1620: The Rock and the Cod - 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 4. 1620: The Rock and the Cod


—Herman Melville, on Nantucket, from Moby Dick or The Whale, 1851

For Europeans, the known world doubled in the course of the sixteenth century. The Dutch had two possibilities to offer the English Puritan refugees : the tiny, well-protected port on the tip of the island of Manhattan, or Guiana, on the shoulder of South America. Of the two, Guiana seemed to offer better opportunities.

More than fifty years earlier, a Spaniard named Juan Martinez had been sent there as a death sentence. He had been found responsible for an accident in which a magazine of gunpowder exploded, and his punishment for negligence was to be dropped off at the unknown northeastern coast of South America in a canoe without supplies. His canoe drifted into the hands of local tribesmen, who blindfolded this first European they had ever seen and brought him to a magnificent city of palaces. After seven months, they loaded Martinez with gold and sent him on his way, again blindfolded. That, at least, was Martinez’s story when he arrived in Trinidad.

Martinez’s fabled city became popularly known as El Dorado. He died soon after in Puerto Rico, and the cause of death, according to many throughout the centuries, was that the gold of Guiana is cursed. In the early 1600s, it was already known that hunts for this El Dorado, even by the great Sir Walter Raleigh, had always ended disastrously. But then, so many voyages to the New World did.

With the world so greatly expanded and seemingly so empty and unknown, searching had become a European passion. Provisioned with nourishing cured cod, some headed to South America looking for gold. Others went to North America looking for cod. But what most who went to either place were really still looking for was Asia. In the sixteenth century, Newfoundland was charted as an island off of China. Europeans had sailed as far south as Maine’s Bay of Fundy and not found a passage. The Spanish and Portuguese had worked south from Florida to the subantarctic tip of Patagonia and had not gotten through either. Still, the idea wouldn’t die.

With the backing of Lyons silk merchants, the French Crown commissioned a Florentine, Giovanni da Verrazzano, to search for a short westward route to China. But France’s Italian failed, just as Spain’s and England’s had. In his 1524 voyage, Verrazzano turned north, following an endless coastline from Cape Fear in present-day North Carolina. He noted that the indigenous people were “nimble and great runners,” optimistically pointing out that he understood this to be characteristic of people in China. He sailed up the coast, found New York Harbor, Narragansett Bay, and an arm-shaped hook of land, which he named Pallavisino after an Italian general. Then he continued up to the coast of Maine, which he called Land of Bad People, and on to what he called “the land that in times past was discovered by the British.” Having exhausted his supplies and found “7000 leagues of new coastline” and still no passage, he gave up and returned to France, where he insisted that there was a whole New World out there.

But ideas are not easily conquered by facts, and seventy-eight years later Bartholomew Gosnold was still looking for the passage to Asia. In 1602, Gosnold sailed beyond Nova Scotia, following the coast south to New England in search of a passage to Asia, where he intended to gather sassafras, which was highly prized because it was thought to cure syphilis.

North America abounds in sassafras. The Native Americans used the leaves to thicken soups. It never cured syphilis, but the roots made an excellent drink later known as root beer. Gosnold did not find China, but he returned to England with sassafras. “The powder of the sassafras,” reported one of his officers, “cured one of our company that had taken a great surfeit by eating the bellies of dogfish—a very delicious meat.”

Europeans still did not understand how large this thing was, this obstacle in the way of Asia. Gosnold’s seemingly unsuccessful 1602 voyage ended up in history books chiefly because he renamed Pallavisino, as Cape Cod, after having reported that his ship, while in pursuit of Asian sassafras, was constantly being “pestered” by these fish.

In the moneths of March, April and May, there is upon this coast better fishing, and in as great plentie as in Newfoundland.... And besides the places were but in seven faddomes water and within less than a league of the shore, where in Newfoundland they fish in fortie or fiftie fadome water and farre off.

From the European point of view in that “age of discovery,” Gosnold had “discovered” New England. Yes, it had been discovered before, but in more than seventy-five years no one had been interested in Pallavisino. Gosnold’s name for it, Cape Cod, like the name El Dorado in the South, opened up this new territory.

In 1603, Bristol merchants checked out Gosnold’s story and reported not only plentiful cod but excellent rocky coastline for drying fish in what is now Maine. One merchant, George Waymouth, after seeing the Maine coast, reported “huge, plentiful cods—some they measured to be five foot long and three foot about.” The fact that he also confirmed the presence of sassafras seemed to get lost.

