Published February 19, 2018
1976 was the year the Cod Wars between Iceland and Britain ended, but it was not without at least one casualty.
The Cod Wars comprised a series of conflicts between Iceland and Great Britain over the use of fishing waters in the North Atlantic. Clashes between the two nations were, for the most part, bloodless. British warships and Icelandic trawlers would get intimidatingly close to one another, sometimes even ramming one another, but for much of the time the conflict was diplomatic.
All that would change on February 19 of 1976. On that day, Iceland broke diplomatic relations with Britain over the Cod Wars and, in parliamentary debates in the UK, “the first casualty of the Cod Wars” was revealed: a fisherman from Grimsby who was serious injured when a hawser – a thick cable used in mooring a towing a ship – was severed by an Icelandic trawler and struck the fisherman in question.
While to many observers, the Cod Wars were a matter of a plucky underdog standing up to an imperial power, opinion was sharply divided on the matter in the UK. In those same parliamentary debates, Sir Frederic Bennett summed up the country’s sentiments clearly:
“In view of what has been said about Iceland, I should not fairly be representing either my own view or that of my constituents if I said that the present policy receives unanimous approval in this country. It does not. It certainly does not in the South-West. It is not a matter of arguing that the Government are not legally correct. They are. In every possible respect we have obeyed and are obeying the law, and we expect the Icelanders to obey the law.
“We had a debate a few days ago on the subject of morality and foreign politics. Even when one is legally in the right—and we are—there are moments when one has to weigh one factor against another. Some hon. Members have referred to Iceland as having only one industry on which it can depend.
“Iceland is a small country. Some people wonder whether, if it was a question of Russia illegally extending its limits, we should send frigates to protect our fishing boats off her coasts. Some people believe that Britain insists on its rights with Iceland because Iceland is small enough for us to get away with it. That view is widely held in this country. The other day the Senate of the United States passed a measure stating that it would unilaterally extend its limits to 200 miles. No one believes that we would interfere with America if America chose to exert that authority.”
In short, Brits were well aware that they were pushing Iceland around because they could get away with it, and this was making the conflict increasingly unpopular with the populace.
Ultimately, Iceland would win the Cod Wars in June of that year, and still enjoys the expansive fishing territory that they use today. But it’s important to remember that the Cod War was not completely free of violence, and that the British incursions were not unanimously accepted by all of Britain.