Food Wars: These Wars were Started Over Food
These Wars were Started Over… Food

These Wars were Started Over… Food

Larry Holzwarth - September 13, 2021

These Wars were Started Over… Food
A Brazilian B-17 bomber overflies the French destroyer Tartu during the Lobster War. Wikimedia

11. Brazil intercepted the French destroyer before it reached the lobster boats

As Tartu approached the French lobster fleet, it encountered a Brazilian cruiser, dispatched by the government to ensure the territorial sanctity of their waters. It also encountered flyovers by Brazilian Air Force B-17 bombers, acquired by Brazil after World War II. Tartu’s captain decided discretion to be the better part of valor and maintained a respectful distance. The next step in the unfolding crisis was Brazil’s President, Joao Goulart, order to the French boats to withdraw from Brazilian waters within 48 hours. The lobstermen stubbornly refused to comply, confident that Tartu’s presence offered them protection from any high-handed actions by the Brazilians. They misjudged. After the 48-hour period expired, Brazilian ships seized the lobster boat Cassiopee on January 2, 1962.

To prevent outright war, American diplomats pushed Brazil to negotiate a settlement or allow it to enter arbitration. British diplomats did the same with France. In 1962 France offered to accept arbitration if Brazil agreed. Brazil did not. Resentful of United States influence in South America, which Brazil saw as its own role, it instead took the issue to the International Court at the Hague. Eventually, the Lobster War ended when Brazil extended its territorial waters to the 200-mile limit, enclosing the areas of the lobster dispute. In the agreement they allowed French boats to trap spiny lobsters over the disputed area for a period of several years, though the number of boats was limited by the agreement. The dispute over whether the lobsters were fish that swim or crustaceans that crawl continued, though the threat of war over the argument came to an end.

These Wars were Started Over… Food
As far back as Henry V of England, Danes complained of British fishing in the waters off of today’s Iceland. Wikimedia

12. Iceland and Britain fought a series of Cod Wars over fishing rights

Since the early 15th-century British fishing boats visited the waters off Iceland. The number of boats and the size of the catches taken led to disputes with Denmark, which ruled Iceland, which varied in intensity for over 400 years. Several species of fish are found in the waters around Iceland, but the primary target of the British fishermen was, and remains, Atlantic cod. As early as 1414, the King of England, Henry V, received complaints from his Danish counterpart, King Eric, who reigned over the Kalmar Union of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Eric complained the British fishing presence was depleted stocks of Icelandic cod. Britain passed some regulations restricting British vessels, but the fishermen simply ignored them, and at the time, Britain lacked a navy sufficient to enforce the law. Not that they were so inclined.

In the late 19th century Denmark claimed a 50-mile territorial limit around their possessions. Britain, by then possessed of the world’s largest and most powerful navy, ignored their claims. Danish gunboats stopped and fined British fishing boats, and newspapers and members of Parliament demanded the Royal Navy intervene. In both 1896 and 1897, the Royal Navy used gunboat diplomacy to protect British interests. The 1901 Anglo-Danish Territorial Waters agreement established a 3-mile limit around Iceland, and the proviso that the agreement would not expire for fifty years. The First World War, followed by the Great Depression and World War II, put the disputes over fishing rights on the back burner until 1949. Iceland, which had governed its own affairs since the German occupation of Denmark in 1940, decided to establish new rules governing foreign boats in its waters.

These Wars were Started Over… Food
The strategic importance of Iceland during the Cold War can be plainly seen on this 1983 map. Wikimedia

13. The Cold War helped create the climate for the ensuing Cod Wars

In 1952 Iceland extended its territorial waters by one mile and placed several areas off-limits to foreign fishing boats. The British reacted by increasing taxes on fish landed in Britain by Icelandic fishing boats. Since Britain was Iceland’s biggest market for fish, the decrease in profits caused by the punitive taxes threatened Iceland’s biggest industry. During World War II the strategic importance of Iceland in controlling the Atlantic trade lanes became paramount, a fact not lost on the Soviet Union. The Soviets, to foster good feelings in Iceland, began purchasing their fish in large amounts. In those opening years of the Cold War, the United States viewed increased Soviet influence in Iceland with considerable dismay. They responded by purchasing large amounts of Icelandic fish as well. Suddenly tiny Iceland found itself with considerable influence in NATO, a situation they used to their advantage.

