This day in 1859 witnessed the start of one of the more bizarre international conflicts in history, when Great Britain and the United States became embroiled in what became known as The Pig War. At stake was sovereignty over the tiny island of San Juan.
The dispute arose as a consequence of an attempt to define the border between the USA and Canada: the Oregon Treaty of 1843. Unfortunately its wording was vague regarding the western extreme of the two countries. It stipulated that the border ran down the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a broad channel separating Vancouver Island in British Columbia from the American mainland. But the treaty did not account for the islands that lay in the channel, among them the strategically important and potentially lucrative island of San Juan.
Britain argued that the Rosario Strait should be considered the international boundary, meaning San Juan fell under British jurisdiction, while the USA recognised the more westerly Haro Strait as the international boundary, bringing the island under American sovereignty. Without formal definition of the island’s status, groups of mainly farmers and loggers from both countries settled on the island, and a peaceful, if resentful, regime of co-existence was maintained.
But in 1859, the simmering atmosphere of hostility spectacularly erupted. The unwitting catalyst for the conflagration was a pig, property of Irishman Charles Griffin. The pig made the fateful decision to wander onto the property of American Lyman Cutlar, where it set upon the farmer’s vegetable garden. Cutlar, on discovering the intruder, reached for his rifle, and shot the pig dead.
This incident was to escalate at an alarming rate. Griffin immediately demanded compensation for his slain animal, but the $10 Cutlar offered was only a fraction of what Griffin felt he was due. Griffin duly insisted that Cutlar be arrested for the misdemeanour; something that would require the presence of British troops. The Americans, unhappy at the prospect of even a small British military presence on the island, dispatched a battalion of soldiers to San Juan, in order to prevent the British landing. Undeterred, the British raised the stakes by sending three warships to the island.
Over the following weeks a mini arms race ensued, as both sides rushed to strengthen their position. By the end of August almost 3000 troops had been dispatched to San Juan, and an uneasy standoff was being maintained. With neither side wanting to be seen as instigating hostilities, the conflict remained thankfully bloodless, with name-calling and saber-rattling being the closest the two sides came to combat.
Alarmed at the rate the dispute had escalated, British and American diplomats acted swiftly to negotiate a withdrawal of forces, and within a few months both sides had just a token presence on the island. San Juan remained in political limbo for the next twelve years, but in 1871 it was decided to settle the issue of sovereignty for good. An independent commission, headed by Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany, eventually decided in favour of the US, prompting the withdrawal of all British troops from the island in November 1872, and bringing The Pig War, perhaps the only war in history without a single (human) fatality, to a close.
Image: British troops evacuate English Camp on San Juan Island, Washington Territory, in 1872, following resolution of boundary dispute by arbitration, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.