Lecture: Week 3, Part III: Going Fishing

Image courtesy of James L. Matterer, Medieval Woodcuts Clipart Collection, Gode Cookery Website, http://www.godecookery.com/clipart/clart.htm.

Last class we looked at the historiographic argument that epidemic disease was responsible for a discontinuity in the history of the Atlantic region between 1500 and 1600. This class we’ll look at the people who communicated the disease — prior to the arrival of permanent settlers.

3) Fishers

Supplying fish for European consumption from 1500-1600 was a lucrative business. Access to fishing grounds was therefore important; competition was therefore fierce (meaning access was actively — physically — fought for).

So, who were the major competitors and where did they get fish?


Fishing employed more Europeans than any other occupation except agriculture. [See http://www.oceanleadership.org/2009/study-unlocks-history-of-the-seas/]

Fishers, called ‘fishermen’, and mostly recorded under men’s names, were undoubtedly mostly male — a small minority, however, were likely female [or transgender].

Gender is not always clear in the records, clothing could be a ‘disguise’, in that [as we saw last class] one dressed to signal one’s station and obligations of allegiance. Fishers dressed in accord with their primary role on a voyage: to sail and fish, and to die trying — not to advertise any landward gender roles.

Signal of the dangers of going to sea: numerous reminders that ‘there be monsters’. Image courtesy of James L. Matterer, Medieval Woodcuts Clipart Collection, Gode Cookery Website, http://www.godecookery.com/clipart/clart.htm.

Some females (then as now) gender historians have shown, worked and dressed as men [and vice versa].

Fishers were skilled

“Sailors on the back of a whale, which they imagine to be an island,” see detail; “from Konrad Gesner’s Historia Animalia Liber IV (2nd edition, 1604).”  Image and note courtesy of James L. Matterer, Medieval Woodcuts Clipart Collection, Gode Cookery Website, http://www.godecookery.com/clipart/clart.htm.

— they had to be able to sail a ship, handle a shallop, and catch and process whales and fish.

— they were also fur traders (small scale to begin with)

— and they were privateers: they were armed, as were their ships, because warfare was always a possibility.

Fishers were varied ‘ethnically’. Fifty different European ports regularly participated in the trans-Atlantic fishery. Fishers were also a mobile workforce, in that they might work out of a port that was not their place of origin — recall the Portuguese fishers, pilots etc., working for Bristol merchants for example [Cabot, Fernandes/z]. Their loyalty was to their ship and their voyage — not necessarily to their parents’ monarch. [not indicator of treason, but of realities of survival].

They could switch sides at sea too. Lots of decision making was taking place away from the control of the authorities back on European soil.

Each voyage out and back was organized as a business venture between ship owners, crew, and provisioners [merchants]: all got a share of the profits from the sale of the catch. A voyage could take over a year from start to finish. Leave March/April — fish June – August — get to Europe September/October — sell fish at a port buying fish, pick up another cargo, sail back to home port. [Peter Pope goes into detail]

Image courtesy of James L. Matterer, Medieval Woodcuts Clipart Collection, Gode Cookery Website, http://www.godecookery.com/clipart/clart.htm.


i) Icelandic Fishery:

There were cod off Iceland and in the North Sea, the Scandinavians had fished those waters for thousands of years.

actors: a) English merchants, particularly from Bristol, ventured up into Icelandic waters from the 14th century to secure cod. By the 15th century dried cod had become an important product in Bristol, which was an important market — partly because it was conveniently located between Iceland and the Mediterranean, which was a major consumer market.

actors: b) but, in 1475 the Hanseatic League (an alliance of trading guilds of northern German towns which controlled the mouths of all the major rivers that ran north from central Europe, and thereby controlled much of the European — especially Baltic — trade between the 13th and the 17th centuries), cut the Bristol merchants off from access to Icelandic cod.

actors: c) The Basques were also major suppliers of cod, and, somehow, their catches do not appear to have been affected by the Hanseatic League restrictions. [Mark Kurlansky, The Basque History of the World (1999), argues that this suggests they had an alternate source.]

