A Cod War Heard‘Round the World - 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 6. A Cod War Heard‘Round the World


—Henry David Thoreau, Cape Cod, 1851


—Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-83)

There is romance to revolution. There was to those of France, Russia, Mexico, China, Cuba. But the most romantic of revolutions, such as 1848, seem the greatest failures. The American Revolution was a remarkably successful revolution. It did not fall into chaos and violence, nor did it slide toward dictatorship. It produced no Napoleon and no institutionalized ruling party. It achieved its goals. It was also, as revolutions go, extremely unromantic. The radicals, the real revolutionaries, were middle-class Massachusetts merchants with commercial interests, and their revolution was about the right to make money.

John Adams, the most forceful of this radical Massachusetts element, did not believe in colonialism as an economic system and therefore did not believe that Americans should accept living in colonies. The American Revolution was the first great anticolonialist movement. It was about political freedom. But in the minds of its most hard-line revolutionaries, the New England radicals, the central expression of that freedom was the ability to make their own decisions about their own economy.

All revolutions are to some degree about money. During France’s revolution, the comte de Mirabeau said, “In the last analysis the people will judge the Revolution by this fact alone—does it take more or less money? Are they better off? Do they have more work? And is that work better paid?” But he was not a radical in that Revolution.

Massachusetts radicals sought an economic, not a social, revolution. They were not thinking of the hungry masses and their salaries. They were thinking of the right of every man to be middle-class, to be an entrepreneur, to conduct commerce and make money. Men of no particular skill, with very little capital, had made fortunes in the cod fishery. That was the system they believed in.

These were not shallow men. Many of them, most of the important leaders—even Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner—understood that it was hypocrisy to talk about the rights of man and ignore the agony of millions of slaves. But they were not going to let the Revolution break down over this issue, as they feared it might. Throughout the century, Englishmen had predicted that the booming American colonies would try to break free from the Crown, but that, in the end, they would remain in the British Empire because of their inability to get along with each other. What the British Crown failed to understand was that the Revolutionary leaders were pragmatists focused on primary goals and that molasses, cod, and tea were not mere troubling disagreements; they were the issue. Virginians even called the Revolution “the Tobacco War.”

England had shown some flexibility. Gloucester, though a legally recognized trade port, did not even have a customs official. The British also allowed South Carolina to trade rice for fruit, salt, and wine directly with the Mediterranean. The greatest latitude was in trade with British West Indies colonies. For Massachusetts, this trade was cod for molasses, but Connecticut traded vegetables, Maryland wheat, and Pennsylvania corn. By the 1740s, New England had as much trade with the Caribbean as it did with England. Before the English started worrying about an armed war of independence, they were worrying about a de facto independence. The colonies did not need the mother country, and both parties knew it.

Britain’s first major attempt to reassert its colonial monopoly was the Molasses Act of 1733, which imposed such heavy import duties on molasses from the non-British Caribbean that it should have virtually eliminated the trade. By making the purchase of French West Indies molasses unprofitable, the measure should have not only reduced New Englanders’ markets for cod but also reduced their rum industry. It did neither, because the French were eager to work with the New Englanders in a lucrative contraband arrangement. Cod-molasses trade between New England and the French Caribbean actually grew after the Molasses Act.

The act might have been a forgotten failure had the British not tried again a generation later, with the Sugar Act of 1760, which put a six-cents-per-gallon tax on molasses. Again, New Englanders persevered through contraband. In 1764, the British tried a new tactic, actually lowering the tax on molasses, but levying new ones on sugar and on Madeira. This was intended to make colonists switch from Madeira to Port, the latter being available only through British merchants. Instead, the colonists boycotted both. Though Madeira was also traded for a middle-grade cure of cod known as the Madeira cure, rum was their drink. It was so commonplace that the word rum was sometimes used as a generic term for alcoholic beverages. The year of the Molasses Act, it was calculated that the consumption of rum in the American colonies averaged 3.75 U.S. gallons per person annually. In 1757, George Washington ran for the Fairfax County seat in the House of Burgesses. His campaign expenses included twenty-eight gallons of rum and fifty gallons of rum punch. There was also wine, beer, and cider. This may seem modest compared to today’s campaign spending, but in 1757 Fairfax County, Virginia, had only 391 voters.