The new area was called North Virginia. In 1607, an attempt to establish a settlement there, near what is today Brunswick, Maine, resulted in the first New England-built seagoing vessel, constructed by the colonists in order to flee for England after enduring one winter. North Virginia was “over-cold,” they explained, and uninhabitable.

Gosnold’s map vanished, but John Smith either had seen it or at least knew some details of his voyage. By the time the Pilgrims were making their decision, Captain John Smith was already a well-known figure, in part for establishing a colony in the lower part of Virginia, but even more for his 1614 voyage to over-cold North Virginia, where he became rich from cod. Smith had actually hoped to get rich from whales, gold, and copper. He no more found any of these than Raleigh had found gold or Gosnold China. So Smith busied his crew filling the ship’s hold with salt cod. He openly disliked fishing and left his men to it while he went off with a small crew in a little open boat to explore the coast. He had previously done this over 3,000 miles of inlets in the Chesapeake Bay. He now charted the coastline from Penobscot Bay in Maine to Cape Cod, making a map that included twenty-five “excellent good harbors” that he had sounded. For some reason, Gloucester’s harbor was not among them.

Smith did chart the cape on which Gloucester now sits and named it after a Turkish woman of whom he had fond memories from his days soldiering in Turkey. But when he returned to England with the map, Prince Charles renamed the cape after his own mother and it has been Cape Ann ever since. Smith named several spots after Turkish memories, though none of those names remains. His new name for North Virginia, New England, proved more enduring.

Smith returned with 7,000 green cod, which he sold in England, and 40,000 stockfish, which, now that England had opened up trade with Europe, he sold in Malaga. According to Massachusetts governor William Bradford’s chronicles, the Pilgrims heard Smith had done even better—that he sold 60,000 cod. Not mentioned by any of the Puritans were Smith’s additional profits from twenty-seven native locals, whom he lured onto his ship and trapped in the hold until they could be sold as slaves in Spain.

In 1616, Smith published his map and a description of New England in the hope of interesting prospective settlers. And so, studying the famous captain’s map, the Pilgrims decided to ask England for a land grant to North Virginia, where there was this Cape Cod. Bradford wrote, “The major part inclined to go to Plymouth, chiefly for the hope of present profit to be made by the fish that was found in that country.” When the British court asked them what profitable activity they could engage in with a land grant, they said fishing.

Of all the unlikely American success stories of the epoch, none is more improbable than that of the Pilgrims. They set sail to pursue their religion and live on fishing in a new world. The fact that they arrived at the onset of winter is the first hint of how little they knew about survival. Still, they had gone to New England for fishing and not farming, and though doubtless they had never thought about this, New England does have the good fortune, unlike Newfoundland, to have a winter inshore fishing season. So why were the Pilgrims starving in the richest fishing grounds ever recorded?

It seems these religious zealots had not thought to bring much fishing tackle—not that they would have known how to use it. They knew nothing about fishing. Four or five English ships fished in New England in 1616. The year after the Plymouth landing, 1621, while the Pilgrims were nearly starving, ten British ships were profitably fishing cod in New England waters. The following year, thirty-seven ships were sent. By 1624, fifty British fishing ships were working off the coast.

Part of the Pilgrims’ problem was that settlers kept coming: Thirty-five arrived the second year, and another sixty-seven in 1622. These were people unified by their religious zeal. Not only couldn’t they fish, they didn’t know how to hunt. They were also bad at farming. In fact, they never had a good harvest until they learned to fish cod and plow the waste in the ground as fertilizer. Their greatest food-gathering skill in the early years seems to have been an ability to find huge food caches hidden away by the native tribesmen.

What made it worse, being English, they did not want to eat unfamiliar food. The native New Englanders were Naumkeag of the Massachusetts nation. Naumkeag, a word meaning “fishing place,” was their name for the region. The Naumkeag made line and nets from vegetable fibers and hooks from bones. In addition to catching cod and other fish that approached the coastline, they harpooned six-foot-long sturgeons in the rivers, caught eels, and delighted in the clams they harvested from the shore. They showed the Pilgrims how to pry open the big hard-shelled quahogs and the smaller thin-shelled ones, their favorites, which today New Englanders call steamers.