[For ‘time immemorial’ the Basques lived in ‘Euskadi’, what is now the northwest corner of Spain and a nick of the French southwest. They were a distinct people with their own language: Euskera. Possibly Europe’s oldest living language and one of four (along with Estonian, Finnish, and Hungarian), that are not Indo-European.]

From the Middle Ages, Basque commerce had been vibrant — 1st because of whaling (Europeans ate a lot of whale meat — the tongues were particularly prized). — and then because of fishing cod. The Basques sailed great distances to get their product — and were able to go whaling and fishing at great distances from their home ports and consumer markets because they knew

— where to secure the product [which they were secretive about]

— and how to preserve it, with salt, which they also had access to, and which they also knew how to use

— and they knew where there were markets for salted food.

In the Mediterranean world, there were salt deposits, and salted meats were popular. Originally, salting was a way to keep food through the winter, but by the Middle Ages such foods were eaten year round. When the Basque whalers applied their salting techniques to cod they found it worked exceptionally well [it outlasted whale (which is red meat), and also the popular herring (which is fatty)].

So by 1475, and for a time afterward, the Basques had an advantageous commercial position. Perhaps, as one historian of the Basques — Kurlansky — has argued, they were already accessing the 2nd important place where fishers fished …

ii) the Newfoundland Fishery: Terra Nova/Neuve/Neufves, which also included Nova Scotia, Cape Breton, New Brunswick, Labrador, and Maine — as far south as Cape Cod. [See also Fishery, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage website, http://www.heritage.nf.ca/society/fishery.html]

If so, the Basques would have encountered increased competition after 1500, when European fishers and investors pounced on the resource Cabot’s voyage had publicized. Fishers from Portugal (how many, how much, and for how long is debated), France, Spain, and England began regular, recorded, annual crossings of the North Atlantic to engage in the summer fishery. At first the Portuguese, French, and Spanish led the way and the English fleet was significantly smaller, but eventually the English fleet came to dominate, working Terra Nova’s coastal waters.

Some stats:

By 1508, 10% of the fish sold in the Portuguese ports of Douro and Minho was Newfoundland salt cod.

By 1510, salt cod was a staple in Normandy’s busy Rouen market.

Of 128 known fishing expeditions to Newfoundland between Cabot’s 1st voyage and 1550, more than 1/2 were from La Rochelle, 93 were French expeditions [some, of course, being Basque fishers]; the remainder were divided between the English, Spanish [also including Basques], and Portuguese.

By 1550 La Rochelle on the French Atlantic coast had become the premier Newfoundland fishing port in Europe.

By mid-century, 60% of all fish eaten in Europe was cod, the percentage was stable for the next 2 centuries.

By the 1580s St. John’s [NL] became a principal port for these fleets.

British fishers lagged behind others in heading to Newfoundland partly because initially, despite restrictions, they managed to fish off Iceland and the Faroe Islands. But, as conflict with the Hanseatic League over Iceland cod grew worse — to the point were navies were involved — England withdrew from Iceland’s fishery completely and switched to Newfoundland.

England’s proximity to North America was an advantage, but one disadvantage — compared to the French, Basque, Spanish, and Portuguese, was their lack of salt [this was also the other reason, besides sticking to the Icelandic fishery, that they were slower at entering the Newfoundland fishery]

c) Salt

1) Significance

Without salt, the Newfoundland fishery would not have been of interest to Europeans because getting sufficient fish to make a long trip worthwhile [enough fish caught that, when sold, would cover the cost of the voyage, provisioning and pay for all the labour involved, and return a profit] could not be brought back to Europe in edible condition without salt [the fish lie in the hold of a ship for months].

Salt trivia [from Kurlansky]:

— salt has apparently been an important article of trade since people started trading

— Early on, it became apparent that it was more profitable to trade & transport salted food than salt [Egyptians figured this out]

— The Latin word ‘sal’ became the French word ‘solde’, meaning ‘pay’, which is the origin of the word ‘soldier’.

— About 1281 the Venetians discovered it was more profitable to buy and sell salt than to produce it.

— Throughout history, because salt was essential, it was subjected to governmental monopoly and special taxes. Salt taxes supported English monarchs and thousands of subjects were imprisoned for smuggling salt. French kings developed a salt monopoly by selling exclusive rights of production to a favoured few, who exploited the right to the point where at least one historian has argued that the scarcity of salt was a major contributing factor of the French Revolution.