The United States helped increase Iceland’s importance in the 1950s through its defense planning, which relied on keeping the Greenland, Iceland, United Kingdom Gap (GIUK) open for shipping in the event of war with the Soviet Bloc. It also encouraged other NATO countries to increase their purchases of Icelandic fish, notably Spain and Italy. For a time, the United States’ support of Iceland threatened the so-called “special relationship” with the United Kingdom. Nonetheless, in 1956, Great Britain recognized the Icelandic extension of their territorial limits (4 nautical miles) and the restrictions against British fishing in certain areas. They also repealed the increases in taxes on Icelandic fish. Nonetheless, through remainder of the 20th century several disputes between Iceland and Great Britain, involving both nations’ naval assets and several incidents at sea, occurred. They are known as the Cod Wars.

These Wars were Started Over… Food
Icelandic patrol boats used trawl wire cutters to sever the fishing nets from their trawlers during all three cod wars. Wikimedia

14. The First Cod War of 1958 – 1961

In 1958 Iceland announced it would extend its territorial waters to 12 nautical miles, effective on September 1, 1958. Despite all member nations of NATO expressing disapproval, including the United States, Iceland held fast to their resolution. Great Britain said it would not respect the new limits, and that Royal Navy ships would accompany the fishing fleet into Icelandic waters. Eventually, Her Majesty’s Navy deployed over three dozen warships, most of them destroyers and frigates. To oppose them Iceland had a handful of revenue cutters and patrol vessels in the Icelandic Coast Guard. Several incidents occurred between the contending fleets. Shots were exchanged on several occasions. Ships were rammed or collided during maneuvers around the fishing boats. The British recognized the old four-mile limit and remained outside of it throughout the conflict.

When it became clear to Icelandic authorities that they could not defeat the British at sea, and that the latter had no intention of respecting the new limit, they resorted to their trump card. They announced their intention to withdraw from NATO, as well as to expel the American military presence from the island. Although once again the “special relationship” came under pressure, the US argued forcefully the strategic necessity of keeping Iceland in NATO. In 1961, the UK agreed to respect the 12-mile limit in return for British fishing rights in the outer six miles for the ensuing three years. The two nations also agreed that disagreements in the future regarding fishing rights were to be decided by the International Court of Justice at The Hague.

These Wars were Started Over… Food
Rammings and collisions at sea were common occurences during the Cod Wars in Icelandic waters. The Guardian

15. The Second Cod War of 1972 – 1973

Pressures on the cod stocks in Icelandic waters from heavy fishing led to depleted catches by the end of the 1960s. In order to conserve, and to give their own fishermen a wider area of protected waters, Iceland again extended their territorial limits in 1972, to 50 nautical miles. It was one of the rare occasions when the Warsaw Pact and NATO agreed. All opposed the extension, as it limited their own fishing fleets from some of the most fertile fisheries in the world. The Icelandic Coast Guard, considerably larger than in 1958, deployed net-cutters to sever the fishing trawlers’ nets when they encountered them. The British responded with aircraft patrols, which warned the units of the Royal Navy of the whereabouts of Icelandic patrol craft. British ships then positioned themselves to protect the fishing boats.

Once again, Iceland threatened to leave NATO and expel the American military. After several at sea incidents, numerous collisions and exchanges of gunfire, and the seizure of foreign fishing trawlers an agreement was brokered within NATO. The 50-mile limit was accepted, though foreign trawlers could enter it during specific seasons, and remain in specific areas, with a license. The British trawlers were limited to a catch of 130,000 tons. The agreement which ended the Second Cod War, signed in November 1973, was set to expire in two years. The interim period was to be used to resolve any remaining differences between Iceland and Great Britain over continued use of the Icelandic fisheries. Instead, the November 1975 expiration of the agreement serves as the starting point for the Third Cod War.

These Wars were Started Over… Food
The British government of Prime Minister Harold Wilson refused to accept Iceland’s expansion of its territorial waters. Wikimedia

16. Iceland continued to attempt to expand its exclusive fisheries zones.

By the early 1970s, numerous nations supported the idea of expanding their territorial limits over the seas which bordered them. Traditionally, territorial limits had been defined by the range of shore-based cannon. By the 1970s that definition had long been obsolete. Long-range missiles, changes to ships and submarines, and other factors led to international conferences to discuss the world’s territorial waters and freedom of the seas. During the third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, which opened in 1973, general agreement from many members set territorial limits at up to 100 miles, where practicable. Yet no official decision had been made. Meanwhile, despite its previous efforts to protect its fisheries, Iceland (and other countries) continued to monitor declining catches. Both the number of fish per vessel and the size of the fish declined.

