These Wars were Started Over… Food

These Wars were Started Over… Food

Larry Holzwarth - September 13, 2021

Over the centuries, food, drink, spices, and salt have served as the casus belli for countless wars and conflicts. It’s probably safe to speculate the earliest conflicts of prehistoric man took place over food. The harvests of primitive farms and game on which to sustain themselves and their tribes are obvious stress for any culture. In North America, tribes of Native peoples fought over the richest hunting grounds. Shawnee, Cherokee, Miami, Choctaw, and other tribes fought over hunting grounds in Kentucky and Tennessee long before the arrival of the Europeans. The same can be said regarding other tribes in the West and in Mesoamerica, as well as in Africa, Asia, and even Polynesia. People have been fighting over food from the beginning of time. Some economists and demographers conclude future wars will take place over the distribution of food, a somewhat gloomy prospect for the 21st century.

These Wars were Started Over… Food
A trap for spiny lobsters, which figured in a war between Brazil and France in the 20th century. Wikimedia

As well as fighting over food, wars have been fought over the means of flavoring it, as well as preserving it. Wars over salt took place throughout history, even leading to the collapse of empires. British, French, Portuguese, and Dutch fleets and armies fought each other over the lucrative spice trade. Natives of some of the Spice Islands, as they were called, rose in rebellions against the colonizers exploiting their homelands. Some wars over food were fought in international waters, such as the series of conflicts between Great Britain and Iceland known as the Cod Wars. The dispute centered on fishing rights in international waters, with both sides demanding greater access to the longstanding trade in cod and other fish, destined for world markets. Here are some examples of war resulting from humanity’s quest for food.

These Wars were Started Over… Food
The treaty of Guadaloupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican American War and placed thousands of Mexicans under American law. Wikimedia

1. The El Paso Salt War followed the Mexican-American War in the 1840s

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War and transferred most of what is today the American Southwest to the United States. It also awarded American citizenship to Mexicans residing in those vast tracts. Along with American citizenship, American law and business practices took precedence. The latter had a significant effect on long-established customs. Among them was land ownership. Under Spanish and Mexican law, the salt flats of the El Paso valley were common lands. Anyone could enter the flats and salt beds, take what salt they needed, and leave unimpeded. Under American law, the salt flats were considered unclaimed lands. Anyone could stake a claim to own the lands, thus controlling access to them and the salt. On the American and Mexican frontiers, salt presented a highly valuable commodity.

Salt was used by the Mexicans and Mexican-Americans of the region for flavoring, but more importantly for preserving, foods, especially meats. Most of the residents of the region lived on small farms, and supplemented their diets with game and fish, preserving both with salt. Following the American Civil War, the states which had seceded from the Union were required to adopt new constitutions as a condition of being fully restored to the United States. Texas adopted its new constitution in 1866. The new laws of Texas allowed individuals and corporations to claim mineral rights on lands and rivers they owned. This made the salt beds, community property for three preceding centuries, open to private ownership, including the salt they contained. In the 1870s, maneuvering by politicians and businessmen over ownership of the salt beds led to a conflict known as the El Paso Salt War.

These Wars were Started Over… Food
Charles Howard, one of the perpetrators and ultimately a victim of the El Paso Salt Wars. Wikimedia

2. The El Paso Salt War was fought in two phases

Beginning in 1870, several factions claimed ownership of the salt beds at the base of the Guadalupe Mountains. At first, none of them established clear, legally recognized ownership of the land. Opposing factions emerged, one of which supported private ownership. Another supported the county government owning the salt beds, and a third supported the idea of common use by all. In 1873 the Democratic Party seized control of the state government in Texas, though strong Republican sentiment remained in West Texas. Charles Howard, a Democrat, won election as a district judge, and immediately injected himself into the ongoing political battles over control of the salt beds. In 1877, Howard established a claim of the lands containing the salt beds, filed in the name of his father-in-law. The claim ended the political phase of the salt war and opened the violent phase.

