The Cod Rush - A Fish Tale - Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World - Mark Kurlansky

Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World - Mark Kurlansky (1999)

Part I. A Fish Tale

Chapter 3. The Cod Rush


—Peter Daas, Trumpet of Nordland, Norway, 1735

The Basque secret was out. Raimondo di Soncino, Milan’s envoy in London, had written a letter to the duke of Milan on December 18, 1497, reporting John Cabot’s return on August 6:

The Sea there is swarming with fish which can be taken not only with the net but in baskets let down with a stone, so that it sinks in the water. I have heard this Messer Zoane state so much. These same English, his companions, say that they could bring so many fish that this Kingdom would have no further need of Iceland, from which there comes a very great quantity of the fish called stockfish.

From this statement, historians have concluded that John Cabot’s men caught cod simply by dropping weighted baskets. There is no evidence that Cabot ever said this, nor is it known how reliable di Soncino’s source was. However, subsequent accounts do confirm that the coast of North America was churning with codfish of a size never before seen and in schools of unprecedented density, at least in recorded European history.

When Europeans first arrived, North America had a wealth of game and fish unparalleled in Europe. Flocks of birds, notably the passenger pigeon, which is now extinct, would darken the sky for hours as they passed overhead. In 1649, Adriaen van der Donck, the colonial governor of New Amsterdam, wrote from what is now New York that nearby waters had six-foot lobsters. Even a century after Cabot, Englishmen wrote of catching five-foot codfish off Maine, and there are persistent accounts in Canada of “codfish as big as a man.” In 1838, a 180-pounder was caught on Georges Bank, and in May 1895, a six-foot cod weighing 211 pounds was hauled in on a line off the Massachusetts coast. Cabot’s men may well have been able to scoop cod out of the sea in baskets.

Cabot, a skilled and experienced navigator, had moved to Bristol with his wife and son only two years before his 1497 voyage, frustrated by the triumphs of Columbus and dreaming of his own glory. Both Columbus and Cabot had been born in Genoa about the same year, and both had searched the Mediterranean for backers. They probably knew each other. Cabot may have even had to endure the spectacle of some of Columbus’s triumphant receptions. He seems to have been in Barcelona in April 1493, when crowds cheered his fellow Genovese formally entering the city. At last, when Cabot returned to England after his North American voyage, he basked in the same kind of reception that Columbus had enjoyed in Spain. In England, Cabot was a sensation, the man of the moment, and fans assailed him on the streets of Bristol and London the way they might today if he were a rock star. But there was little time to luxuriate in what might be only fleeting glory. After all, Columbus was about to embark on his third voyage. With his sudden fame, Cabot easily raised funding for a second voyage with five ships. One ship soon returned, and the other four, along with Cabot, were never heard from again. It was the first of many such calamities.

The Portuguese were also exploring and charting North America. A 1502 map identifies Newfoundland as “land of the King of Portugal,” and to this day, many Portuguese consider Newfoundland to be a Portuguese “discovery.” Many of the earliest maps of Newfoundland show Portuguese names. Those names have remained, though they are no longer recognizably Portuguese. Cabo de Espera (Cape Hope), the tip of land between St. John’s and Petty Harbour, has become Cape Spear, Cabo Raso is now Cape Race, and the Isla dos Baccalhao is Baccalieu Island. In 1500, Gaspar Côrte Real went to Newfoundland and named it Greenland, Terra Verde. He was the youngest son of Joao Vaz Côrte Real, a despotic ruler of the Azores and yet another mariner who some claim went to America before Columbus. In 1501, on his second trip, after sending back fifty-seven Beothuk as sample slaves, Gaspar, like Cabot, vanished with his ship and crew. The following year, his brother Miguel was lost along with his flagship and its crew.

