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A wry view of life for the world-weary

An Eye For An Eye Will Only Make The Whole World Blind – Part Two

The Pig War of 1859

Geography is no respecter of human logic.

It should have been quite simple. The aim of the Oregon Treaty, signed by the United States and Britain, was supposed to settle for once and for all the long running border dispute as to where the States ended and British America, later to become Canada, began. The 49th parallel was established as the border and it remains so to this day.

There was just one problem though – the islands to the south-west of Vancouver, particularly San Juan island, which commanded a strategic position at the mouth of the channel. The treaty gaily drew a line down the middle of the channel along the 49th parallel, bisecting the island into two. Both countries claimed sovereignty and by 1859 the Brits had a sizeable community there and the Hudson’s Bay Company had established a salmon-curing station and a sheep ranch there. There were some 20 to 30 American settlers, including a farmer, a certain Lyman Cutlar.

On 15th June 1859 Cutlar noticed a pig rooting among his potatoes and in a fit of pique shot and killed the porker. The pig’s owner, a Brit called Charles Griffin, confronted Cutlar and sketchy contemporary reports record the conversation as going something along the lines of; “Cutlar: …but it was eating my potatoes!” Griffin: “Rubbish. It’s up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig”. One can imagine this is a somewhat bowdlerised version of the actual conversation. Griffin was offered $10 by the American farmer but refused the compensation.

Instead Griffin reported the incident to the British authorities who threatened to arrest Cutlar, prompting the American settlers to petition to their authorities for protection. The recipient of the petition was the commander of the Department of Oregon, General William S Harney, who was well-known for his anti-British views, and on 27th July he despatched a 66 man company of the 9th Infantry to the island.

The dispute quickly escalated, the governor of British Columbia, James Douglas, dispatching three British warships to the channel in a display of Palmerstonian gun-boat diplomacy. The Americans refused to back down and during the summer the number of forces on each side steadily increased, although the Brits held the numerical advantage. By the time the Commander-in-Chief of the British Navy in the Pacific, Robert Baynes, had arrived with his vessels, there was something like 5 warships, 84 guns and over 2,600 men involved in the stand-off.

Douglas ordered Baynes to invade San Juan and engage the 9th Infantry in combat. Sensibly, Douglas refused, commenting that he would not “involve two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig.” Instead, the governments in Washington and London stepped in as word of this bizarre squabble reached them and agreed a temporary solution, restricting the number of people on the island to one hundred apiece. The Brits occupied the north of the island and the Americans the south.

And there they stayed until the dispute was finally resolved in 1872 by an international commission led by Kaiser Wilhelm I. They ruled in the favour of the Americans. Today, San Juan island is the only bit of American soil where a foreign flag is regularly hoisted, the Union Jack having been donated by the British as a peace gesture.

I have no idea what happened to Cutlar and Griffin or whether the pig was eaten, for that matter.

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