In late September 1877, Howard stopped a group attempting to retrieve salt from his lands through a legal injunction enforced by the sheriff. In response, a group of armed men arrested Howard, held him prisoner for three days, and forced him to sign a document relinquishing his claims on the salt deposits. On October 10, Howard shot and killed Louis Cardis, a leader of the community rights faction. He then fled to New Mexico. The local Tejano people, enraged at the death of their leader, effectively overturned the local government and controlled the region through secret meetings of groups known as juntas. The juntas raised fears among the smaller Anglo-American community. With the sheriff effectively helpless, the Anglo-Americans turned to the state government for help, requesting the assistance of the militia and the Texas Rangers.

These Wars were Started Over… Food
Though well reported at the time, the El Paso Salt War has been largely forgotten outside of Texas. El Paso Times

3. Despite the Anglo-American community only making up 1% of the population, the Texas Rangers were on their side…

Though the Anglo-Americans numbered only 100 of the approximately 5,000 residents of the region, the Texas Rangers came down firmly on their side. Arriving in El Paso in November, they immediately established what amounted to martial law. On December 12th, Howard led a detachment of 20 Rangers to San Elizario. Attacked by Tejano insurgents, they took refuge in the local church. After a two-day siege, they surrendered to the insurgents, who immediately executed Howard and two Rangers. The incident marked the only surrender of a Ranger unit in their long history. After the executions, the Tejanos looted the town, in the process killing several residents. The uprising spread, leading the United States Army to dispatch the 9th Cavalry to the region and reopen Fort Bliss. Fleeing Tejanos to Mexico led the Mexican government to send a unit to the south side of the Rio Grande.

The Salt War nearly led to another confrontation between the United States and Mexico. Open rebellion across the region based primarily on access to and ownership of salt led to approximately three dozen deaths and the loss of property equivalent to about $1.1 million. In the end, private ownership of the salt and the lands containing it prevailed. Mexican-Americans and Mexicans as well-received access to salt, but they had to pay for it. A large proportion of the Mexican population of the region left, either moving further west or returning to Mexico. Ever since most historians depicted the uprising as one of an uncontrolled mob bent on destruction. More recent scholarship describes the Salt War in a different light, one of Mexican culture and history in conflict with American capitalism and expansion.

These Wars were Started Over… Food
The Dutch built a trading empire over spices, leading to wars with Portugal over the trade. Wikimedia

4. Wars over the spice trade were fought all over the world

Wars over precious spices can be traced to ancient times. In part, they led to the myth that during the medieval period, spices were valued as a means to hide the aroma and taste of rotten food. Spices were valued then as now, as flavorings for food and beverages, and as medicines. They were so valued by the ancients that two of the gifts borne by the Magi to present the infant Jesus were spices – frankincense and myrrh according to the Biblical account. So, it is little wonder that nations and tribes throughout the world fought wars over such a valuable commodity. There were wars fought among the peoples of the Spice Islands over the right to trade with the Europeans, and wars between the Europeans over which nation would dominate the trade.

During the so-called Golden Age of Piracy spice-laden ships were popular targets among the corsairs. Their valuable cargoes could easily be converted to gold and silver by trading with corrupt government officials, many of whom were in reality land-based pirates themselves. Most of the Spice Wars of the 17th and 18th centuries were fought by national companies, which built their own ships and supported their own private armies, usually recruited from among the native peoples with whom they traded. Government forces provided aid surreptitiously, often by licensing privateers with letters of marque. The license allowed them to capture the ships of specified nations and protected them from charges of piracy. During the age of colonization in the 17th and 18th centuries, European companies built large trading posts and fortifications in the Spice Islands. They became the basis of numerous conflicts and wars.

These Wars were Started Over… Food
Amsterdam shipyard of the Dutch East India Company in a 1696 painting. Wikimedia

5. The Dutch-Portuguese War expanded the Dutch trading empire

During the 17th century, the European continent endured several wars over issues such as religion, dynastic successions, and territorial expansion. Early in the century Portugal, then a leading maritime and colonial power, shared a dynastic throne with the Spanish Empire as the Iberian Union. Their chief trading competitor, in the Caribbean, the African Coast, and the Spice Islands of the East Indies, were the Dutch. In 1602, while embroiled in an ongoing struggle for independence from the Iberian Union, the Dutch created the Dutch East India Company. A megacorporation, the East India Company became the first publicly traded corporation in the world. It maintained its own army and fleet, created and governed colonies, negotiated treaties, and grew to dominate the spice trade. The Dutch West India Company attempted to establish a Dutch empire in the New World, and in Africa.

