Human nature is defined by both both heartwarming, friendly daily interactions and deeply disturbing incidents where senseless conflicts occur. We all know how ridiculous many “public freakout” videos online can be, where monumental reactions follow very minor slights. But what about when an entire country is involved and revenge and even war breaks out over international slights? We discover the most petty international diplomatic incidents over little more than a spilt drink, or maybe just one severed ear…
10. War of Jenkins’ Ear
The 1739-1748 conflict known as the War of Jenkins’ Ear has to be one of the most disturbing yet ridiculous international conflicts in history. A British official brings up the matter of his ear being cut off by a Spaniard years earlier, and the matter is used to provoke and justify war. Known in Spanish as Guerra del Asiento, the conflict was lengthy despite its petty origin, lasting from October 22, 1739 to October 18, 1748. After the Anglo-Spanish War, the 1729 Treaty of Seville afforded Spanish warship crews the right to inspect British vessels for smuggled goods that would violate a Spanish Crown issued asiento, or monopoly on given trade routes and product categories.
Britain had an unfortunate asiento offering not only the right to transport 500 tons of goods per year to Spanish colonies, but a limitless number of slaves as well. On April 9, 1731, British brig Rebecca was stopped by La Isabela, a Spanish patrol boat. Things went south when guarda costa Juan de León Fandiño cut off Rebecca captain Robert Jenkins’ left ear off the Florida coast. In March 1738, testified in the House of Commons about the incident, allegedly displaying the severed ear. The vicious act was used by members of parliament to drum up support for war, which got started in October 1739.
9. The Football War
Soccer is synonymous with intense international sports competition but hardly the stuff to spark war, right? Wrong! In 1969, the Central American nations of Honduras and El Salvador were competing for a place in the 1970 World Cup taking place in Mexico. Rhetoric turned sour as El Salvador won two of three matches played. Rioting ensued, followed by violence to the point where El Salvador ended diplomatic relations with Honduras.
Soon, the air force of El Salvador was flying attack missions into Honduras. The air raids were quickly followed by a ground force invasion. Four days of fighting totaling around 100 hours passed before pressure from the Organization of American States (OAS) led to a ceasefire. But a steep price had already been paid, with casualties of the conflict numbering at 2,000. Between vigilante attacks, armed forces invasions and rioting, La Guerra del Futbol (The Soccer War) became the flashpoint for growing political tensions between Honduras and El Salvador. Part of the original reason for Honduran hostility against El Salvador was the presence of illegal immigrants from El Salvador in Honduras, while the people of El Salvador felt that their people were being persecuted while trying to pursue opportunities in Honduras.
8. The Pig War
Canada and the United States enjoy excellent diplomatic relations. Yet in 1869, border disputes between British Administration laying claim to what is now British Columbia, which was to become a Canadian province in 1871, and the United States erupted in the Pig War. The dispute centered on the San Juan Islands, which lie between Vancouver Island and the mainland coast of British Columbia, Canada and Washington State, USA. The Oregon Treaty prescribed a mid-water division between Vancouver Island and the North American mainland as continuation of the main division at the 49th parallel. Yet, San Juan Island posed a geographical problem with its identity as American or British territory falling into dispute. Both American and British settlers established residence on San Juan Island.
One pig belonging to British employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company Charles Griffin trespassed on the land of American farmer Lyman Cutlar, who shot the pig after it ate his potatoes on June 15, 1859. The result? Griffin reported Cutlar to British authorities for shooting the pig, who discussed arresting Cutlar. Cutlar panicked, reporting the threat of arrest to locals, which went all the way up to General William S. Harney, Department of Oregon Commander. Harney did not like the British and soon deployed 66 men of the US 9th Infantry Division to San Juan Island on July 27. Three British warships were sent in response, and Admiral Robert L. Baynes, British Pacific Naval Commander-in-Chief was ordered by governor James Douglas to fight the US infantry. Baynes declined, refusing to “involve two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig.” After Washington and London became aware of the conflict, tensions continued, but ceased once an international commission, ironically headed by the notorious Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany, laid the matter to rest, awarding San Juan Island to the United States.
7. The Bird Dropping War
War is crappy, but it is not usually considered “for the birds.” But one outrageous war between Spain and Peru spanning 1864-1866 was not only crappy, but involved bird matters. Guano is the traditional Quechua name for “seabird droppings” and the so-called Guano War conflict was fought largely over competing claims to seabird droppings used as fertilizer since ancient times. The First War of the Pacific from 1864 to 1866 involved an effort by Peru, in alliance with Chile, Bolivia, and Ecuador, to kick Spanish interests out of the Chincha Islands, where the colonial powers were removing guano in massive quantities, together with saltpeter.
A second war erupted in 1879 and lasted until 1883, known as the Second War of the Pacific. In this war, loyalties switched and Chili fought against Peru and Bolivia. Peru lost some southern lands to Chili, while most ironically, Bolivia lost access to the sea, but still has a navy. Peruvian guano is considered the best “bird poop fertilizer” in the world, and in the aftermath of the war, a carefully managed industry has developed, subject to stringent regulation to prevent disturbance of the cormorants that produce the guano.
6. The Nika Riot
The Roman Empire was known for being the seat of many great battles. Yet Constantinople also sets the stage for a most petty yet horrific conflict. The Nika Riots of 532 AD were sparked by aggression over murder arrests amongst hooliganism at chariot racing events comparable to scenes from The Hunger Games. In a political landscape that recalled gang color loyalty, the city was divided into four different color quadrants, each supporting their own sports teams, especially those engaged in chariot racing. After a riot over chariot racing, perpetrators had been arrested for murder, with the majority being hanged.
