Mankind has waged war for many reasons: land, oil, a pretty face, a wooden bucket, you name it. How did a pig put the US and UK on the brink of war in Canada? Who declares hostility over watermelon? And what about the Golden Stool?
Admittedly, some of riots, but most are full-scale official military engagements.
This war was humiliating because the stronger party was easily defeated with just one shot fired by the comparatively weaker side and that shot hit a soup kettle. Netherlands was divided into two territories in 1784. The Kettle war was a military conflict between the combatants of The Northern Netherlands or the Republic of the Seven Netherlands and the Austrian Netherlands backed by the Holy Roman Empire. Joseph II was the Holy Roman Emperor.
Belgium was at that time controlled by Austria. After the Dutch Revolt from 1566 to 1646, Northern Netherlands or Republic of the Seven Netherlands became Independent from the Spanish and Holy Roman Empire. In 1585, the Northern Netherlands had closed off the 350 km long Scheldt River that flows through southwestern Netherlands, western Belgium and northern France. The intention was to cut off the Belgian trading harbors of Ghent and Antwerp.
Joseph II demanded reopening of Scheldt River and sent three warships including the new merchant flagship Le Louis with the Emperor’s flag from Antwerp. Joseph II and his Austrian side did not expect the Dutch to react. The Admiralty of Zeeland, the westernmost province of the Seven Netherlands, sent out the Dutch ship the Dolfijn. The Dolfijin fired only one shot that hit no one but a soup kettle on the deck of Le Louis and Le Louis surrendered. Joseph II declared war on October 30, 1784 but nothing significant happened. In 1785, a treaty between the two nations was signed and Scheldt remained closed.
Panamanian watermelon war
On April 15, 1856, a steamboat arrived at a small, four-and-a-half square mile island off the coast of Panama. One of the ship’s passengers, likely drunk, got into a dispute with a local vendor. Before the dispute was resolved, 17 people were dead and another 29 were wounded. What were they fighting over? A slice of watermelon, valued at five cents.
In 1846, the United States had entered into a treaty with a country then known as New Grenada, which is mostly comprised of what is now Panama and Colombia. Under the agreement, the United States established a military presence in modern-day Panama, one which engendered mistrust toward U.S. soldiers among many Panamanians. So when a steamship full of Americans landed on Taboga Island, just outside of Panama City (which at the time, did not have a wharf at which such ships could dock), tensions were running extremely high. It wouldn’t take much to set off trouble, and it didn’t.
One April day in 1856, the John L. Stephens arrived on Taboga Island to pick up roughly 1,000 passengers. The ferries to and from mainland Panama only ran during high tide, but the tide was out, leading to a few hours of delay. The passengers, waiting in Panama City, had been drinking and weren’t well liked by the locals in the first place. According to most accounts, one of the passengers, a man named Jack Oliver, spotted a vendor named Jose Manuel Luna selling watermelon at five cents a slice. Oliver took a slice but refused to pay. Luna yelled at him and pulled out a knife; Oliver responded by pulling out a gun. Another Panamanian came to his defense and tackled Oliver. In the struggle, the gun went off and it hit someone. It took only minutes for a proper riot to break out and Marines had to be brought in by train to restore order. By the end of the mayhem now referred to as the “Watermelon War,” 15 Americans and two Panamanians were dead.
As a result, the United States demanded (and received) a number of military concessions from New Granada, including the right to establish military bases on islands in the Bay of Panama and take control of the Panamanian Railroad. The now-entrenched American presence in the area likely led to decades of U.S. troops and businesses in the area, and ultimately, to the creation of the Panama Canal. The Canal and the last U.S. military bases in the area were not turned over to Panama until December 31, 1999.
In a way, all wars are stupid, but high in the running for most stupid is the Battle of Zappolino, also known as the war of the oaken bucket, fought in 1325 between the rival city-states of Bologna and Modena in Italy. It started when a group of Modenese soldiers snuck into Bologna and stole an oak bucket from a well in the center of the city. While the bucket itself held no special importance, the affront hurt Bologna’s pride, and the humiliated Bolognese demanded the bucket be returned. The Modenese refused and war was declared upon them.