Salt manufacture

Salt ponds

Initially salt was obtained principally through evaporation. The idea of successive evaporation ponds seems to have originated in the Mediterranean, where coarse salt was valued for salting fish and curing hams.

During Roman times, from the Black Sea to the Strait of Gibraltar, salt production was usually placed near fishing areas, creating industrial zones that produced a range of salt-based products, including various salt fish, fish sauces [especially anchovies, which is the sauce that ketchup began as] and dyes [including royal purple].

2) Salt Fish

Salt cod

Salted fish was a common food throughout the Roman Empire, which surrounded the Basques. When the Basques began salting cod, the market was enormous, and, the product was well received. After a day of soaking it in fresh water, the flesh was whiter, leaner, and better, than the dark, oily, Mediterranean species that had been used before. Being fatless, air-dried, and salt-cured, the cod, stiff as planks of wood, but light weight, was easy to stack on wagons and haul over roads. It was an affordable food for the common people, but, with rich ingredients, could be dressed up for aristocrats.

All of the fishing countries of northern Europe wanted to participate in the extremely profitable salt cod market. After news of Cabot’s voyage to Newfoundland spread, they knew where to get cod, but the need for salt — to be able to compete in the market — increased dramatically.

And, initially, sea salt was believed to be the only salt suitable for curing sea fish [‘like for like’ was the logic]. [By 1745, an estimate appeared in the record: the Newfoundland cod fishery used at least 10,000 tons of salt annually.]

For the Portuguese, the salt cod trade meant growth years for both fishing and salt making. Lisbon was an ideal location, other ports built on similar inlets did well also — especially Setúbal, which gained a reputation for having the best salt for curing fish.

La Rochelle, initially a minor port because not on a river, owed its later success to its proximity to the Ile de Ré salt works.

Breton ports, on the north coast of Brittany/Bretagne, were likewise situated near salt works — and exempted from the hated French ‘gabelle’ or salt tax [exempted as an inducement to get them into the French kingdom]. [In the 17th century so many English, Welsh, Scottish, and Dutch ships put in to Le Croisie for salt that there were complaints of too prevalent a Protestant influence on townspeople].

The Basques, though without their own offshore fish supply or onshore salt works, had, by the 13th century, parleyed their shipbuilding skills [perhaps learned from Vikings] into a dependable sea-salt supply. They supplied the Genoese with large, well-built ships, and Genoa, in return, granted access to the salt works on the island of Ibiza. Plus, as a condition of their participation in France, the Basques were exempted from the gabelle, so were in an ideal position to trade salt in both France and Spain.

England, although it had ships, had insufficient sea salt for British fisheries. It lacked enough sunshine for the speedy solar evaporation used by its competitors.

Sea salt production in England involved washing salty sand and evaporating the salt water over a fire — a more costly method, and less productive. Boiling used enormous quantities of wood to make very little salt. About 400 gallons of water were needed to make one bushel of salt.

“In the winter families would keep an iron cauldron of seawater cooking over the household fire which was burning anyway to heat the house but only a small amount was made this way. A less expensive option was to drive wooden stakes into tidal pools for salt to crystallize on — but it also did not yield much”

“The reason Bristol was, for centuries, known as the most important salt port in England [more important than Liverpool] was not because it exported British salt, but because so many ships carrying imported Portuguese and French salt docked there.”

Elizabeth I, concerned about England’s dependence on French salt, guaranteed state-controlled markets to salt producers along the Tyne in Northumberland. She had chosen the region for stimulating salt production because it had coal for cheap fuel. But, the dependence remained a recurring topic of concern through the 17th & 18th centuries.

Salt was transported to the Newfoundland fishery by filling the ship’s hold with salt as ballast. The fishery, then, is an early example in North America of what economists call ‘hinterland’ dependency: the ‘mother country’ or ‘metropolis’ enabled economic growth in staples production in the hinterland [the production could not proceed without metropolitan input — the hinterland economy is therefore dependent on the metropolis.]