In the summer of 1975 the Icelandic government, in response to pressure from the fishing industry, decided to once again extend the territorial limits. Their goal was to create a much larger exclusive fishing zone for their own fishing fleets and assign areas under license in the outer regions of the zone to foreign fishing trawlers. In July 1975, the Icelandic government announced that when the agreement which ended the Second Cod War expired in November, the territorial limits would be extended to 200 miles from Iceland’s shores. Though some concessions were offered to Great Britain, such as a limited number of trawlers and tonnage allowed in the new zone, the British refused to accept them. Britain announced it did not accept the new zones, and that its trawlers would not respect them. Once again, the Royal Navy took on the task of protecting the fishing fleet.

These Wars were Started Over… Food
US Naval Air Station at Keflavik, Iceland, as it appeared in 1982. US Navy

17. The Third Cod War of 1977 – 1976

Five centuries of Britain’s unrestricted fishing in the seas around Iceland came to an end with the conclusion of the Third Cod War in 1976. It was the most fiercely contested of the Cod Wars, and it required a NATO brokered convention to bring it to an end. As with the previous two cod wars, the third ended with Iceland obtaining its goals, to the detriment of the British fishing industry. Iceland firmly established a 12-mile exclusion zone, to be fished only but its own vessels. A 200-mile exclusion zone in which fishing vessels from other nations could operate only with licenses, and with limited catches, surrounded the small nation. Iceland’s victory was costly, during the Third Cod War there were at least 55 ramming incidents between British warships, fleet tugs, and fishing vessels and Icelandic patrol vessels. Fifteen British warships suffered significant damage and required extensive repairs.

In the aftermath of the three cod wars, Great Britain attempted to protect its fishing industry by declaring a 200-mile exclusion zone around its own shores. But the damage had been done. The British fishing industry was devastated, jobs lost, and fishermen idled. For Great Britain, the cod wars changed the economy, as well as the food industry. Shops which formerly featured fish and chips as their main attraction to customers began to offer alternative dishes to attract customers. Chicken and specially developed sausages, with casings which don’t split when deep-fried, replaced fish as the main attraction on many menus. In 2006, the US military, whose presence in Iceland parlayed into victory in the cod wars, departed Iceland. Ten years later the Americans returned, again citing the strategic importance of the island nation to NATO.

These Wars were Started Over… Food
Brigadier General William Harney, instigator of the confrontation which became known as the Pig War. DeGolyer Library, SMU

18. The Pig War of 1859 helped settle a border dispute between the United States and Great Britain

The Pig War, an armed confrontation between the United States and Great Britain, saw only one casualty, the eponymous pig. In the 1850s, both the United States and Great Britain claimed possession of the San Juan Islands, situated in the waters separating the mainland of North America and Vancouver Island. While American and British diplomats dickered and bickered over a resolution to the problem, settlers from British Canada and the United States jointly occupied the disputed territory. In 1859 an American settler, Lyman Cutlar, went to tend his potato garden. He found a pig rooting among his tubers, and rather than chase it away, he shot the hapless animal. The pig belonged to an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company, an Irish-Canadian shepherd. The Irishman, Charles Griffin, demanded $100 in compensation for the lost pig, considerably more than Cutlar was willing to pay.

Griffin then turned to the British authorities on the island, who threatened to arrest Cutlar. Cutlar and his fellow American settlers on the island turned to the Americans for protection from the British. In British eyes, the American settlers on the islands were mere squatters, with minimal rights of occupation. The Americans considered themselves legal possessors of the land under the Donation Land Claim Act of 1850. Both nations maintained small military commands in the area to support their respective points of view, but the pig and potato dispute created tensions between British subjects and American citizens. The United States quickly dispatched a contingent of Army troops to prevent the British authorities from arresting Cutlar. Britain responded with a naval force supplemented with a contingent of Royal Marines. As it had before, the Oregon border appeared to be the casus belli for war between the US and Great Britain.

