‘Colonial War’ loosely refers to the many conflicts that erupted around the world in the backdrop of European colonization. While there’s no academic consensus on how long this period lasted, some sources place it between the Early Modern Period in the 15th century to the global wave of decolonization after the Second World War.
While most of these colonial wars were native struggles against colonization, some of them were also parts of larger conflicts happening among the many empires of Europe, influencing the history of the modern world in more ways than we can count.
10. Dummer’s War
Known by many different names like Lovewell’s War, Father Rale’s War, Greylock’s War, the Fourth Indian War, and others, Dummer’s War was a conflict between New England settlers and the Wabanaki Confederacy – specifically the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, and Abenaki tribes – allied with New France. Lasting from 1722 to 1726 and spread across the regions of Nova Scotia, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and parts of Canada, it was primarily a conflict between the natives and the settlers over territorial rights.
Until this time, Lieutenant-Governor William Dummer had maintained a largely-peaceful arrangement with the native Wabanaki Confederacy, though his term ended in 1730. The Abenaki tribes, influenced by their alliance with the French and their previous conflicts with English colonists, launched attacks on English settlements across the region. As the war escalated, the Massachusetts Assembly started offering bounties in exchange for Indian scalps, resulting in a brutal conflict and numerous civilian deaths.
9. First Barbary War
The First Barbary War – from 1801 to 1805 – started as a result of escalating tensions between the United States and the Barbary States of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, and Morocco. These states demanded tribute payments from anyone trading in their waters, which the United States refused under the leadership of President Thomas Jefferson.
Tripoli declared war in 1801, leading to a series of naval actions and blockades against American ships in the Mediterranean. The conflict escalated quickly, especially with events like the capture of the USS Philadelphia and its subsequent destruction by American forces under Lieutenant Stephen Decatur to prevent its use by rival forces. It would go on for many years until the signing of the peace treaty in 1805.
8. South African War
Fought between the British Army and two Afrikaner Boer republics from 1899 to 1902, the Boer War was a major conflict in the colonial history of South Africa. Also sometimes called the South African War, it was caused by underlying issues between British imperialism and Boer republicanism.
The war was fought in three phases. In the first one, the Boers had some early successes despite being heavily outnumbered, thanks to their knowledge of the terrain and proficiency with firearms of the era. The arrival of British reinforcements, however, turned the tide, resulting in the British capture of key cities like Bloemfontein and Pretoria in the second phase. The third and most violent phase of the conflict involved trained British troops fighting Boer guerrillas. The ferocity of the Boer resistance led to the establishment of the first British concentration camps in the region, leading to a number of noncombatant deaths due to disease and starvation.
The war ultimately ended in May, 1902 with the Peace of Vereeniging, though only after causing around 100,000 casualties on both sides.
7. War of Jenkins’ Ear
Named after British captain Robert Jenkins and his ear – which was allegedly cut off by Spanish coast guards in 1731 – the War of Jenkins’ Ear began in October, 1739 between the colonial empires of Great Britain and Spain. It was triggered by mounting tensions over Spanish aggressions against British ships, as both sides regularly engaged in limited conflict across their colonies around the world. It was made worse by the worsening anti-Spain public sentiment in Britain, especially by British merchants after the ‘ear’ incident, who opposed any peaceful settlement.
According to historian Harold Temperley, the war was a significant departure from the earlier colonial priorities of the British empire, as trade interests in the new overseas colonies now took precedence over maintaining the traditional balance of power. The war officially began in October, 1739 and lasted until 1742 without any real change in the status quo, though it had other long-lasting consequences beyond Britain and Spain. It drove Spain into a closer alliance with France, leading to diplomatic and geopolitical problems for Britain for nearly a century.
6. Anglo-Mysore Wars
The Anglo-Mysore Wars were a series of four distinct conflicts fought between the British East India Company and the state of Mysore in India during the late 18th century. The first war began in 1767 when Hyder Ali, a Muslim adventurer, rose to power in Mysore. Initially, the British and the Nizam of Hyderabad joined forces against him, but the Nizam eventually withdrew and left the British to face Hyder’s forces alone. It ended in 1769 with the Treaty of Madras, establishing an alliance between Mysore and the British.
The second war started in 1780 when Hyder Ali formed an alliance with the French in his rivalry against the Maratha kingdom. While the British were soundly defeated, they still managed to regain control of the situation with the death of Hyder Ali in 1782 and the signing of the Treaty of Mangalore in 1784.