“Oh dear,” said the Pilgrims with horrified faces. They would not eat such things. The abundant mussels, too, were rejected and continued to be shunned by New Englanders until the 1980s. The waters were so rich in lobsters that they were literally crawling out of the sea and piling up inhospitably on the beaches. But the Pilgrims, and most people until this century, did not want to eat these huge, clacking, speckled sea monsters. Apparently in desperation, they were eventually reduced to eating lobster. In 1622, Bradford reported with shame that conditions were so bad for the settlers that the only “dish they could presente their friends with was a lobster.”

So what exactly did these people, not known for their open-mindedness, want to eat? The Naumkeag nickname for them was kinshon, which means “fish.” The Pilgrims did not have skills, but they had determination. In 1623, they established a fishing station in Gloucester, which failed. They tried again two years later with little more success. But they sent back to England for equipment and advice, and with the help of Englishmen whom they referred to as “merchant adventurers,” they gradually became fishermen. Fishing stations were established in Salem, Dorchester, Marblehead, and Penobscot Bay. Tidal pools were filled with seawater to make salt for the fishery. They traded chiefly with the Spanish Basque port of Bilbao, and soon they were returning with Spanish salt in their holds. They also started trading with the sugar colonies of the West Indies, and as early as 1638 a ship brought salt from the Tortugas. Through trade, New Englanders were solving the salt problem that the British never had been able to resolve through diplomacy.

In Salem, a Puritan minister, Francis Higgenson, wrote in 1629, “The aboundance of sea fish are almost beyond believing.” By the end of the century, Salem was to gain more enduring fame for its mass hysteria, but originally it was noted for cod fishing. When the infamous Court of Oyer and Terminer was established in 1692, interrogating hundreds of women for witchcraft, and hanging nineteen of them, a codfish was on its seal.

In 1640, barely a generation after dreaming that Smith’s 47,000 fish were a fantastic 60,000 fish, the Massachusetts Bay Colony brought 300,000 cod to the world market.


Cod drying on fish flakes, Marblehead, Massachusetts, detail from “View of Skinner’s Head” from Gleason’s Pictorial, vol. 6, 1854. (Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts)

The distinct destinies that would make the northern lands Canada’s eastern provinces and the southern ones the United States’ New England states were established. The fundamental difference was climate. Newfoundland, the Grand Banks, the Gulf of St. Lawrence were all fished in the summertime. The ships would leave Europe in April, when there was a good easterly wind. Trans-Atlantic mariners wanted the wind dead on the stern, so they could run with it, sticking to the same latitude—a method called easting and westing. Columbus, Cabot, and many others had done this. Until the eighteenth century, there was no reliable way to measure longitude, which helps explain why so many could make landfalls from the Bahamas to Newfoundland and believe they were near Asia. Latitude could be fixed by the relationship to the North Star or the sun, one of the few things known in the sixteenth century about celestial navigation. Westing ships out of Bristol reached the Labrador coast and dropped down to Newfoundland. Bretons went straight to the Grand Bank and St. John’s. If a ship left the harbor at La Rochelle, dropping below the two islands that protect that harbor, and then stuck to its latitude, it would make landfall at Cape Breton, where the French station of Louisbourg was established so that La Rochelle ships could easily find it.

Every spring, Europeans would arrive to fish the northern Banks and scramble for the best shore spaces for drying the catch, which were called fishing rooms. The tradition was first come, first served. The fish were dried on spruce branches, and because the scrubby northern pine forest was slow growing, the island became badly deforested from building new rooms every spring. The Europeans fished through the summer and then, before the ice hardened, tried to catch a good fall westerly to return to the European markets. Ships began leaving a caretaker behind to maintain a fishing room through the winter. This must have been one of the loneliest jobs ever created, because Newfoundland was not attracting settlers.

The single most telling fact about the island’s history is that the capital, St. John’s, like Petty Harbour on the other side of Cape Spear, is located on the point of land farthest from Canada and the rest of North America and closest to Europe. The entire Newfoundland economy was based on Europeans arriving, catching fish for a few months, and taking their fish back to Europe.

New England has a milder winter: ice-free harbors, a longer growing season, and arable land. Even more important in those early years, the cod moved closer to shore for winter spawning. Cod ideally spawn in a water temperature ranging from forty to forty-seven degrees Fahrenheit. Experiments show that at forty-seven degrees, eggs will hatch in ten to eleven days; at forty-three degrees in fourteen to fifteen days; at thirty-eight to thirty-nine degrees in twenty to twenty-three days. Seeking this forty-seven-degree water, cod will spawn on the coast of southern New England in the height of winter, somewhat closer to spring off of Maine, and in the summer in Newfoundland.