Bologna mustered a huge army of 30,000 foot soldiers and 2,000 cavaliers, and marched them towards the battlefield located near what is now the commune of Zappolino. Facing them was an army of only 5,000 Modenese men and 2,000 cavaliers, awkwardly scattered in the plains with their enemy holding the high grounds in the surrounding hills. Some 2,000 men would lose their lives in the fracas. Despite being surrounded and outnumbered five-to-one, Modena’s army fought bravely and in just a matter of hours the battle was over, with the Bolognese retreating and the Modenese chasing after them. The Modenese army not only chased the humiliated Bolognese all the way home, they actually managed to break through the city gates and destroyed several castles and a sluice lock on the Reno river, thus depriving the city of water. At this point, Modena’s army was in position to siege the city but they chose not to. Instead, they decided further humiliation was in order. So right outside the city gates, Modena’s men taunted their vanquished foes by organizing a mock palio—a sort of mediaeval athletic event—commemorating “those sent out on the expedition and the eternal shame of Bologna.” As a final parting gesture, the men stole a second bucket, this one from a well outside the city’s gates.
Following the war, the two parties agreed to peace and Modena returned a couple of properties it had previously captured from Bologna, as a gesture of good will. But the bucket? That was never returned. To this day the city of Modena holds it in the basement of Torre della Ghirlandina. Now a replica of the original pail is visible in Modena’s Town Hall.
Even though wars are usually given literal names, when you hear the phrase ‘The Pig War,’ you’d be forgiven for wondering if it’s a metaphor. The story begins back in 1846 when the Oregon Treaty was signed between the US and Britain, to put to rest a long standing border dispute between the US and British North America (later to be Canada) over the land between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific coastline.
The Oregon Treaty stated that the US / British American border be drawn at the 49th parallel, a division which remains to this day. Although this all sounds rather straightforward, the situation became more complicated when it came to a set of islands situated to the south-west of Vancouver, where the treaty stated that the border be through ‘the middle of the channel separating the continent from Vancouver’s Island.’ The positions of these small islands made that difficult to do. One of the largest and most important islands in this area, San Juan Island, was of notable significance due to its strategic position at the mouth of the channel. As such, both the US and the UK claimed sovereignty of the island, and citizens from both countries began to settle there.
By 1859, the British had a significant presence on the island, bolstered with the recent arrival of the Hudson’s Bay Company who had set up a salmon-curing station and a sheep ranch on the island. Meanwhile, a contingent of 20-30 US settlers had also recently arrived on the island and made it their home. Judging by reports of the time, the islanders themselves actually got along okay for a while. However, in June, 1859 a pig wandered onto the land of Lyman Cutlar, an American farmer. When Cutlar noticed the pig eating some of his potatoes he was incensed and shot the pig. The pig was actually owned by a British employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company called Charles Griffin. Griffin owned quite a few pigs and was well known for letting them roam freely across the island, and this was probably not the first time that one of them had trotted onto Cutlar’s land. When Griffin found out about the death of the pig, he went to confront Cutlar. Cutlar offered to pay Griffin $10 in compensation, but Griffin instead reported Cutlar to the local British authorities who threatened to arrest him, much to the anger of the local American citizens who subsequently drew up a petition requesting US Military protection.
General William S. Harney, the commander of the Department of Oregon with known anti-British views, sent a 66-man company of the US 9th infantry to San Juan in July. Upon hearing of this news, James Douglas, the governor of British Columbia, decided to send three British warships to the area as a show of force. During the following month there was a stand off, with both sides slowly increasing their military presence in the area and with the US 9th infantry refusing to budge, even though they were massively outnumbered. It was not until the arrival of Admiral Robert L. Baynes,Commander-in-Chief of the British Navy in the Pacific, that things were to change. When he finally arrived, Douglas ordered Baynes to land his troops on San Juan Island and to engage the US 9th infantry. Baynes refused, famously stating that he would not “involve two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig”.
