By Anton La Guardia
Is a lobster a fish? The solution to this arcane question
in 1904 was the foundation of the Entente Cordiale between Britain and
France and, ultimately, of their military alliance through two world wars.
The entente - a set of diplomatic accords signed on April
8, 1904 - was a grand tidying up of colonial disputes stretching from
Newfoundland to Africa and the Far East.
But its real significance was the tectonic shift on the
European continent: rival powers were re-aligning themselves to confront
the growing menace of Germany.
According to historians, few other contemporary issues
take up more acres of paperwork in the archives in the Foreign Office than
the dispute over fishing rights in Newfoundland.
Under the terms of the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, Breton
fishermen were entitled to fish off British territory and dry their catch
on its shore. Over time they came into conflict with Newfoundland's
settlers. In the 1880s the row deepened over the question of lobster.
While Britain and the Newfoundlanders contended that
lobster were not "fish", France defended the right of its citizens to
catch lobster and process it on the shore.
"Again and again the two countries seemed drifting to the
brink of war over the question 'whether the lobster was a fish', "
reported The Telegraph.
Under the terms of the entente, France formally renounced
its territorial rights to the "French shore", abandoning its last toehold
in North America. However, Frenchmen were allowed to continue fishing the
waters and Britain accepted that lobster was, after all, akin to cod.
In return, Britain offered France several colonial border
adjustments in the Gambia, Guinea and Nigeria which allowed France to
consolidate its vast African empire.
British newspapers saw the settlement with the ancestral
French enemy as the cornerstone of "universal peace". Little did they know
that within a decade Britain and France would become allies in the
deadliest war yet seen.