These Wars were Started Over… Food
George Pickett, in the uniform of a Major General of the Confederate States Army, taken after the Civil War. Wikimedia

19. The Americans sent a small military force to San Juan

American authority in the Department of Oregon rested with Brigadier General William S. Harney, a Tennessean who had once been accused of beating a female slave to death with his cane (he was acquitted). The Pig War became just one more of several instances of questionable judgment exhibited during Harney’s career. In response to the American settlers’ request for protection, Harney dispatched a military force of infantry and artillery under Captain George Pickett to San Juan, with orders for them to prevent the British from landing troops on the island. The bellicose Pickett announced the Americans would fight if the British landed. The British responded by sending three men-of-war to the region, which landed marines on the north end of the island. Americans maintained a camp on the south end. By mid-August, 1859, nearly five hundred Americans confronted five British warships and well over 2,000 men.

Harney’s British counterpart, Royal Navy Admiral Robert Baynes, received orders from the British Governor of Vancouver to attack the Americans and drive them from the islands. Baynes had the common sense to ignore them, considering a war between the US and Great Britain over the disposition of a pig ridiculous. The British and American troops on the island were told not to provoke an attack, but both sides were prepared to defend themselves if the other fired upon them. American and British authorities in their respective capitals were stunned when they learned of the explosive situation; both dispatched emissaries to resolve the standoff peaceably. President James Buchanan sent General Winfield Scott to the scene to negotiate with the British Governor of Vancouver, James Douglas. Scott and Douglas began meeting in October to hammer out a resolution of the crisis.

These Wars were Started Over… Food
Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm I arbitrated the border dispute in favor of the Americans. Wikimedia

20. The Pig War remained a standoff for over a decade

Scott and Douglas agreed to reduce the military presence of both sides to about 100 men each. The resolution over ownership of the island was deferred to diplomatic discussions. So was the ultimate resolution over the disputed pig. For the ensuing twelve years, American and British troops occupied their respective ends of the island. The troops intermingled socially conducted athletic events with each other and helped each other consume their liberal rations of alcohol. In 1871, after years of diplomatic futility, both sides agreed to submit the dispute over the islands to international arbitration. Kaiser Wilhelm I agreed to act as arbitrator. Wilhelm assigned the issue to a three-man commission, who struggled with their decision for just over a year while meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. Ultimately, they decided in favor of the Americans.

Subsequently, both sides withdrew their troops, having faced each other on the island for thirteen years without ever firing a shot. General Harney earned an official rebuke for escalating the situation to near warfare. Captain George Pickett served the Confederacy as a general and division commander. He gained lasting fame for his ill-fated assault on Union positions at Gettysburg, known to posterity as Pickett’s Charge. Whether Cutlar ever received compensation for his lost potatoes, or Griffin for his murdered pig, remains unknown. The Pig War was, to date, the last time forces of Great Britain and the United States stood toe-to-toe on the verge of war. It was averted because a British Admiral, a veteran of the British campaigns in North America during the War of 1812, decided to ignore his orders. Such are the vagaries of history.

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

“The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo”. Article. National Archive. Online

“Guadaloupe Mountains”. Article, National Park Service. Online

“Salt War of San Elizario”. C. L. Sonnichsen, Texas State Historical Association Handbook of Texas. June 1, 1995. Online

“El Paso Salt War”. Kathy Weiser, Legends of America. April, 2019. Online

“Spice Wars in the Banda Islands”. Susi O’Neill, Pilot Guides. Online

“Dutch East India Company, Trade Network, 18th Century”. Jean-Paul Rodrigue, The Geography of Transport Systems. Online

“The Pastry War: Mexico vs France 1838”. Article, Yucatan Times. April 17, 2020

“The Pastry War – 1838” Jed Graham, History of Yesterday. May 20, 2020. Online

“French Intervention in Mexico and the American Civil War, 1862 – 1867”. Article, Office of the Historian, US State Department. Online

“The Lobster War”. Anne-Sophie Grollemund, The National Archives (UK). February 21, 2019. Online

“The Cod Wars and Today: Lessons From an Almost War”. Walker D. Mills, Center for International Maritime Security. July 28, 2020. Online’

“Iceland vs Britain: the Cod Wars begin – archive, September, 1958”. Compiled by Richard Nelsson, The Guardian. September 7, 2018

“The Cod War”. Andrew Herd, The Fishing Museum Online (UK). 2011

“What were the Cod Wars?” Grant Piper, Exploring History. December 22, 2020

“Life of Harney: Controversial peak namesake was both killer and peacemaker”. Seth Tupper, Rapid City Journal. June 28, 2015

“Baynes, Sir Robert Lambert”. Biography, Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Online