By this time, word has finally reached both Washington and London about the escalating crisis. Officials on both sides of the Atlantic were shocked that a dispute over a pig had grown into a stand off involving as many as 3 warships, 84 guns and over 2,600 men. Concerned that this was to escalate even further, both sides quickly began negotiations, eventually deciding that both the US and Britain should maintain a presence of no more than 100 men each on the island until a formal agreement could be met. The British subsequently set up camp on the north of the island, with the Americans being based on the south of the island. It was not until 1872 that an international commission led by Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany decided that the island should fall entirely under American control, and as such the dispute was finally laid to rest.
Today, both the British and American camps can still be visited in the San Juan Island National Historical Park. Interestingly, this is the only place in a U.S. national park where a foreign flag is regularly hoisted over US soil, and both the flag and the flagpole were provided by the British government as a sign of friendship.
I love a dog as much as the next man, though maybe not as much as a [side] man whose accidentally started a war when his dog got away from him. Bulgaria and Greece bot had their sights set on other territories freed up by the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The result was a number of border skirmishes between the two sides, leading to the Second Balkan War of 1913. Then WWI broke out. Bulgaria sided with Germany, Austria, and Hungary, and when he war wa over, they were forced to give up Western Thrace, which had given them direc access to the Aegean Sea, as well as land to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (which later became Yugoslavia). As a result, tensions between Greece and Bulgaria didn’t improve with the end of WWI. Greece was rewarded for siding with the winning team at the Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine. Tensions between Greece and Bulgaria were not improved.
The more hot-headed on the Bulgarian side did not recognize the terms of the treaty, nor that their conflict had to end. Raids were launched into Greece and Yugoslavia, the most devastating of which were made by the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) and the Internal Thracian Revolutionary Organization (ITRO). Petrich, a town in southwestern Bulgaria bordering Greece, was run by the IMRO as a virtually independent state. In 1923, the Bulgarian Prime Minister tried to mitigate tensions with Greece and improve relations with the rest of the continent. For this outrage, he was ousted by a coup, then captured by the IMRO and killed.
And now, the dog. There was a Greek soldier stationed at the Greco-Bulgarian border at the Kemir Kapou Pass, who had a dog. On 18 October 1925, for reasons lost to time, that dog began running toward the Bulgarian side. Despite the frequent skirmishes that had left hundreds dead on both sides, the soldier ran after the dog, straight into Bulgarian territory where he was promptly shot dead by a Bulgarian border guard. The Greek border guards fired volleys into the Bulgarian side, so the Bulgarians retaliated. During a lull, a Greek captain and his aide grabbed a white sheet, ran into no man’s land, and appealed for calm. The opportunity was too good to resist – the Bulgarians fired, killing the captain and wounding the aide who was able to make it back to the Greek side. As for the dog, its fate remains unknown.
The official version that made it to the Greek newspapers at the time omitted the dog. According to the press, some Bulgarian border guards stormed the Greek outpost at Belasitsa for no reason and it was during this raid that the Greek captain and one guard were apparently killed. Bulgaria and Greece were now on the brink of war. Bulgaria expressed regret for the incident and said it was all a terrible misunderstanding. They proposed a Greco-Bulgarian commission to investigate the matter. It could have ended there, were it not for Lieutenant General Theodoros Pangalos. Pangalos had deposed King Constantine I of Greece, established the Second Hellenic Republic and led the coup which installed him as the country’s prime minister, and later, its president. In that latter position, he suspended freedom of the press, devalued Greek currency by cutting paper notes in half, and even dictated how long women’s skirts should be (no higher than 1ft/30cm above the ground… or else).