In the late 16th century, Philip II of Spain ordered an embargo against spices shipped by the rebellious Dutch provinces, then known as the Republic of the Seven United Provinces. Following the creation of the Dutch East India Company open warfare broke out between the Dutch company and the Portuguese. Portugal complained to the Spanish throne that it paid more attention to Spanish colonies and little to the defense of the Portuguese, as the Iberian Union. The Dutch took advantage of Spanish laxity. The war over the spice trade created a Dutch Empire in Africa, India, Southeast Asia, the Philippines, and in the islands and archipelagos throughout the Indian and Southwest Pacific oceans. The war over the spice trade lasted over 60 years.

These Wars were Started Over… Food
A church in the Dutch settlement at Batavia, 1682. Wikimedia

6. The Dutch-Portuguese War expanded into a nearly global war

Initially, the Dutch-Portuguese war was fought in the waters around Portugal’s Indian colonies, and in the South Pacific coast of Asia. The Dutch, in addition to capturing Portuguese colonies there, seized Jakarta (Batavia), establishing a base from which to expand to other Spice Islands. Malacca fell to the Dutch, as did the possessions of Ceylon and the Malabar Coast. The expansion of the Dutch into other islands allowed them a considerable advantage in the spice trades by the middle of the 17th century. Encouraged by the rapid growth of their trading empire, and the riches coming into their country, Dutch investors created the West India Company. The West India Company attempted to seize the Portuguese sugar plantations in South America and the Caribbean, as well as their slave factors in Angola, on the continent of Africa.

Thus the Spice Wars between the contending European powers expanded into a Sugar War, with a Dutch expedition to Brazil in 1624. The Dutch West India Company also established a colony in North America, on the island of Manhattan near the mouth of the Hudson River. During the subsequent Anglo-Dutch Wars it was ceded to the English, renamed New York in honor of the Duke of York. The wars over spices in the Indian and Pacific oceans allowed the Dutch to establish an extensive empire, through which they dominated the spice trade for centuries. The sugar wars were less successful for them, though they did establish a long-lived presence in Africa. The Dutch retained their colonial possessions in the South Pacific until they were seized by the Japanese during World War II. They reclaimed many following the war.

These Wars were Started Over… Food
Louis Philippe of France used the Pastry War as a device through which he could influence events in North America. Wikimedia

7. The First French Intervention in Mexico, 1838-1839

Also known as the Pastry War, and claimed to have been fought over the looting of a bakery, the causes of the war were considerably more complex. The young Mexican Republic suffered growing pains in the years following independence from Spain. Among them was extensive civil disorder, caused by food shortages, the lack of ready money, and political differences among monarchists and republicans. Riots and minor insurgencies occurred throughout the country. A large contingent of French immigrants could be found in Mexico. French trade with Mexico was extensive, making the French Mexico’s third-largest trading partner, behind the United States and Great Britain. But no official treaty between Mexico and France had then been signed, making the complaints of French citizens in Mexico outside the responsibility of the Mexican government when matters of compensation were concerned.

During the outbreaks of civil disorder, many shops and businesses were looted or ransacked. Those owned by Mexicans or Americans sought compensation from the Mexican government, as dictated by the treaties between the two nations. Frenchmen who saw their businesses damaged needed to instead address the government in Paris. The French government was in receipt of many such complaints in the late 1820s and early 1830s. In 1828 rioting in the Parian Market in Mexico City was directed at French-owned shops and stalls; all were looted. Appeals to the Mexican government for compensation fell on deaf ears. Mexico and France did not establish full diplomatic relations until 1830, after the fall of Charles X in France following the July Revolution. Louis-Philippe replaced him as King of the French, and the Bourbons ceased to be the Royal Family of France.

These Wars were Started Over… Food
The self-styled “Napoleon of the West, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna used the Pastry War to springboard back into power. Wikimedia

8. The Pastry War was a true international crisis

Exactly when King Louis-Philippe received a letter from an allegedly French pastry chef in Mexico is unknown. Chef Remontel complained in his letter of his shop, in a small town outside Mexico City, being looted by officers in the Mexican Army. Chef Remontel wanted reparations from the Mexican Government of 60,000 pesos in order to make himself whole following the experience. His shop, according to historical accounts, was worth about 1,000 pesos. But no matter. Louis Philippe directed his Prime Minister, Louis-Matthew Mole, to look into the matter, as well as the other complaints from French citizens in Mexico which had accumulated over the years. In 1838, several years after the alleged pastry shop incident, France demanded Mexico pay 600,000 pesos to the French government, which would distribute it accordingly to its citizens.