This grim early record did not discourage fishermen. Fishing had opened up in Newfoundland with the enthusiasm of a gold rush. By 1508, 10 percent of the fish sold in the Portuguese ports of Douro and Minho was Newfoundland salt cod. In France, the Bretons and Normans had an advantage because the profitable markets of the day were nearby Rouen and Paris. By 1510, salt cod was a staple in Normandy’s busy Rouen market. By midcentury, 60 percent of all fish eaten in Europe was cod, and this percentage would remain stable for the next two centuries.

The sixteenth-century Newfoundland cod trade was changing markets and building ports. La Rochelle on the French Atlantic coast had been a second-string harbor because it was not on a river, a critical flaw since goods were moved on rivers. All La Rochelle had, in addition to a well-protected harbor, was a determined Protestant merchant class that saw the commercial opportunity in Newfoundland cod. Yet La Rochelle became the premier Newfoundland fishing port of Europe. Of the 128 fishing expeditions to Newfoundland between Cabot’s first voyage and 1550, more than half were from La Rochelle.

The French dominated these years, originating 93 of those 128 fishing expeditions to Newfoundland. The rest were divided between the English, Spanish, and Portuguese. Figures on the Basques, as is the Basque fate, are buried in French and Spanish statistics, but the French Basque ports of Bayonne and St.-Jean-de-Luz were important in the first half of the century.

Even though Cabot had claimed North America for England, British fishermen had not immediately joined the cod rush because catches were good in Iceland. It was cod that had first lured Englishmen from the safety of their coastline in pre-Roman times. By the early fifteenth century, two- and three-masted ketches with rudders were going to Iceland and the Faroes. Not only were these some of the best fishing vessels of the day, but not until the twentieth century would Icelanders have vessels of an equal quality for fishing their own waters.

But the conflict between England and the Germans of the Hanseatic League over rights to Icelandic cod grew steadily worse. In 1532, an Englishman, John the Broad, was murdered in the Icelandic fishing station of Grindavik. Though Britain’s Icelandic Cod Wars are thought of as a twentieth-century phenomenon, the first one was set off by this Grindavik killing and was fought not against Iceland, which was a colonized and docile nation by then, but against the Hanseatic League, which had developed its own navy. Uncharacteristic of the British, after a brief fight they simply withdrew from the Icelandic fishery. As di Soncino had predicted, Britain didn’t need Iceland anymore.


Detail showing Cod War of 1532 off of Grindavík from Olaus Magnus’s Carta Marina, 1539. (Uppsala University Library, Uppsala)

With the opening up of Newfoundland, the British West country began developing major fishing ports. In the days of slow sailing, a westward location was a tremendous advantage because it reduced the length of a voyage. Except Ireland, which was too impoverished to develop a distant water fleet, the ports that remained important to the Newfoundland fishery into the mid-twentieth century—St.-Malo on the Brittany peninsula, Vigo on the northwest tip of Spain, the Portuguese ports—were those in the European regions closest to Newfoundland.

The Spanish Basque city of Bilbao, with its ironworks providing the anchors and other metal fittings for Europe’s ships, was one of the ports that grew with the boom in shipbuilding created by the cod trade. According to historian Samuel Eliot Morison, at no time in history, not even during World War II, has there ever been such a demand for replacement of sunken ships as between 1530 and 1600. European ambition was simply too far ahead of technology, and until better ships and better navigation were developed, shipwrecks and disappearances were a regular part of this new adventure.

In this rapidly expanding commercial world, the British had one great disadvantage over the French, Spanish, and Portuguese: They had only a modest supply of salt. Most northern countries lacked salt and simply produced winter fish that was dried without salting. It was called stockfish, from the Dutch word stok, meaning “pole,” because the fish were tied in pairs by the tail and hung over poles to dry, as is still done out on the lava fields of Iceland every winter.

But the English wanted to produce a year-round supply of cod for a growing market, and since neither the North Sea nor Iceland was cold enough for drying fish in the summer, they became dependent on salting. Some fish were simply sold salted and undried, which became known as “green” not because of the color but because it was considered a more natural state than dried fish. But in an attempt to conserve their limited salt, the British invented a product that was to be favored in Mediterranean and Caribbean markets for centuries: a lightly salted dried cod. The Norwegians called it terranova fisk, Newfoundland fish, but later used the name klipfisk, rockfish, because it was dried on rocky coasts.