In 1764, Boston merchant John Hancock, already a known active rebel, was arrested on a charge of Madeira smuggling on his sloop, the Liberty. An angry Boston mob freed him. The following year, the Stamp Act for the first time charged colonists with a direct tax rather than a customs duty. As the British stepped up enforcement of trade laws, relations deteriorated. For the first time, customs agents were assigned to Gloucester, though these unfortunate officials were harassed, brutalized, and sometimes driven into hiding. In 1769, Massachusetts claimed that restraints on trade had resulted in losses for 400 vessels involved in the cod fishery.

Repeatedly, the British seemed to make the worst possible moves. Confronted with resistance to the Stamp Act, they replaced it with the Townsend Act, named for a man whose footnote in history was earned by declaring to the House of Commons—reportedly while drunk—“I dare tax America.” Faced with an immediate furor over his proposed list of import taxes, he tried to back down, attempting to settle on a few less onerous items, one of which was tea.

The Boston Tea Party of 1773 illustrates the nature of the American Revolution. Here was an uprising against a tariff on an import, instigated by merchants, including John Hancock and John Rowe, in which the scions of the codfish aristocracy—dressed up as Mohawks—boarded their own ships and dumped the goods into the harbor. Similar “tea parties” followed in other ports. In New York, evidently the Revolution had reached the proletariat, because a zealous mob dumped the goods in the Hudson before the rebels had a chance to show up in their Indian outfits.

The next British move seems even more baffling. In 1774, in response to a crisis originally provoked by the fact that the colonies produced too much surplus food, the British closed down Boston Harbor in an attempt to starve the populace until they reimbursed the Crown for damaged goods. This was not 1620, and no one was going to starve in New England, with or without imports. Marblehead supplied cod, Charleston rice, and Baltimore grain. A flock of sheep was even herded up from Connecticut.

The harshest blow to New England was to come, but communication was so slow that the colonists did not even hear of it until after the shooting had begun. The Restraining Act, effective July 12, 1775, restricted New England trade to the ports in England and barred New England fishermen from the Grand Banks. It was as though the Crown was trying to rally Massachusetts around its radicals.

During the Revolution, the American ability to produce food was the one advantage of the Continental Army. The British Army might have been better trained and more experienced, and it was certainly better dressed and equipped. But the Americans were better fed. They were also better paid, and, thanks to Boston rum, they drank better.

But there was not much cod for anyone. Newfoundlanders and Nova Scotians could no longer sell their fish in Boston. British warships kept New England fishermen from working the Grand Banks, but New England fishermen, with their fast schooners, made their waters dangerous for any pro-British ship. Gloucester schooners were outfitted with gun carriages. Ironically, the first of these armed schooners was named the Britannia. It was rigged with eight old cannons mounted on newly built carriages. This modest firepower was supplemented by small arms. In 1776 alone, such privateer schooners seized 342 British vessels.

In 1778, three years after the shooting began, both sides were ready to negotiate and talks began in Paris. By 1781, only three issues remained unresolved: the borderline, payment of debts to England, and fisheries. Of the three, fishing proved the most difficult.

Massachusetts insisted on fishing rights to its traditional grounds, which included the Grand Banks, the Scotian shelf, and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, all of which were off the coast of loyal British colonies. But even France, America’s great ally, did not back New England. Supporting a revolution against England was one thing, but the French did not believe it was in their own interests to allow the New Englanders back into the Grand Banks. The French position was that while all nations had a right to the high seas, offshore grounds were the property of the owners of the coastline. The little islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon still allowed France to be one of the proprietors of the coastline. To this day, the French claim fishing rights in a strip of Canadian waters because of this minuscule possession.