When Europeans first arrived in the Americas, they found a great deal of salt making already going on. However, hunter groups that did not farm, such as those of the North Eastern North American Atlantic region, did not make salt. Many apparently never used salt before Europeans arrived, although many probably did what the Bering Strait Inuit did, which was to boil game in seawater to give it a salty taste.

[Eventually colonists in the 13 revolutionary states broke their fisheries’ salt dependency (during their revolution the Americans used Aboriginal information — from the Onadaga of New York — about salt deposits, to make their own salt and compete with England in the international salt trade]

Although there were salt deposits in Newfoundland, European newcomers did not know it, nor do they appear to have asked resident Aboriginal people about it. Besides, it wasn’t sea salt. [There appears to have been relatively little direct contact between the two groups. The newcomers were interested in fish, not Beothuk, and likewise the Beothuk did not seem interested in engaging with newcomers, if anything they were wary of contact.

So an opportunity, from the Europeans’ perspective, may have been missed. According to Natural Resources Canada, isolated salt deposits occur in a large sedimentary basin (generally folded and faulted) that underlies the northern mainland of Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island, Prince Edward Island, the Madelaine Islands, and southwestern Newfoundland, and extends westward under parts of New Brunswick.

While these salt beds have been accessed in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, Newfoundland does not appear to have been considered a potential salt producer.]

Process of salting fish:

There were 2 methods of salting Newfoundland cod. The methods remained virtually unchanged from the Middle Ages to the 1950s. The two methods of salting were directly related to 2 types of fishing.

Johanne van Keulen, engraving, “Map of Newfoundland and Eastern New France highlighting the fishing banks, ca. 1687.” Source: “The Cod Rush,” Canadian Museum of Civilization, Online Exhibition, http://www.civilization.ca/cmc/exhibitions/hist/lifelines/licoe01e.shtml.

type 1: In the shallow waters of the large underwater banks off the coast, fishers could fish the cod stocks for weeks, even months, salting their catch in the holds of their ships. This was the ‘Green salt cod’ or ‘wet’ production, where the fish was salted but not dried. It was a ‘delicate’ cure and required ample salt to prevent spoilage while in transit. For the most part it was used by Basques, and other fishers with copious quantities of salt. Their ships came into shore periodically to obtain bait, fresh water, firewood, and also to find refuge in bad weather. On shore, the ship’s crew might encounter other fishers using the ‘dry’ or ‘shore’ salting method.

type 2: In the coastal waters, summer fishers caught cod migrating inshore in search of caplin and squid.

Fish eating caplin. Image courtesy of James L. Matterer, Medieval Woodcuts Clipart Collection, Gode Cookery Website, http://www.godecookery.com/clipart/clart.htm.

Those fishers could live ashore and dry their salted cod on land before loading their ship and bringing it home to Europe.

The method for ‘making fish’ ashore:

Herman Moll, with Nicolas Guérard, map engraving, “A view of a stage and also of the manner of fishing for, curing and drying cod at New Found Land,” dated 1718, copied from a map by Nicolas De Fer, 1698. Source: Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN no. 2926914.

After being landed at a stage, fish were ‘cleaned’ (gutted, heads taken off, split open, then usually washed), and then salted for a number of days [or weeks depending on the product being made] in salting puncheons or pounds.

Image courtesy of James L. Matterer, Medieval Woodcuts Clipart Collection, Gode Cookery Website, http://www.godecookery.com/clipart/clart.htm.

The fish were then washed clean, drained, and taken to dry outdoors on raised wooden platforms called flakes.

Photograph, “ Cod Drying on the Flakes,” dated c. 1886, Quidi Vidi, Nfld. Source: Library and Archives Canada/PA-139025.

Over a period of days, sometimes weeks, fish were spread, piled, re-spread, etc. until they received the proper curing.

Cod drying in the sun.

Because of the inshore fishery and the dry cure for cod, fishers became the 1st European inhabitants of Northern North America since the Vikings.

Not having the supplies of salt that were available to the Spaniards, Portuguese, and French, the English fishers tended to concentrate on the shore fishery.