As green and salted-and-dried fish became available, they were preferred to the unsalted stockfish and brought substantially higher prices. The British experimented with new products such as a summer-cured dried cod from the Grand Banks known as Habardine or Poor John. In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Trinculo says of Caliban, whom he finds on the beach, “He smells like a fish—a very ancient and fish-like smell—a kind of, not of the newest, poor john.”

Winter cures were known to be superior. Other variations were developed. Some fish was salted directly, and some was pickled in brine in barrels. Some of the pickled and some of the green were later dried to give them more durability. There was not only a wide choice of products in cured Newfoundland cod but also, no doubt, a great range of quality. “As to their Quality, Many of them Stink, for’tis a certain Maxim, that if Fish or Flesh be not well cured and salted first, they cannot be recovered,” John Collins, an accountant to the Royal Fishery, wrote in Salt and Fisheries.

It is not by chance that a Royal Fishery accountant was publishing a book on salt in 1682. The British fisheries had by then been wrestling with the salt problem for centuries. Collins pointed out that brackish water around England could be boiled, which yielded more salt than did evaporating seawater. He discussed the relative quality of salt and offered this recipe for one of the better English salts.

... the manner of boyling the Brine into Salt at Namptwich. They boyl it in Iron Pans, about 3 foot square, and 6 inches deep; their Fires are made of Staffordshire Pit-Coles, and one of their smaller Pans is boiled in 2 hours time.

To clarify and raise the Scum, they use Calves, Cows and Sheeps blood, which in Philosophical Transaction, No 142, is said to give the Salt an ill flavour.

Wich is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “a place that has salt,” and all the English towns whose names end in wich were at one time salt producers. But they could never produce enough for the Newfoundland cod fishery.

Collins warned against French salt, which he said was unhealthy. He probably had several reasons for saying this, aside from a general dislike of the French. There was a great tradition of French contraband, and salt was a favorite item because the French had a near obsession with evading the salt tax and, in fact, most taxes. “Oh, the rain washed it away” or “Someone must have stolen it” was the familiar litany recited to salt tax collectors. The British also had a hated salt tax and had their homes searched for off-the-books salt. But the French salt tax, the gabelle, was particularly hated and was one of the grievances leading to the French Revolution. Like many reforms of the Revolution, the abolition of the salt tax lasted only fifteen years and then was reinstated until 1945. One way of getting around the salt tax was to make your own, by boiling brackish water, and probably much of this illicit salt smuggled to England was indeed, as Collins said, unhealthy.

But the French Terreneuve merchants filled their holds with legal, high-quality French salt, which made good ballast, and sailed to Newfoundland. They returned with salt cod in the holds where the salt had been.

Salt was a great advantage of the Bretons. Under the agreement by which the duchy of Brittany became part of France, Bretons were exempt from the gabelle. And since sixteenth-century salt was made from evaporation, it was a southern product and southern Brittany was the most northerly point in western Europe where salt making was commercially viable.

Nearby Brittany could have supplied the British salt needs, but the French were the enemy. It was Portugal, with its saltworks in Aveiro—which, not by coincidence, became and still is Portugal’s salt cod center—that had what was considered Europe’s best salt. Bristol merchants went into a number of joint ventures with the Portuguese. In exchange for salt, the British government gave Portuguese ships protection from the French. In 1510, the king of Portugal complained to the king of France that French ships had taken 300 Portuguese vessels in the past ten years.

The mutually advantageous British arrangement with the Portuguese lasted until 1581, when Portugal merged with Spain. It was a bad moment for a seagoing nation to throw in its lot with Spain. In 1585, the British attacked and destroyed the Spanish fishing fleet, and the military fleet was destroyed in its disastrous attempt to invade England. The Spanish fleets took the Portuguese down with them. The Portuguese continued to fish the Grand Banks until expelled by the Canadian government in 1986, but after their short-lived merger with Spain ended their British alliance, they were never again a dominant force in the Newfoundland fishery.

