3 Conflicts Sparked by Food
Food fights: They're not just for the middle school cafeteria!
1. The Pig War
While the United States and Britain were settling their territorial disputes in the Pacific Northwest in the 19th century, a vaguely-worded treaty and a pig almost led to all-out war. The Treaty of Oregon had established the American boundary at “the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver's Island.” The hitch was that the San Juan Islands sat in between Vancouver Island and the mainland, meaning there was a channel on either side, and the treaty didn’t specify which one was the border.
The U.S. and Britain both claimed the islands as their own, and settlers from both countries began living and working on them. They coexisted well enough until June 1859, when an American farmer found a large pig rooting through his garden and eating his vegetables. This wasn’t the first time he’d seen the pig doing this, and he’d had enough, so he grabbed his gun and killed the animal.
The pig belonged to an Irishman who worked for the British trading company on the island, and the farmer approached him and offered $10 as compensation. An argument ensued, and when British authorities threatened to arrest the farmer, the American settlers asked for, and received, protection from the U.S. Army. The British responded by sending a small naval force.
Each side continued to counter the other with more military support, and by the end of the summer, the island hosted 461 American soldiers with 14 cannons and three British ships carrying 70 guns and 2140 soldiers. Both sides engaged in verbal sparring and goaded each other, but no shots were fired on either side.
When word of the situation reached Washington and London, the two governments negotiated an end to the conflict, and asked Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany to arbitrate the border dispute. The Germans sided with the Americans and established the border on the far side of the islands, giving possession of the islands to them and ending the war with only a single casualty—the poor pig.
2. The Turbot War
In the early 1990s, Canada’s cod fishery in the Atlantic collapsed. Searching for an alternative fish that could be harvested sustainably, Canadian fisherman turned attention to Greenland halibut, sometimes known as turbot. But they weren’t alone: Foreign fleets also began fishing for turbot on the edge of Canada’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ)—the part of the ocean off a country’s coast where it has special rights to resources—sometimes crossing over into Canadian waters and taking fish illegally, or with gear banned in the country.
Worried that turbot would go the way of cod because of the foreign fishermen, the Canadian government decided to make an example of one of the ships. On March 9, 1995, boats from the Canadian coast guard, navy and Department of Fisheries and Oceans intercepted and captured a Spanish trawler operating near the edge of their waters. They impounded the boat, arrested its captain and crew, and later unveiled the boat’s illegal, small-mesh net at a press conference.
As Spain and Canada argued over the incident, fishing boats from both countries continued to fish for turbot, with Spanish naval patrol boats accompanying the Spanish trawlers for protection when they neared the edge of the EEZ. Concerned that the conflict would escalate, the European Union pressured Spain into a settlement that kept their ships well away from the EEZ and got the impounded trawler’s owner a refund for the money they paid to get it released.
3. The Egg War
Not far off the coast of San Francisco sit the Farallon Islands, one of the largest seabird colonies in the United States. During the California Gold Rush, a group of entrepreneurs, led by a man known as Doc Robinson, looked at the bird egg-covered islands and saw their own kind of gold mine. Robinson and a few other men sailed to the islands in the early 1850s, declared themselves the owners of the land by right of possession, and started collecting and selling eggs as the Egg Company.
The Egg Company’s success eventually attracted imitators and competitors, including a company led by David Batchelder. In 1863, after already being run off by the Egg Company once before, Batchelder attempted to land on the islands with more than two dozen armed men and break Robinson’s egg monopoly by force. The Egg Company was waiting for them, though, and the two groups exchanged fire. Batchelder’s men eventually retreated, but not before one man from each side was killed and four of Batchelder’s men were wounded.
Afterwards, Batchelder was put on trial for murder and the Egg Company once again had control of the islands. Egging on the Farallons was eventually prohibited after government lighthouse keepers were attacked by eggers who thought that foghorn scared the birds away. The islands were later declared a wildlife refuge and are closed to the public today.