[“The English-Newfoundland cod fishery was confined to fishermen from a specific part of England — ‘The West Country, the West of England, or the Western Counties’ — names given to those counties that comprise the southwest of England – Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, and Hampshire. It was from this area that fishermen had gone overseas to Iceland in search of cod, and it was from Bristol in Somerset that they were provisioned for the Newfoundland fishery”]

And, during the late 16th century the English fishery benefited from two developments [look at your timeline handout]

First of all, France became an importer of England’s Newfoundland fish, providing that industry with its first major foreign market. Why? France was tapped out from wars (the Italian Wars and the Religious Wars ran one after the other for the whole century).

Then, in 1585/86, the English government sent out a small naval force under Bernard Drake with secret instructions to attack the Spanish (and Portuguese) fishing fleets

[See “1586 – Sir Bernard Drake’s Voyage to Newfoundland,” Fort Raleigh National Historic Site http://bit.ly/5w2mug].

More than a little miffed, the Spanish government began to organize for the invasion of England, and in 1588 a naval invasion force, the famous Armada, was defeated [by bad weather]. Although a few Spanish ships continued to visit Newfoundland, the major Spanish-Newfoundland fishery came to an end in the 1580s. Meanwhile, the Spanish still needed Newfoundland salt fish, and when they were no longer able to produce it, they began to import it.

This new demand from France, Spain, and Portugal, led to a rapid growth of the English cod fishery during the final years of the century.


The question I posed at the start of the week? “What benefits were derived from 100 years of Newcomer activity? What were the downsides?”

We can list some pros and cons:

extended contact

2ndry trade in furs



aggravation [kidnapping & theft]

conflict [outright warfare, privateering]

changes — acculturation going both ways

but, note that the question is loaded: it calls for a value judgment — what’s good & what’s bad (simplistic).

How do rephrase to be ‘objective’? And here we enter that old historiographical debate: Can we be objective? The answer to some/most is no. When it comes to history and value judgments, it’s all interpretive: it all depends on who you are.

So, what if we ask instead: What happened in terms of continuity and discontinuity? What changed and what stayed the same?


demographics changed

territory changed

ownership changed

competition increased?

conflict increased?

inflation increased? — [for whatever reason, there was 100 years of rampant inflation — likely it had to do with the enormous quantities of gold and silver entering Europe from the Americas.]

laws were enacted in an attempt to ensure social things remained the same

perhaps there was climate change going on [the Little Ice Age]

cod remained a staple — [but both numbers of cod and whales seemed to drop in areas that had been hot fishing grounds]

where cod was fished changed from Iceland to Terra Neuve — then from offshore to inshore — or the other way around — [there is debate about this: Innis and Kurlansky argue green and then dry; Turgeon, Pope, Conrad and Hiller go for the opposite — Do you see what I mean about facts changing in historiography?]

how cod was processed stayed the same

salt remained necessary

other things a historian might want to take into account:

— traditional historians: in 1500s trade activity shifted from the Mediterranean to Northern seas.

— traditional historians: “Atlantic fishing was the origin of the supremacy of the English at sea.” [J.M. Roberts, History of Europe, p. 245]

— maybe so, but, others point out that sugar, slaves, pirated gold and silver also have to be factored in [J.M. Blaut, The Colonizers Model of the World, p. 191]

— this was a busy century. [See charts: “1500s: One Hundred Years of Activity“]

~~ end ~~

See also Mark Kurlansky, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (1997).

Mark Kurlansky, Salt

Cod Fish Gallery:

Paul-Émile Miot, photograph, “Cod preparation,” dated 1857-1859, Cape Rouge, Newfoundland. Source: Paul-Émile Miot/Library and Archives Canada/PA-202293.

Henry Ash, pencil drawing, “Schooners cod fishing on the Great Bank of Newfoundland,” dated 29 April, 1894. Source: Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN no. 3029263.

Edith S. Watson, photograph, “In the Harbour, Ferryland (Cod drying on cobblestones and ship in harbour),” dated 1913, Newfoundland. Source: Edith S. Watson / Library and Archives Canada / e003525413.


2 Responses to Lecture: Week 3, Part III: Going Fishing

  1. single cup says:

    I never imagined how much information you could find out there about this!

    Thank you for making it all simple to get the picture

  2. Katherine says:

    It’s nearly impossible to find knowledgeable people in this particular topic, but you sound like you know what you’re
    talking about! Thanks

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