mexicans hit back. The military legend Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana came out of retirement and fought the French at Veracruz, though he ended up losing a leg in the fighting. His loss was not in vain, however. The French were forced to the negotiating table and a treaty was signed on 9 March 1839.

Under the terms of the deal, Mexico agreed to pay those 600,000 pesos, though actually sending the money to Paris turned out to be a different matter altogether. Whether or not Monsieur Remontel ever got any money back for his ruined pastry shop is, however, sadly lost to the pages of history.

Here Are 10 of the Pettiest Conflicts from History that Will Make You Shake Your Head
The British fought after their honor was hurt by the felling of their flag.

The Flagstaff War

While certainly not pointless – and certainly not to the New Zealand natives – the Flagstaff War is a prime example of a conflict that could have been easily avoided. Indeed, with a little more common sense and a touch of diplomacy, and a little less hot-headedness, the bloody fighting that gripped the small town of Kororareka in the 1840s might have been avoided altogether, saving as many as 200 lives and improving relations between the British and the Maoris who challenged their authority.

Certainly, the Maoris living in the Bay of Islands region of New Zealand had reason to feel aggrieved. While some leaders of the native people, including a tribal leader by the name of Hone Heke, had initially agreed to the British presence in the Bay of Islands, they would become markedly less enthusiastic following the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. That agreement had a massive impact on the local economy, keeping whaling ships away from the town of Kororareka and the Bay of Islands in general. Simmering tensions between the British and the Maori came to a head in 1844 and in July of that year, Hone Heke decided to send out a clear signal of local feelings by chopping down the town’s flagstaff.

Rather than letting the matter lie, the British troops in the town took offense at the act of vandalism and swiftly erected a new flagstaff. Hone Heke returned to town and proceeded to chop this one down. A third one was then put up, only for it too to be chopped down. Then a fourth was put up, this time fortified with iron, and acting on orders from London, the British warned Hone Heke and his supporters that any more acts of vandalism would not go unpunished. Such tough words were a spectacular own-goal and failure of democracy. Far from cooling tensions, they made matters worse and on 11 March 1845, what started out as a minor sideshow became something much more serious.

Along with his tribe, Hone Heke rode into town and killed the innocent townsfolk. The British garrison was also attacked and soon overran. In all, an estimated 164 Maori warriors were killed, along with as many as 94 Brits. The fighting directly caused by the chopping down of the flagstaff would rage and simmer for ten long months. At the time, the British felt that it had been worth it. The rebellion was quashed and future subversion discouraged. At the same time, however, the British never did raise their flag again over the town of Kororareka, handing a symbolic victory to the Maori.

Here Are 10 of the Pettiest Conflicts from History that Will Make You Shake Your Head
When the British ambassador set on The Golden Stool, violence erupted.

War of the Golden Stool

Diplomats are supposed to display tact and common sense at all times. Sadly, however, they are often only too human, and the history books are full of examples of ambassadors and other dignitaries making monumentally stupid – and offensive – errors of judgment. But arguably no diplomatic faux-pas was quite so stupid as that committed by Sir Frederick Mitchell Hodgson in March 1900. This massive failure in diplomacy led to what’s now known as the War of the Golden Stool and ultimately caused around 3,000 casualties. And yes, the incident that sparked off all the fighting really did involve a golden stool.

But not just any golden stool. For the Ashanti of western Africa (now modern-day Ghana), the Golden Stool was the very embodiment of their people. And, even though their own king, Premeph I, had been forced into exile with the arrival of the British, the fancy seat was seen to embody not only his enduring power, but also that of the rulers who had gone before him and also those that were still to come. In short, no one object was more sacred to the Ashanti than the golden stool, and a sensible diplomat would have recognized this. Not so Sir Frederick.

With British troops having successfully put down skirmishes and small uprisings by the Ashanti people, Sir Frederick was tasked with leading a small delegation of soldiers and dignitaries into the city of Kumasi. At first, it looked like the visit was going well. Local children sang the British national anthem to Sir Frederick and his wife, and the Ashanti leaders gathered to hear what the representative of the Empire had to say. But then, it all went wrong. Not only did Sir Frederick demand to be given the Golden Stool to be seated on that day, he also demanded it be handed over, to be taken to Queen Victoria back in London.