Pangalos gave the Bulgarians an ultimatum: punish those responsible, make an official apology, and pay 2 million French francs in compensation to the victims’ families, … in the next 48 hours. Bulgaria refused, so Pangalos ordered his troops into Bulgaria where they occupied the town of Petrich and nearby villages. The Bulgarians fought back, but the Greeks maintained their grip over the town and surrounding region. Desperate, Bulgaria appealed to the League of Nations (precursor of the UN). The League ordered a ceasefire, demanded that Greece withdraws immediately, and that they compensate Bulgaria for their invasion. Greece accused the League of hypocrisy, citing the Corfu Incident of 1923 when Italy attacked the Greek island of Corfu and the League sided with the attackers.
Pangalos argued that the League had two rules: one for powerful nations like Italy, and another for weaker ones like Greece. Nevertheless, he had no choice. The League sent in military attaches from France, Italy, and Britain to oversee the Greek withdrawal. Around fifty Bulgarians had died during the brief occupation, so Greece was ordered to pay £45,000 in compensation. As for Pangalos – Greece had been humiliated under his rule, so the military staged another coup and replaced him with the president he had originally deposed. So, keep your dogs on a leash or you might get killed, start a war, and bring about multiple military coups.
A fair chunk of the history of the British empire rests on one man, or on a chunk of that man. Robert Jenkin was a British navy captain, whose ship was boarded by nefarious Spaniards in 1731, and they, for reasons best known to them, felt it appropriate to slice off the captain’s ear. Relations between Britain and Spain weren’t great at the time, though war had thus far been been avoided by the efforts of Prime Minister Sir Thomas Walpole. By 1739, Britain apparently got tired of not shooting the Spanish, so, to provide a reason to go to war, a Parliamentary hearing was called about Jenkins’s ear removal eight years earlier, and he got to parade his shriveled, severed ear around Parliament. Everyone declared this was a huge insult to the nation and war must begin forthwith.
The war continued a bit half-heartedly over the next couple of years, with the two nations slapping at one another in the Caribbean and off the South American coast. However, because Europe was a mesh of alliances and political intrigue, the War of Jenkins’s Ear erupted into the War of Austrian Succession, which became one of those all-continent explosions that Europe so loves to do every now and then. The War of Austrian Succession was an eight-year conglomeration of related wars, two of which kicked off after the death of Charles VI, Holy Roman emperor and head of the Austrian branch of the house of Habsburg in 1740. You heard about another Habsburg Charles, who was so inbred he could have been a sandwich, in our episode It’s Good to Be the King.
An estimated half a million people died in that war. That war then formed a major cause of the Seven Years War, the first truly global conflict, in which approximately one and a quarter million people died, and Britain eventually emerged as the dominant world power. So, the short version is, man loses ear, Britain colonizes half the globe. Through it all, though the Spanish claimed a diplomatic victory for reasons known only to them.
There are lots of strange reasons on today’s list but, the so-called “Pastry War” between France and Mexico takes the cake, so to speak. In the years following Mexico’s 1821 independence from Spain, fighting in the street between government forces and rebels plagued the country. Rioting, looting, and property damage were common, including the ransacking of a bakery near Mexico City owned by a French-born pastry chef named Remontel. Frustrated when the Mexican government refused to compensate him for the damage caused by looting Mexican officers, Remontel took his case directly to his native country and French King Louis-Philippe.
The French government was already angered over unpaid Mexican debts that had been incurred during the Texas Revolution of 1836, and it demanded compensation of 600,000 pesos, including an astronomical 60,000 pesos for Remontel’s pastry shop, more than 60x what it was worth. When the Mexican Congress rejected their ultimatum, the French navy in the spring of 1838 began a blockade of key seaports along the Gulf of Mexico from the Yucatan Peninsula to the Rio Grande. The United States, which had a contentious relationship with Mexico, sent a schooner to assist in the blockade.