By the time England broke its alliance with Portugal, not quite a century after Cabot’s first voyage, Newfoundland cod was more than commerce to the British; it was strategic. In fact, what finally spurred the British to become the dominant players in the Newfoundland fishery in the second half of the sixteenth century was providing enormous quantities of dried—not salted—cod to the British Navy’s ships-of-the-line fighting France. They fed their Navy with it and sold the surplus. Quick to catch fish, the English were slow to learn the European market and had trouble selling their fish to Mediterranean countries where the population demanded high-quality salted and dried fish. After a century-long free-for-all, the Spanish Basques were reemerging as dominant suppliers to the Mediterranean world—despite losing their secret.

British law greatly encumbered its own attempts at trade. Since Newfoundland cod was strategic, its commerce had to be tightly controlled, as though cod were a weapon of war. The Spanish and Portuguese had also viewed cod as strategic, because it sustained the crews on their increasing number of tropical voyages to the New World. But the Iberians also had enormous home markets for cured cod. England had the smallest market for cured cod of any of the cod-fishing nations. The English, who ate less fish, had their own highly developed home fisheries. Yet the British Crown inhibited foreign trade in cod, forbidding British ships to sell directly to European ports.

The British were landing what for that time was enormous quantities of fish. Western ports continued to grow. Plymouth on the Cornish peninsula, stretching west toward the new lands, became increasingly important. There were fifty Newfoundland fishing ships based in Plymouth alone, about which Sir Walter Raleigh wrote in 1595, “If these should be lost it would be the greatest blow ever given to England.”

In 1597, this fifty-ship fleet returned from the Grand Banks, sailing up the south Cornish coast to Plymouth. It was a sight unknown in our age—some 200 canvas sails crowding the sky as the fleet made its way into the sheltered harbor against the green patchwork hills of Devon. These two-masted ships on which dozens of men lived and worked for months were only 100 feet long. Merchants would have preferred bigger ships with bigger holds, but sailors wanted to navigate the treacherous new rock-bound world with small vessels. Merchants from Holland, France, and Ireland packed into the small port town, waiting for the Plymouth fleet so they could buy their fish and ship it out again to Europe’s markets.

The British continued to miss out on this commercial opportunity. In 1598, a Newfoundland fleet sailed into Southampton and sold most of the cod to French merchants, who resold them to Spain. By then, Catholic religious wars with the Huguenots, the Protestants in La Rochelle, reduced the French fleet. With Portuguese, Spanish, and French fleets all in decline, the British began to understand the commercial potential of their Newfoundland fishery. By the end of the sixteenth century, British ships were finally allowed to take their Newfoundland cod directly to foreign ports. The newly freed British traders forced open commerce in cod, and other trade followed.

But this opening of trade would seem minor in hindsight, because early in the seventeenth century, when it was just beginning, an even more important change in world trade was seeded. A small group of religious dissidents who had fled England were staring at a map in their Dutch refuge and had noticed a small hook of land that was labeled with an intriguing name—Cape Cod.



Beat it soundly with a Mallet for half an hour or more and lay it three days a soaking, then Boyle it on a simmering Fire about an hour, with as much water as will cover it till it be soft, then take it up, and put in butter, eggs, and Mustard champed together, otherwise take 6 potato (which may be had all the year at Seed-Shops;) boyl them very tender, and then skin them. Chop them, and beat up the Butter thick with them, and put it on the fish and serve them up. Some use Parsnips.

The like for Haberdine and Poor-Jack, I should be ashamed of this Receipt if we had no better to follow, and think it too mean to mention any thing about Green Fish or barreld Cod, but the watering and soaking before they are boyled.

—John Collins,
Salt and Fishery, London, 1682

Also see pages 237-41.