No sooner had Sir Frederick spoken these words than the assembled crowds started to rebel. One local leader ran home and pulled together a small legion of men prepared to fight the British. The Brits retreated to their stockade. Unable to match the British on a military level, the Ashanti instead tried to starve their foes. The tactic started working as the British started to succumb to hunger and disease. Realizing to stay put was to die, Hodgson, his wife and around 100 men escaped and managed to get help.

The British would go on to take their revenge. Many of the rebels were persecuted and the city of Kumasi was indeed annexed and made part of the Empire. But they didn’t get it all their own way. The Ashanti enjoyed much more freedom than most other people under British imperial rule. More importantly, the Brits never got their hands on the Golden Stool. So, while the Ashanti may have lost the battle, they kept their dignity and arguably won the moral victory.

Here Are 10 of the Pettiest Conflicts from History that Will Make You Shake Your Head
Football riots escalated into full-on war between El Salvador and Honduras.

The Football War

The legendary Liverpool Football Club managed Bill Shankly once famously declared: “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.” Wise words indeed when you consider how much fighting and rioting has taken place due to grievances related to the world’s most popular sport. But only once has a football match led to the start of a war, or at least been the trigger that caused long-standing tensions to finally explode into full-on fighting. That happened in June 1969, with a World Cup qualifying match between Honduras and El Salvador.

It’s important to note that, while the two nations were certainly fierce rivals on the pitch, there was much more to this than just football. In 1962, Honduras passed a milestone land reform bill that took land away from global corporations and put it back in the hands of its own people. The problem is, the law also saw huge numbers of Salvadorians lose out, too. Millions who had crossed the border to work the land were expelled from Honduras, causing bad blood between the people and their governments.

So, when the two nations met for the first of two games in June 1969, things were on the brink of boiling over. Honduras narrowly won the first match, but then El Salvador tied the series with victory in their own capital just three weeks later. Both games were accompanied by riots, though peace was preserved. However, a third game was then required, to be played in neutral Mexico City. El Salvador won the game 3-2, and then all hell broke loose. After weeks of hostile comments, El Salvador finally took action, deploying a makeshift air force. They succeeded in knocking out the Honduran air defenses and the Salvadoran ground forces also made impressive progress too.

The next day, however, Honduras hit back. It sent its own planes to attack ports and oil refineries across the border. Fortunately, sanity prevailed. Perhaps fearful that the international community would punish them both for going to war, Honduras and El Salvador sat down and agreed to a ceasefire on 20 July. In total, the fighting had lasted less than 100 hours after having been sparked off by a football match. But the effects would be felt in the region for years to come. In both countries, the military came to the fore, with defense spending up and social spending down and even today, the two countries maintain a fierce rivalry, both on and off the football pitch.

Here Are 10 of the Pettiest Conflicts from History that Will Make You Shake Your Head
Australia went to war with emus – and the emus won. IFLScience.

The Emu War

Over the centuries, nation has fought against nation, village against village and even family against family. But in the early 1930s, a whole country went to war against some animals. The ‘Emu War’ of 1932 saw Australia mobilize its troops to fight back against an avian invasion, using what was then the very latest in military technology. Victory for the Australian army would have been a formality, right? Think again.

For the typical Australian farmer, the emu was a formidable foe. Having been introduced into the country several decades earlier, by the 1920s, they had become a real menace. Not only did they eat huge amounts of crops, they also destroyed fences put down to stop rabbits. Since many farmers were World War I veterans, working the land that had been gifted to them after coming home from the bloody conflict, they believed that the problem could be easily fixed with the use of machine guns. After all, having seen for themselves the power of automatic weapons on the Western Front, they felt they would be able to fix the problem almost overnight.

Australia’s Minister of Defense, Sir George Pearce, agreed. It was he who declared war on the emus in October of 1932, though he declined the farmers’ offer of help. Instead, he deployed the army, hopeful that the exercise would not only help the farming community but serve as good target practice for the soldiers. Such high hopes were soon dashed. As well as having to deal with jammed guns and bad weather, the soldiers failed to kill the fast-moving emus. In fact, by the end of the first week of the war, just 500 birds had been killed, thousands less than the original target.

Before long, word of the army’s struggle began to spread. The newspapers mocked their ineptitude while animal-lovers condemned the war as inhumane. After the failed first onslaught, a second wave of attacks was ordered to take place in November 1932, but these were even less successful. In the battle between man and emu, the emu came out on top, much to the dismay of Australia’s farmers. To this day, the bird roams wild throughout Australia, though, for the most part, fences now succeed in keeping them off farmland.