The stalemate dragged on nearly until winter, when French warships bombarded the island fortress of San Juan de Ulua that guarded the preeminent port city of Veracruz. Mexico declared war on France, and its president ordered the conscription of all men who could bear arms. Within days, French marines raided the city and captured nearly the entire Mexican navy. Desperate to repel the invaders, Mexico turned to grizzled warrior Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, the former president and military general who had only the prior year returned home in disgrace after his humiliating defeat at the 1836 Battle of San Jacinto, which led to the creation of the independent Republic of Texas. Rustled from his forced retirement, the general who had proven so ruthless at the Battle of the Alamo left his Veracruz hacienda and organized a makeshift army that drove the French forces from the city and back to their ships. As Santa Anna galloped after the invaders, however, grapeshot fired from a cannon took out the horse from under him and severely wounded one of his legs. Doctors determined the limb could not be saved and were forced to amputate the leg, which Santa Anna buried at his hacienda.
Less than four months later, the Pastry War was over. British diplomats brokered a peace agreement in which Mexico agreed to pay France’s demand of 600,000 pesos, including the cost of Remontel’s pastry shop. French forces withdrew from the country on March 9, 1839, although they would return to fight a protracted war with Mexico in the 1860s.
Just a tip: If you show up at somebody’s house and they have a piece of golden furniture, don’t sit on it unless they ask you to. It’s probably important.
If you listened to our episode Good Mourning To You, you heard about the sacred stools of the Ashanti of Ghana, which are the seat of power for their chief, literally, and hold the souls of those who have died. In 1896, the Ashanti King had been exiled, replaced by the British Governor of the Gold Coast, Sir Frederick Hodgson. A few years later, Hodgson entered the Ashanti capital and said that since the Ashanti lands were under the rule of the Queen, they had better fetch him this sacred Golden Stool for him to sit on.
The locals sat in stunned silence, then went home and gathered up as many weapons as they could find. The British sent some men out to look for the stool, and were surprised to find themselves under a vicious attack by a force led by Yaa Asantewaa, the mother of the exiled king. The British column was nearly annihilated; the survivors managed to skarper back to their small fort and barricade themselves inside. Yaa Asantewaa laid siege to them with a force of up to 12,000 men. The British had to bring in several thousand men, under the command of Major James Willcocks, as well as more serious ordinance, to break through the lines. They finally did, after over three months. In retaliation to the Ashanti’s impertinence, Willcocks spent the remainder of the summer butchering local villages, razing towns and stealing land.
Though the Ashanti lost on the battlefield, suffered over 2,000 military casualties (plus many more civilians), and were annexed and brutally repressed by the British, they still claimed to have won the war. Why? Because through all of it, the British never got to sit on their golden stool.
“Ya know, Moxie,” you may be saying, “all of these are really old. People don’t still go to war at a moment’s notice over stupid little things.” Au contraire. I present to you the Football War of 1970. Long-simmering tensions between Honduras and El Salvador, which were competing for a slot in the 1970 World Cup to be held in Mexico, erupted in open hostilities called the “La Guerra del Futbol.” There was fighting between fans at the first game in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, which Honduras won 1–0. The second game, in the Salvadoran capital of San Salvador, was won by El Salvador 3-0; even more violence followed. A play-off match took place in Mexico City a few weeks later, which El Salvador won 3–2 in overtime.
That same day, El Salvador dissolved all diplomatic ties with Honduras, stating that “the government of Honduras has not taken any effective measures to punish these crimes which constitute genocide, nor has it given assurances of indemnification or reparations for the damages caused to Salvadorans.” The Salvadoran Air Force then attacked targets inside Honduras, which caught the better equipped Honduran air force off guard, and the larger Salvadoran army then invaded Honduras. The Organization of American States (OAS) called for a ceasefire. After four days of fighting, the “100 hours war” had ended in over 2,000 casualties on each side, with some 300,000 Salvadorans displaced. British soccer hooligans have been trying to catch up ever since.
And that’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today. I’ll leave you with not the strangest cause for war, but a surprising cause for a truce. It’s one of those stories that if you aw it in a movie you’d say it was unrealistic. https://owlcation.com/humanities/WW1-Russian-Wolves-Business-As-Usual-and-War-Horses