In the North Atlantic, farming and fishing were traditionally combined. In Iceland, which, like Newfoundland, has little arable land and a very short growing season, Icelanders were still able to combine fishing and farming, or at least shepherding. The cod run off Iceland’s southern coast in the dark winter when there is little for a farmer to do. Well into this century, few Icelanders were listed as fishermen because most considered farming their primary occupation. But even if Newfoundland fishermen were to eke out a farm existence on bad land with a short season, in Newfoundland the cod ran in the summer so the farming season conflicted with the fishing season.

New England, the southernmost grounds of the Atlantic cod, had an inshore winter fishing season and an offshore summer season. It also had good farmland. While Newfoundland remained a frontier with summer fishing rooms, Massachusetts had residents who needed coopers, blacksmiths, bakers, and shipbuilders—trades—men with families that built communities. It also became an agricultural society, settlers moving ever farther toward western Massachusetts looking for fertile land to produce goods for the prosperous coastal market. As the most flourishing American community north of Virginia, New England was perfectly positioned for trade. In cod it had a product that Europe and European colonies wanted, and because of cod it had a population with spending power that was hungry for European products. This was what built Boston.

The economies of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, rather than growing in tandem with the economy of New England, were being drained off by it. Lacking population and internal markets, they were fishing outposts serviced by Boston. The Newfoundland catch between April and September was more than the fishing ships could hold. Trade ships, called sack ships because they carried vin sec, dry white French wine, came from England and took the cod to Spain, from where they returned to England with wine and other southern European products. They brought trade to England but nothing to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. As Boston grew from its three-pointed trade, sack ships started trading between Newfoundland and Boston. The Newfoundland cod catch would be sold in Boston in exchange for Massachusetts agricultural products such as corn and cattle, which would be brought back to Newfoundland. Right up to the 1992 moratorium, many of the local Newfoundland fishermen sold their cod to Boston. So as New England grew, the northern fishing colonies remained an outer frontier with a small and stagnant population. When life in these colonies proved too hard, many moved to the prosperous sister colonies in New England.

Meanwhile, New Englanders were becoming a commercial people, independent and prosperous and resentful of monopolies. While the West Indies sugar planters were thriving on protected markets, New Englanders were growing rich on free-trade capitalism. Theirs was a cult of the individual, with commerce becoming almost the New England religion. Even the fishermen were independent entrepreneurs, working not on salary but, as they still do in most of the world, for a share of the catch. Adam Smith, the eighteenth-century economist, singled out the New England fishery for praise in his seminal work on capitalism, The Wealth of Nations. To Smith, the fishery was an exciting example of how an economy could flourish if individuals were given an unrestricted commercial environment.

The British Crown had never intended to grant such freedom, and now it had a colony that no longer needed it—a dangerous precedent in the midst of the empire.


Daniel Webster once delivered a lengthy speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate about the virtues of chowder and was considered an authority on the subject.


Take a cod of ten pounds, well cleaned, leaving on the skin. Cut into pieces one and a half pounds thick, preserving the head whole. Take one and a half pounds of clear, fat salt pork, cut in thin slices. Do the same with twelve potatoes. Take the largest pot you have. Try out the pork first, then take out the pieces of pork, leaving in the drippings. Add to that three parts of water, a layer of fish, so as to cover the bottom of the pot; next a layer of potatoes, then two tablespoons of salt, I teaspoon of pepper, then the pork, another layer of fish, and the remainder of the potatoes.

Fill the pot with water to cover the ingredients. Put over a good fire. Let the chowder boil twenty-five minutes. When this is done have a quart of boiling milk ready, and ten hard crackers split and dipped in cold water. Add milk and crackers. Let the whole boil five minutes. The chowder is then ready to be first-rate if you have followed the directions. An onion may be added if you like the flavor.

This chowder is suitable for a large fishing party.

—Daniel Webster,
from The New England Yankee Cookbook,
edited by Imogene Wolcott, 1939

There are a number of other chowder recipes attributed to Daniel Webster. In his memoirs, General S. P. Lyman quotes Webster concluding one recipe: “Such a dish, smoked hot, placed before you, after a long morning spent in exhilarating sport, will make you no longer envy the gods.”

Also see pages 252-56.