At the time the average wage for workers in Mexico was about one peso per day. The Mexican government of President Anastasio Bustamente ignored the request, considering the amount exorbitant. In response to the Mexican non-response, the French dispatched a naval squadron under Admiral Charles Baudin with orders to seal the Mexican Gulf Coast ports and capture Veracruz, the largest port in Mexico. In December 1838, with Veracruz then in French hands and with trade at a standstill, Mexico declared war on France. During the fighting at Veracruz, a name well known to both Mexicans and Americans emerged from a self-imposed exile near Xalapa. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, who had surrendered to the Army of Texas less than three years earlier, offered his services to the Mexican government. Citizens of the Republic of Texas viewed the return of Santa Anna with considerable alarm.

These Wars were Started Over… Food
The Pastry War led directly to the Second French Intervention in Mexico during the American Civil War. Wikimedia

9. Texas acted to prevent Mexican smuggling during the Pastry War

With Mexican ports closed and blockaded by French ships, imports of badly needed goods crawled to a stop. As with any blockade in history, certain parties saw it as an opportunity. Mexican smugglers began landing goods in Corpus Christi, Republic of Texas, and carrying them into Mexico across the Rio Grande. This raised concerns among the good citizens of Corpus Christi. One was that France would extend the blockade to the Texas coast. Another was that they could be seen as aiding Santa Anna and the Mexican Army. Texas forces began patrolling the bay and its landing sites to interdict smugglers. Flour Bluff in Corpus Christi got its name when smugglers fled from pursuit, leaving behind their shipment of flour which they had brought ashore.

The US Navy, also concerned with French intercession in North America, dispatched the armed schooner Woodbury to suppress smuggling, as well as keep an eye on the French. Santa Anna, who had led the defense of Veracruz in December 1838 (without government authorization) suffered a wound which cost him a leg. Though his actions in the Pastry War ended, he successfully exploited his wound and was soon restored to power. In March 1839, a treaty of peace ended the so-called Pastry War, in which France extorted 600,000 pesos from the Mexicans, money they could ill afford. The money was never paid. In 1861, with the United States diverted by secession and the beginning of the Civil War, France returned to Mexico. The Second French Intervention in Mexico was directly linked to the first, and ended with the French being humiliated.

These Wars were Started Over… Food
A central argument during the Lobster War was whether spiny lobsters crawled or swam. Wikimedia

10. During the Lobster War the French argued that lobsters were fish

The 1961-63 Lobster War is somewhat misnamed. The conflict was over spiny lobsters, also called rock lobsters, which lack the large and edible claws of the lobster. Off the northeast coast of Brazil, they abound, crawling along the continental shelf at a depth of 250+ feet. In 1961 Brazil claimed a territorial limit for its waters of 100 miles. That year French lobstermen, who had formerly taken their catch off Mauretania, ventured into Brazilian waters. The French lobster boats were considerably larger than their Brazilian counterparts, capable of carrying larger catches. Lobstermen from the Brazilian state of Pernambuco asked for help from the Brazilian Navy. The Navy dispatched corvettes to the area to investigate and found the complaints of the lobstermen to be well-founded. The French boats were ordered to move to deeper water. They refused to leave.

Instead, the French lobstermen radioed their predicament to the French Navy, and requested a warship be sent to escort the lobster boats as they took in their catch. When the Brazilian Navy heard of the request it placed its own navy on high alert. Brazil’s Foreign Minister accused the French of an act of open hostility. On February 21, 1961, French President Charles de Gaulle ordered the then state-of-the-art destroyer Tartu dispatched to the region to support the French boats. Meanwhile, diplomats from both nations argued over whether spiny lobsters were fish, caught while swimming in open water, or crustaceans, which like oysters had to be dragged off the seabed. With the Brazilian Navy preparing for war, and the always unpredictable de Gaulle rattling French sabers, it appeared the Lobster War would erupt into a shooting war.

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