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Dayhoff: From tea to cigars to bird droppings, trade wars nothing new

Dayhoff: From tea to cigars to bird droppings, trade wars nothing new
On March 24, 1775, a scathing political cartoon surfaced in England which satirized the women who participated in the Edenton Tea Party. “A society of patriotic ladies, at Edenton in North Carolina,” attributed to Philip Dawe, courtesy of the Library of Congress. (Library of Congress)

Since the beginning of time, history is steeped in the economic turmoil of trade, conflicts and disputes over trade — and actual trade wars.

The impact of trade policies once again became a discussion at the dinner table, the water cooler or at the union hall on March 1 when President Donald Trump announced his intention to plunge forward with his campaign promises to organized labor and put into effect a tariff on steel and aluminum imports. On March 8, he signed an order to impose the tariffs after a 15-day waiting period.

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Like a soap opera of kindergarten proportions, barrels of ink will be spilled and hours of partisan bickering will be spent over the wisdom of such an approach. Ultimately, the matter will be resolved at a level well above your pay grade or mine.

Mention famous moments in history caused by trade conflicts and the Boston Tea Party on Dec. 16, 1773 quickly comes to mind. However, how many folks are aware of the Edenton Tea Party in North Caroline? If 2018 is another “Year of the woman” in politics, you want to get up to speed on this famous food fight over trade.

A recent article on National Public Radio reminds us that “what's remarkable about the Edenton Tea Party is that it was all women — possibly the first women-driven political protest in U.S. history.”

According to multiple historic accounts, on Oct. 25, 1774, 51 women in Edenton, N.C., signed a compact to boycott tea in response to measures imposed upon the colonies on May 10, 1773 to help the floundering British East India Company. In particular, the acts of Edenton women activists received worldwide attention because it was unheard of in those days for women to be politically active. In March 1775, a scathing political cartoon surfaced in England which satirized the women who participated in the Edenton Tea Party.

The actions of women activists have a long and rich tradition in the history of our country all the way from Carroll County to national politics to the days of colonial rule. Locally, think Mary Bostwick Shellman. Carroll County went “dry” in 1914 — six years before prohibition took effect in January 1920 for the rest of the United States, in part as a result of the activism of Shellman, She was noted, among many things, as being determined to banish Westminster’s 21 saloons, according to my Westminster High School classmate, Nancy Warner’s book, “Carroll County Maryland, A History 1837-1976.”

Sixty years ago, on March 14, 1958 the first of several embargoes on trade with Cuba was enacted during the reign of the Fulgencio Batista regime. However, famously, minutes before President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order extending trade restrictions on Feb. 7, 1962, he had his White House press secretary Pierre Salinger buy 1,200 “Petit Upmann” Cuban cigars.

In what might be my all-time favorite trade war, in the 1850s, a trade dispute over bird droppings sadly led to actual armed conflict. In an article I researched and wrote 10 years ago, I reported that in 1856, Congress enacted a law that is still on the books, “Whenever any citizen of the United States discovers a deposit of guano on any island … and takes peaceable possession thereof, and occupies the same … at the discretion of the President, (it will) be considered as appertaining to the United States.”

The act actually came about as a result of a cold war with Great Britain in the 1800s. Guano, which is a Spanish corruption of the Inca word, “wanu,” was the stuff of enormous economic value in those days and Great Britain and the Unites States came to the brink of war over bird droppings on several occasions.

The economic value came from the fact that there are islands in the Pacific in which years of bird droppings have accumulated to hundreds of feet deep. The material is prized as a fertilizer as it is rich in nitrogen and phosphorus — which also happens to make it valuable in the making of gunpowder. The history of wars between South American countries fills history books. However, as much as the U.S. and Great Britain almost came to blows over claims and counter-claims for guano-rich islands in the Pacific; Spain, Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador fought not one, but two wars over bird droppings in the 1800s: “The Chincha Islands War,” from 1864 to 1866; and the “War of the Pacific,” from 1879–1883.

Spring forward to today and one can only imagine how much guano we will wade through before this latest trade dispute will work its way into history.

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