The third war began in 1790 when the British, led by Lord Cornwallis, dropped Mysore from their list of allies. By the end of it, Mysore was forced to cede half of its territory in 1792. The fourth war, led by Governor-General Lord Mornington, happened between 1798 and 1799, resulting in the defeat and death of the ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, and the annexation of Mysore under the British crown.
5. Gun War
Also called the Basutoland Rebellion or the Disarmament War, the Gun War was fought between the Sotho people of Basutoland and the British Cape Colony from 1880 to 1881. It was a major event in the history of Basutoland – now Lesotho – as it ended 10 years of British rule over the region.
The tensions between the two sides arose from factors like Cape Colony’s interference in the traditional authority of Sotho chiefs, contested demarcation of land for white settlers, and the enforcement of the controversial Disarmament Act of 1879. The Sotho, led by chiefs like Lerotholi, resisted the disarmament orders and decided to fight against the forces of Cape Colony.
The decisive battle happened at Qalabani in October, 1880, where the Sotho ambushed the outnumbered Cape soldiers and inflicted heavy casualties due to their knowledge of the mountainous terrain. The British finally gave up in April 1881, as the Sotho were ultimately allowed to keep their arms while still paying an annual tax on every gun.
4. Pontiac’s Rebellion
Fought between 1763 and 1766, Pontiac’s Rebellion was a pivotal armed conflict between the British Empire and a coalition of Native American nations like Ottawa, Delaware, Potawatomie, Shawnee, and others. It happened immediately after the Seven Years’ War due to many factors, including British attempts to impose control over native territories across North America.
The rebellion began in May 1763 when Native American forces, under the leadership of an Ottawa leader called Pontiac, started attacking British forts across the Great Lakes and Ohio River Valley regions. While the British response was initially slow, they eventually launched reinforced expeditions to relieve garrisons besieged by Pontiac’s forces.
The conflict ended in 1766 with a peace treaty between Pontiac and the British Empire. According to some sources, it resulted in the death of around 450 British soldiers and 2,000 American colonists. The number of casualties on the native side remains unknown due to the lack of records.
3. King Philip’s War
While it sounds like one of the many conflicts in Great Britain’s history, King Philip’s War was actually named after the native Wampanoag chief Metacom, who was known by that name due to his tribe’s earlier friendly relations with the British empire. It was a brutal conflict that lasted from 1675 to 1676, largely taking place in the nascent colonies of New England.
Like most other colonial wars on this list, the root cause was the encroachment of English settlers on the ancestral lands of the natives. It began when three of Metacom’s warriors were executed by the British in June, 1675, as they were accused of murdering an Indian working with the colonists.
The war took a heavy toll on the entire New England region, with several hundred colonists killed and numerous English settlements destroyed or damaged. On the opposite side, thousands of native Americans were killed, wounded, captured, or sold into slavery or forced servitude. The fighting largely died down after the death of King Philip – or Metacom – and the signing of the Treaty of Casco in 1678.
2. Italo-Ethiopian War
Also called the Italo-Abyssinian War, the conflict between colonial Italy and the kingdom of Ethiopia began in 1889 and ended in 1896. It was triggered by Italy’s colonization efforts in Africa, especially after the partition of Africa by other European powers during the Berlin Conference of 1885. After the Ethiopian victory in the Battle of Dogali in 1887, Ethiopia became the first African nation to defeat a European power.
The conflict saw many other surprising Ethiopian victories against the Italians, including and especially the Battle of Adwa in 1896. Ethiopia was victorious by the end of the battle, inflicting around 5,200 casualties on the Italian forces while losing 7,000 of its own troops. This decisive victory resulted in the abolition of the Treaty of Wichale and recognition of Ethiopia as a sovereign nation. While Italy did come back and occupied parts of Ethiopia in 1935, it was never legally recognized as a colonial power in Africa.
1. Anglo-Zulu War
The Anglo-Zulu War lasted from January 11 to July 4, 1879. It was a major conflict between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom of South Africa, triggered by British efforts like forced labor of the Zulu population in the diamond fields of the region and the establishment of a British-controlled federation that covered a large part of the ancestral Zulu territory.
Tensions escalated when, in December 1878, the British High Commissioner for South Africa issued an ultimatum to King Cetshwayo and demanded the dismantling of the Zulu military system, along with reparations for alleged offenses of the past. With the ultimatum unmet, British troops, led by Lord Chelmsford, invaded Zululand in January 1879.
While the Zulus won some early victories, the conflict ended with an ultimate British victory, leading to the capture of the king and the incorporation of Zululand into the British Empire.