International Intrigue Off the Maine Coast
In response to promptings from my fan base, I attempted another interview with the captain and crew of the USS Francisco. My efforts were thwarted, however, by one of those rare occurrences that haunt even the most seasoned journalists: The ship had already put out to sea. I sped southward to The Village and clambered across the rocks on the beach, and I could just make out the anal-retentive little silhouette of the ship close to the horizon.
Since Kate still won’t let me file a story about The Village, though, I figured it was time to learn more about the International Conflict surrounding Grand Seal Island. In response to my questions about the history of Grand Seal Island, I was directed several times to talk with Chrysanthemum Green, the town’s only lesbian librarian. OK — she’s the town’s only librarian, and she happens to be a lesbian, and that’s totally fine with me, and undoubtedly it’s fine with her, too, and somehow this seems journalistically relevant even though I didn’t bother to point out that Henry Coffin, for example, is straight, and that’s OK with me also. I’m not sure how journalists are supposed to handle things like this, but I’ll find out. Relationships get thorny when you put them into words.
Chrysanthemum Green — that cannot be her real name, but she insists that it is and everyone calls her Chrys — is not only the town’s librarian, but she’s also the town’s archivist, genealogist, historian, and yoga instructor. (Wednesday evenings, after the library’s closed.) In addition, she runs the general store, which abuts the library, and sells potatoes, rifles, underwear — that sort of thing. She is tall and thin, with short brown hair and glasses like transparent, tinted Frisbees. I tracked her down among the library’s aisle and asked her to tell me about GSI.
The disputed ownership of the Coffindom of Grand Seal Island apparently came about because cod fishing was so lucrative a century or two ago. Enormous shoals of the fish were found on Georges Bank, off the coast of Massachusetts. Even larger masses were found on the Great Banks off Newfoundland. Suddenly, everyone on the planet was up to his gills in codfish, and a lot of people were getting very rich from the harvest.
GSI falls roughly between Nova Scotia and Massachusetts, right near the border between Canada’s New Brunswick province and the American state of Maine. Because far better fishing could be found elsewhere, without having to go too far afield, neither the U.S. nor Canada cared much about installing a puppet regime on Grand Seal Island.
But recently the United States, bent as it is on world domination, decided to seize control of GSI on general principle. Canada, bent as it is on everyone just getting along nicely, suggested a peaceful sharing arrangement in which half the GSIers would hold U.S. passports and the other half Canadian, and everyone would trade once every six months or so.
Ultimately, in a standoff between the might of the American military and the overwhelming friendliness of the Canadian people, both nations simply decided to declare ownership. Most of the people on the island hold U.S. passports, but some are Canadian. Several people in The Village hold Belgian passports, just to be difficult.
The townspeople pay taxes to the GSI municipal government and contribute to the Volunteer Fire Department and the Library Fund, but no one kicks in a dime to either sovereign nation. As Henry explained to me, “When the American IRS stops by, we just tell ’em to buggar off and get stuffed, ’cause we’re Canadian. When the Canadian revenue people come snooping around, we just tell ’em to get the fuckin’ hell off our island, ’cause we belong to the good ol’ U.S. of A. Neither side can figure out what to do, so they usually just go away.”
Two of the least-famous battles in Naval history were fought over control of GSI. One of them involved a clash between the British and American forces, and as near as I can tell, it mainly involved the two navies circling the island chasing each other until both were too dizzy to pursue hostilities any further. The other battle featured an American wood-sided warship, sails billowing and cannon loaded, which engaged a Canadian fishing fleet that had, from the American point of view, taken an inexcusable number of cod from the “inexhaustible supply” that dwelt in the Maritimes. The warship, sensing an easy victory, sailed across the mouth of the harbor and let fly with all cannon, in a symbolic display of might and determination. The GSI fishermen, noting that the warship’s cannons were now empty, leapt out of the harbor on the offensive. One boat wrapped a fishing net around the warship’s rudder, disabling its steerage completely. While fishermen from the other boats pelted the Americans with stones, fishing hooks, and fetid bait whenever anyone ventured on deck to reload the cannons, one enterprising member of the fleet set fire to the pride of the United States Navy. The warship sank within minutes, and every member of the invading force was hauled from the sea, dripping and somewhat smelly, and imprisoned in the holds of the fishing boats alongside an impressive quantity of fresh and flopping cod.
From that point onward, the United States of America maintained that the sharing of GSI with Canada stands as a shining example of cooperation between two friendly and supportive nations. Until recent developments undermined that little hugfest, that is. Between the Canadian revenue guy stopping by with his phalanx of Mounties and the sudden arrival of the USS Francisco insisting that its guns really were loaded, the pleasant truce over the island seems to have ended.
At the moment, the score is:
The United States……1 Canada……1
And the ball is clearly in Canada’s court. The Americans saw your Mounties and raised you a battleship. At least one resident of this island is wondering: What will Canada do next?
— Donovan Graham, “The Shadowless Writer”
Comment — MapleLeaf249: We’ll bloody hell send the Yanks packing, that’s what we’ll do.
Comment — NavyBrat414: Um, do you guys even have an Army?
Comment — PolSci206: Nancy Thorpe’s International Relations class, here. We’ve done some research of our own, and the naval battles that Mr. Graham mentioned do indeed seem to be the highlights of the international conflict surrounding Grand Seal Island. The first battle was somewhat more involved than two navies chasing each other around an island, however. According to our sources, six sailors were killed in that battle, and one small Canadian gunboat was sunk. This naval battle is best known for the words uttered by one of the Canadian commanders when he sighted the American fleet: “Let’s sink their ships by teatime!”
Read previous blog entries in the Island Wars story by clicking here.