HMS Satellite

There have been many geographical sites in British Columbia named for the vessels that plied our waters in the 18th and 19th centuries. One of these ships that was of local interest was HMS Satellite, a Pearl Class 21 gun screw corvette built at Devonport in England in 1855 – 1856. She was stationed on the Pacific coast from 1857 to 1860, and Satellite Channel, that familiar body of water where many of us utilize for recreation, between Saltspring Island and Vancouver Island is named for her. Unfortunately, Satellite Reef in Nanaimo Harbour is also her namesake, as she had the misfortune of hitting it in June of 1860 when the buoy marking the hazard was out of position.

On our coast, the Satellite was best known for “gunboat diplomacy” during the Pig and Potato War of 1859 in the San Juan Islands when the border between the United States and the British Colony was in dispute. Both British and American settlers were living in the area when, on June 15th an American farmer shot an Irishman’s pig that had been rooting in the farmer’s potato patch. When the two parties could not agree on compensation for the pig, the British threatened to arrest the killer. The Americans, now feeling insecure, requested military assistance, and in the ensuing squabble that evolved into an international incident, the Satellite along with three other British ships landed marines on San Juan Island to confront the American troops sent to protect their settlers.

From Victoria, Governor James Douglas, ever the protector of Empire, commanded the marines to attack. The Americans received equally bellicose instructions from Washington. Fortunately, common sense prevailed, and neither the British nor the American commander were willing to initiate an international conflict over a dead pig. The only shots that were exchanged were verbal and both sides eventually settled into a relatively cordial stalemate with about 100 British troops camped on the northern end of San Juan Island and a similar number of the American military camped on the south end.

The border was finally decided in favour of the United States in 1872 by an international commission appointed by Kaiser Wilhelm ll of Germany. Thus, the Gulf Islands and the San Juan Islands eventually became the separated by an international border because of a wandering pig. By this time HMS Satellite was long gone from the west coast having returned to the United Kingdom in 1860.


The Cobble Hill Historical Society meets on the second Tuesday of the month at 7:00 pm in the Youth Hall at 3665 Watson Avenue in Cobble Hill.

our address

Cobble Hill Historical Society
c/o Brenda Krug
785 Red Oak Drive
Cobble Hill, BC V0R 1L4