Commentator Thea Marshall remembers the first time she looked at an open oyster and was expected to eat that strange bi-valve. It had to be great, otherwise, why were wars fought over it? There were territorial wars and then wars between tongers and dredgers, replete with oyster police and a so called oyster navy. And it was all about that remarkable creature and the folks who crave it. Jonathan Swift wrote, “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster.”
“Fortress Monroe, Virginia. Another oyster war seems imminent and a call to arms from the governor of Virginia is almost hourly expected. Persons who today arrived here from Richmond and Lancaster Counties report that large fleets of alien oyster vessels are depredating upon the oyster beds of the Rappahannock.” New York Times, March 10, 1882.
That word, “depredating” dates back, well, to the mid-1600’s, and means plundering and pillaging, and in those early days we found the seeds of the very first oyster wars, when King Charles I did a most unusual divvying up of the Potomac River running between Maryland and Virginia. The King didn’t divvy it up, he gave it all to Maryland. And, of course, with the Potomac came its white gold: the oyster. So the very first oyster wars were based on the territorial dispute.
The ones beginning in the 1880’s were not between states but between tongers and dredgers, between the Virginia State government, who had abolished dredging in 1879, and dredging oystermen. Tonging for oysters was slow and steady and relatively environmentally friendly: the tongs, like great wooden rakes, raking the oysters from shallow oyster beds. Dredging meant going deep down onto the floor of the river, scraping up huge numbers of oysters. This was no friendly war. The dredgers were armed. The Virginia Assembly provided guns and ammunition to the tongers. There developed a so-called “oyster navy” and “oyster police”. Shots were fired, men were killed, and skirmishes were being reported well into the 1940’s.
Sadly, the” use-it-until-it’s-gone” philosophy took its toll. The waters that were home to billions and billions of oysters, well, they are no longer pristine. The natural filtering and cleaning role of the oysters has been left to a sadly diminished number of those bivalves. It’s sometimes hard to believe that something so inherently ugly could be the focus of hungry passion for the creature. As well as wars. Dr. Robert Hedeen in his book The Oyster wrote “the oyster is not a beautiful animal, except to another oyster. Yet, this nondescript mass of protoplasm, living two shells, has influenced human civilization.”
Well, one of the most interesting, to me, role of the oyster was its influence to create our constitution. After the revolution we were essentially govern-less, and the oyster wars cried out for some kind of governance. Eventually delegates were sent to the first Constitutional Convention to draft and propose and approve laws which make up our American Constitution.
I do like oysters, but I remember how stunned I was to look for the very first time at an open one and realize, I was expected to eat that stuff. And I did! Still, I do congratulate the very first human who tried it.
This is Thea Marshall.