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
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 fisherman 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 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:

“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 Lobster War: When Brazil and France argued over whether lobsters crawl or swim”. Boban Docevski, The Vintage News. November 7, 2017. 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

“The Invention of the Nation’s Favorite Chip Shop Sausage”. Article, Fish Friers Review. July, 2019

“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

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