Here Are 10 of the Pettiest Conflicts from History that Will Make You Shake Your Head
When King Alfonso XII was insulted in France, a Spanish village declared war. Random History.

The Village of Lijar Versus France

In November of 1983, a war that had been raging for 100 years finally came to an end. However, it was a conflict that caused precisely zero casualties and one which hardly anyone even knew was being fought in the first place. The belligerents? The nation of France and the tiny Spanish town of Vijar. This truly was a real David versus Goliath story, albeit one where David never had to back up his bravado with any real fighting.

This quirky episode from history began in October 1883, when King Alfonso XII of Spain was visiting Paris. Word reached Spain that their monarch had been insulted by a braying mob while in the French capital. The nation was shocked and offended. But King Alfonso himself did not want to make a diplomatic incident out of the minor affair. Not so the people of Lijar, a small town in the province of Almeria, in the south of Spain. The town’s mayor, a man named Miguel Garcia, felt he had to take a stand and so he declared war on France.

Citing the people’s resistance to Napoleon a century before, the major declared that his small village was “worth more than 10,000 Frenchmen”. Fired by his rhetoric, the people of Lijar agreed with their leader and voted unanimously to back the declaration of war. They told the Spanish government of their decision and asked that Madrid inform their counterparts in Paris.

Quite whether the message was passed on to the French leaders is another matter entirely. Certainly, it doesn’t seem to have bothered France. Over the years, not a single shot was fired or a single prisoner was taken by either side. In fact, the war was only kept alive by the people of Lijar, with fathers informing sons of the conflict. However, 100 years after it started, the townsfolk decided to extend the olive branch and call a unanimous ceasefire. France could once again breathe easy, safe in the knowledge that a community of just 580 people had no intention of invading.

Here Are 10 of the Pettiest Conflicts from History that Will Make You Shake Your Head
War of the Bucket. Alchetron.

The War of the Oaken Bucket

The people of Italy have long been infamous for their hot-headed nature and passionate temperament, not least when it comes to defending their town’s honor. So, it’s perhaps no surprise that, in 1325, two neighboring communities really did go to war over a stolen bucket, with 2,000 people killed or injured in the fighting. But, like all wars fought over seemingly trivial matters, there’s more here than meets the eye…

Fourteenth-century Italy was comprised of several city-states, chief among them Bologna and Modena. Now, as well as the usual disputes about borders and territory, these two city-states also took very different views on who should be the leader of the world’s Catholics. While Modena backed the Holy Roman Emperor, their neighbors in Bologna backed the Pope. It was this which was the underlying cause of the many skirmishes that took place during the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. But the hostility never escalated above small fights at border hotspots. There was never a full-on battle, let alone a war. Until that is, some Modenese soldiers snuck across the border with designs on a precious bucket.

The bucket was installed in the main city wall, in the heart of Bologna. It was more ceremonial than practical and was usually filled with treasure and so heavily guarded. Nevertheless, the Modenese soldiers succeeded in their mission and took the bucket away with them. Humiliated, Bologna demanded it back. When Modena refused, they received a declaration of war. The two sides met at the town of Zappolino, in Bolognese territory. Despite the fact Bologna had 32,000 men and Modena just 7,000, the Battle of Zappolino ended in humiliation for them. They were routed on their own soil and, to make matters worse, another bucket was stolen from a town well.

The fighting ended as quickly as it began and the two city-states returned to a footing of cautious peace. There would, of course, be fighting in the decades and centuries to come, but the Battle of the Bucket was over in a day. The victorious Modenese held onto their trophy and to this day, a wooden bucket is proudly displayed in a Modena museum. So far, Bologna hasn’t mustered an army to win it back.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“San Juan Island: The Pig War”. National Park Service.

“Roll Over and Play Dead: The Ridiculous War of the Stray Day”. Military History Now, 2012

“The War of Jenkins’ Ear”. Daryl Worthington,, April 2015

“Pastry War”. Encyclopedia Britannica.

“The Northern War”. New Zealand History.

“Has football ever started a war?” The Guardian, February 2007.

“Little Spanish Town Offended by French Ends 100-Year War”. Tom Burns, The Washington Post, November 1983.

“Looking Back: Australia’s Emu Wars”. Jasper Garner Gore, Australian Geographic, November 2016.

“The War of the Oaken Bucket”. The Daily Beagle, March 2013.