Monday, 18 April 2016


One of the most depressing things about war is the fact that, after the smoke clears and all the bodies have been buried (the ones you can find anyway), the general consensus is, "why the hell did we just do that"?

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see all the missed opportunities to settle whatever differences we had without slaughtering each other. This is never more so than when the reason for going to war was something utterly trivial in the first place.

One such incident came to be known as the Football War of 1969 and was fought between the Central American countries of  Honduras and El Salvador. It's true enough that tensions had been brewing between the two countries for some time but the trigger for hostilities to begin was a World Cup qualifying match for the 1970 Championship.

Fans on both sides were deemed by each other to have have been responsible by committing terrible acts such as mocking their national anthems and flags.

This would have been nothing more than a comical footnote in football history had it not been used by both nations as an excuse to begin hostilities, resulting in over 4000 casualties, mostly civilian as is sadly often the case, and a war which only formally ended in 1980.

The Pig War of 1859

This brings me to the infamous "Pig War of 1859" between Great Britain and the United States.

You may be forgiven for being unaware of this event as it seems to have become lost to history but it contains important lessons for anyone who finds themselves in an escalating situation and needs to consider their actions and possible consequences.

In 1846 the British and US governments signed the Oregon Treaty which finally settled the dispute over the border between the US and Canada. The agreement was that the new border would be drawn along 49 degrees of latitude, the famous 49th parallel, which is still in force today.

This was simple enough until you get to just off the West coast of Canada where there a number of islands in the straight dividing the mainland from Vancouver's Island which was agreed, would remain in British hands. The 49th parallel passes through the islands with no regard for the treaty and caused a particular problem when it arrived at the island of San Juan. Situated strategically in the middle of the channel, it was argued over by the British and Americans for several years.

In the mean time, the island was being populated by a number of both British and American settlers who, apparently, got on with each other perfectly well with just one notable exception. This being the case of an Irish farmer named Charles Griffin and an American, Lynman Cutlar.

Charles Griffin owned several pigs which he used to allow to roam all over the Island, one of these pigs roamed onto the land of Lynman Cutlar where it began to eat the potatoes growing in his field. Angry at seeing his profit being eaten away so to speak, he shot the pig.

Sir James Douglas
Charles Griffin took exception to this and confronted the American who said "but it was eating my potatoes". Griffin's reply of "rubbish, it's up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig" did nothing to defuse the situation and despite Cutlar offering $10 in compensation, Griffin took the matter to the local British authorities. 

Instead of telling both of them to grow up and settle the matter, they actually threatened to arrest Cutlar which in turn angered the American citizens who then drew up a petition asking for military assistance.

General William S Harney
Now enters General William S Harney, commander of the Department of Oregon. Harney was a man of violent temper and was known to hold anti British sentiments, probably as a result of British anti slavery laws. In 1834 Harney had to escape justice in Missouri after whipping a female slave to death because of the misplacement of some keys. He later acquired the title of "Woman Killer" during his genocidal campaign against the Soux in 1855.

Harney sent a 66 man company of infantry to the island. In response, James Douglas, the Governor of British Columbia decided to send a task force of three warships. There then followed a stand off with the American soldiers refusing to back down despite being heavily outnumbered.

Fortunately, the arrival of Admiral Robert L Baynes, Commander in Chief of the Royal Navy in the Pacific brought the matter to a swift end when he refused an order from Douglas to engage the Americans stating that "I will not engage two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig".

Once Washington and London had become aware of what was happening, negotiations quickly began. General Harney was quietly removed and it was agreed that both countries would maintain a presence of 100 soldiers each until the status of the island's sovereignty could be settled. This didn't happen until 1872 when an international commission lead by Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany decided the island should come under American control.

Disclaimer - not the actual pig
One of the few wars in which there were no casualties, except for the poor pig.

The British and American camps on San Juan Island can still be visited at the National Historical Park.

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