10 Little wars you've never heard of

Updated August 10, 2017

Even people who don't like history recognise certain wars: the mighty conflict of the Second World War, the bleak landscapes of the First, or the lazy stereotypes of the Civil War. But there are some conflicts that, for whatever reason, don't seem to stick in the collective memory. Some of them were tiny, others were quite large in their day, but all of them seem to have faded from most people's knowledge of the past. Here, then, are some of the oddest and most interesting of history's forgotten wars.

The Anglo-Zanzibar War

Probably the shortest war in history, the Anglo-Zanzibar War lasted less than an hour during the morning of 27 August 1896. Following the death of a pro-British sultan, a new ruler more hostile to British interests took the throne. Claiming the new monarch had violated their treaty, a small British force, consisting of three cruisers and two gunboats together with local allies, demanded his surrender. When the sultan refused, the British began shelling the palace compound. 40 minutes and around 500 casualties later, the sultan fled and the defenders surrendered. One British sailor was wounded, and the sultanate of Zanzibar effectively ceased to exist.

The War of Jenkins' Ear

One of a series of 18th-century wars between Britain and Spain, the War of Jenkins' Ear is best-known for its colourful name, given much later by writer Thomas Carlyle. A Spanish coastal patrol cut off the ear of a British sailor, Robert Jenkins, in 1731; eight years later, when rising anti-Spanish public opinion pushed the British government to declare war, this was one of the incidents used to justify the conflict. The war was subsumed within the larger War of the Austrian Succession, ending in 1748. Britain failed to achieve its strategic objectives -- which may explain why many British people know the name, but not the details of the war.

The Pastry War

Another serious conflict with a silly name, the Pastry War lasted from late 1838 to early 1839. When civil conflict in Mexico damaged the shop of a French pastry cook, the French government used the damage claim (and Mexico's outstanding loan payments) to launch the conflict. They blockaded ports along Mexico's eastern coast and attacked the fortress of San Juan de Ulua. Eventually, Britain was able to broker a peace settlement. Casualties were minor on both sides, but the two countries would clash again, much more seriously, from 1861 to 1867.

The War of the Three Sanchos

Medieval Spain was made up of several different states -- Muslim states in the south, and Christian states in the North. From 1065 to 1067, three of the Christian states, Castile, Navarre and Aragon, went to war over territory. The war is famous for the exploits of medieval Spanish hero El Cid, but also because of the kings involved: Sancho of Aragon, Sancho II of Castile and Sancho IV of Navarre. To make things even more confusing, all three kings were first cousins, descended from their grandfather ... Sancho.

The Barbary Wars

The Barbary Wars are relatively well-known in the USA (mainly because the line "the shores of Tripoli" appears in the Marines' Hymn) but little-known elsewhere. This is a shame, because it's a fascinating conflict -- the first major foreign war of the fledgling United States, in this case against the "corsair states" of North Africa. It was the second of these wars that made American naval officer Stephen Decatur a national hero. The US didn't fight alone; Sweden also sent forces to suppress the pirates.

The Muscovite-Lithuanian Wars

This long series of wars looms large in Lithuanian history, but is surprisingly little known in the West. Lithuania's expansion during the middle ages covered a large area of former Russian territory (although Russia as we know it did not yet exist), resulting in five costly wars that lasted from 1492 to 1537. Eventually, Lithuania and its Polish allies were forced westward; In 1569 Poland and Lithuania merged into a single commonwealth, one of the largest states in Europe. Despite its huge impact, this series of wars is unknown to most people outside the region.

The Taiping Rebellion

Not to be confused with the later Boxer Rebellion, the Taiping Rebellion lasted from 1850 to 1864 and saw a breakaway state established in southern China. Property reform, equality for women and other radical changes were implemented by Hong Xiuquan, a rebel leader who believed he was Jesus's younger brother. Although Hong's claims sound silly, the 14-year conflict is estimated to have led to around 20 million deaths, most from famine and disease.

The Bulgarian-Latin Wars

When the armies of the Fourth Crusade captured the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, in 1204, they set up their own empire, known to historians as the Latin empire. The new state quickly came into conflict with the Bulgarian empire, who also saw themselves as the inheritors of the Byzantine mantle. Initially, the Bulgarians inflicted several serious defeats on the Crusaders, but following the death of the Bulgarian leader Kaloyan the war ground to a stalemate. The two empires formed an alliance in 1210. The two states were about to go to war again in the early 1530s when the Latin Empire was overthrown, making the issue moot.

Irish-Americans invade Canada

In the aftermath of the American Civil War, Irish immigrants to the US sought to find a way to protest British policies in Ireland. The Fenian Brotherhood, an organisation of Irish-Americans, staged five separate raids into America's northern neighbour between 1866 and 1871. Most of the volunteers had fought in the Civil War, and army-surplus weapons were easy to come by. With their training, experience and high-quality weapons, the insurgents managed to inflict several defeats on Canadian forces. American border controls eventually put a stop to the raids, and the incident sparked reforms in Canada to prevent a recurrence. Some claim, however, that the US government turned a blind eye to the first attacks in order to punish Britain for supporting the rebel southern states during the Civil War.

The Iraq war. No, the other one.

The 2003 Iraq war wasn't the first time British troops have fought in the country -- and neither was the 1990 Gulf War. In 1920, Britain controlled Iraq following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Iraqis dissatisfied with the prospect of being ruled by non-Muslims staged a rebellion, which the British put down with heavy casualties. Britain's technological advantage played a decisive role; the RAF was able to bomb rebel bases with very little risk. Although the revolution was not a success, it did lead indirectly to the British decision to establish an independent kingdom of Iraq.

There's no such thing as a small war

No matter how ridiculous the name, how apparently unimportant the cause or how long ago the war, it's worth remembering the human conflict of even the seemingly silliest war. A soldier shot during the Pastry War is every bit as dead as a soldier shot fighting for the most sacred principles. And although we perceive these wars as small or unimportant today, to the people who fought them or were affected by them they were literally matters of life and death.

Related: The lasting legacies of WWI that are still around today

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About the Author

Dr James Holloway has been writing about games, geek culture and whisky since 1995. A former editor of "Archaeological Review from Cambridge," he has also written for Fortean Times, Fantasy Flight Games and The Unspeakable Oath. A graduate of Cambridge University, Holloway runs the blog Gonzo History Gaming.