Two escaped, belonging to the blue and green colors, and took refuge in a church. Emperor Justinian, who was allied with the blue color commuted the sentences of the two escapes to imprisonment, but the crowds angrily demanded a pardon. Justinian announced a chariot race for January 13, but soon despaired when crowds stopped supporting any color, but unified against Justinian. Over the next few days, the fighting demolished half of the city of Constantinople. Justinian ordered the violent rebellion to be quelled by force. The violence ultimately caused the death of 30,000 rioters. Despite the aftermath, Justinian was able to rebuild the city and grow the Roman Empire.
5. The War of the Stray Dog
War dogs were a staple of some ancient battles and modern conflicts, but it is less well known that a single stray dog set off a military conflict between Greece and Bulgaria in 1925. Minted from the Ottoman Empire by independence efforts in 1832 and 1908, Greece and Bulgaria, respectively had a lot in common but ended up at odds over border disputes stemming from Balkan League territorial divisions and then the spoils of World War I. As tensions simmered, outbreaks of fighting cumulatively killed several hundred. Soldiers were continually stationed along the border and then a dog belonging to a Greek soldier guarding the border bolted across into Bulgaria.
The soldier pursued his runaway dog, only to be shot at by Bulgarian border guard and killed just for chasing his dog. Fighting ensued between the two armed forces, leaving a Greek captain dead and wounding an assisting soldier. Soon, matters escalated into a second armed conflict when Bulgaria’s apology was rebuffed by the Greek president Theodoros Pangalos, who had seized power in a coup, leading to a Greek invasion of Bulgaria. Eventually the League of Nations stepped in, stopped the conflict and ordering Greece to pay £45,000 compensation to Bulgaria. Fifty people had been killed in the occupation, after all.
4. The First Opium War
The First Opium War, also called the Anglo-Chinese War, was a military conflict that essentially erupted when Britain declared war on China over a Qing Dynasty era Chinese ban on selling opium. Frustrated over the impacts on drug dealers seen as important to British trade advantages in China, Britain took revenge in what is generally now termed “gunboat diplomacy” unleashing naval firepower culminating in the British taking of Hong Kong. The conflict emerged when British trade with China suffered challenges due to a high European demand for Chinese products, such as silk, tea and porcelain, countered by Chinese limitations on British trade.
The sale of opium at a high profit to operators in East Asia by the British East India company was pursued as a trade balancing measure. However, the trade led to a drug addition epidemic in China, and eventually China banned opium, Britain responded with military force that opened up trade and led to British seizure of Hong Kong. There was substantial public opposition to the First Opium War, including a diary entry by William Gladstone stating, “I am in dread of the judgments of God upon England for our national iniquity towards China.” Efforts to stop the war failed in the House of Commons, causing the war to extend until 1842. In 1856 there was a second opium war that lasted until 1860.
3. The Pastry War
A war between Mexico and France seems unlikely due to geography and a lack of reason for conflict between the two cultures in the public mind. Yet Mexico and France were once at odds to the point of battleship deployment and even death and dismemberment over matters of mere pastry in a conflict running from 1838 into 1839. In early 1838, a French pastry shop owner reported that his shop in Tacubaya, Mexico had been ransacked and badly damaged by solders of the Mexican army.
When his demands for compensation from Mexico fell upon deaf ears, the owner took up his cause with France, asking that his country fight for him. To compensate for the damage to the pastry shop, 600,000 pesos were requested, supported by a fleet that arrived in Veracruz. The French forces fired on the fortress at San Juan de Ulúa, then occupied the city. This all took place in April 1838. Once payment was secured with the help of British negotiators, the French fleet withdrew in March of 1939. The intermittently in office Mexican dictator Antonio López de Santa Anna lost his leg in the conflict but gained in political standing through the pastry war, having his lost leg buried with military honors.
2. The Bucket War
Italy was not always the unified European nation it is today. In medieval times, Italy was still comprised of city-states and the rivalry between them was often quite vicious. The year 1323 saw a bizarre conflict where soldiers from Modena stole a bucket out of a well in the city state of Bologna with whom they were vying. While seemingly trivial, the taking of the bucket drew the ire of 30,000 foot soldiers and 2,000 fighters on horseback under the command of Pope John XXII.
In contrast, the bucket thieves were protected by a relatively meager 5,000 foot soldiers despite also having 2,000 combatants on horses. Even though the bucket takers were greatly outnumbered, their forces prevailed throughout the fight. Modena saw victory in the Battle of Zappolino, with the stolen bucket forever staying in Modena. Made of oak, the bucket had drawn the attention of the soldiers as a potential trophy. Once hostilities had come to an official end, no less than 4,000 lives had been sacrificed over the dispute about a bucket. Talk about a strange and literal way to “kick the bucket!”
1. The Cod Wars
England and Iceland, both island based nations of Europe might seem like unlikely candidates for war. Yet nations love fish and it is that interest in common that provoked conflict. In the years between shortly after World War II and the mid 1970s, four significant fights broke out known as “Þorskastríðin” in Icelandic, meaning “the cod strife,” or Landhelgisstríðin, translating to “the wars for the territorial waters. The conflict started when Iceland started reduced British rights to trawl in Icelandic waters, then extending the boundary of Icelandic waters from 3 nautical miles to four nautical miles out to sea.
Iceland then announced an expansion from 4 to 12 nautical miles. Again, Britain reacted but Iceland prevailed through international dispute resolution measures that quelled further armed confrontations at sea. Boundaries were extended again from 12 to 50 nautical miles, which really angered the British but again, Iceland won the dispute. In the end, a 1975 action saw the boundary extended to 200 miles. In the course of the repeat conflicts, matters involved battleship confrontations with the British Royal Navy, including one incident where an Icelandic warship fired at a British vessel. Only one death resulted in the entire span of the cod wars: the electrocution of an Icelandic engineer conducting hull repairs following a collision with a British ship.