International law of the sea was not clear on this concept. It was still widely held that the seas had no nationality. The first recognized claim on ocean territory, a three-mile limit in the North Sea, did not come into force until after the Napoleonic wars. But the New Englanders had on their side John Adams, America’s most underrated founding father. It was Adams, whose face is on no currency and has inspired few monuments, who argued in the Continental Congress for complete independence from England, who won his argument by forging a Massachusetts-Virginia alliance and then bringing along the colonies in between, who chose Colonel George Washington to lead the Continental Army, who wrote “Thoughts on Government,” which became a blueprint in designing the United States government, and who then plucked from their ranks young Thomas Jefferson for a protégé and assigned him to write the Declaration of Independence on the grounds that the young Virginian was a better writer than himself.

To the fury of the representatives of southern colonies, Adams had a provision written into the British negotiations declaring that fishing rights to the Banks could not be relinquished without the approval of Massachusetts. This led to one of the first North-South splits in the United States. Southerners complained that the interests of nine states were being sacrificed “to gratify the eaters and distillers of molasses” in the other four.

Adams had defended Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence line by line at the Continental Congress in a nonstop two-and-a-half-day argument, while Jefferson, the reticent author, sat in silence. Among the few battles Adams lost was the one over a substantial passage against slavery, calling it “cruel war against human nature.” Yet he defended the cod and molasses trade despite its slavery connection. He explained to his fellow American delegates the commercial value of the cod trade in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. But he also argued that New England cod fishermen had proven themselves to be a superb naval force. Adams now called the New England fishery “a nursery of seamen and a source of naval power.” He argued that the groundfishermen of New England were “indispensably necessary to the accomplishment and the preservation of our independence.”

Many of the Americans, including Benjamin Franklin, saw fishing rights as a point they could concede. But Adams would not yield. Finally, on November 19, 1782, a year and a month after British troops surrendered at Yorktown, the British granted New England fishing rights on the Grand Banks.

But the Americans had not won access to markets. They were barred from trade with the British West Indies, a tremendous commercial loss for New England resulting in a tragic famine among slaves cut off from their protein supply. Between 1780 and 1787, 15,000 slaves died of hunger in Jamaica. In time, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland took up the slack, and their fisheries too became largely geared for low-grade West India saltfish.

During the colonial period every turn of history seemed to favor New England fisheries. But after American independence, this remarkable winning streak started to change.

The British and the Americans went to war again in 1812. Fishermen from Gloucester, Marblehead, and other New England ports, manning swift ships-of-war on a design borrowed from their schooners, did a masterful job, as Adams had predicted thirty years earlier, in “the preservation of our independence.”

It fell upon John Adams’s son, John Quincy Adams, to negotiate the peace in Ghent. Like the rest of his family, he was a firm advocate of New England fishing interests. Once again the issue divided the United States in a North-South split.

For New Englanders, the Paris treaty ratified in 1783 had been a huge victory. But southerners wanted to rewrite that treaty because, in order to get the British to yield on the Grand Banks, they had been given navigation rights on the Mississippi River. New Englanders insisted that their fishing rights had been signed and were not negotiable. But a Virginian, James Madison, was president, and he sided with his native South. The Ghent treaty that ended the War of 1812 denied British rights to the Mississippi but left the issue of the Banks open to further negotiation.

The Convention of 1818 reasserted some American fishing rights in the Banks, but the New England fishermen never regained what John Adams had won for them in 1782 and the issue would be a source of tension between the United States and Canada for the next 200 years.

North American cod fisheries were hurt, probably far more than either Adams would have wanted to admit, by the abolition of slavery in 1834 in the British West Indies, 1848 in the French Antilles, and 1849 in. the Dutch Antilles.

After centuries of bloody slave rebellions, Europe found in the homegrown sugar beet a safer alternative to sugar colonies. Caribbeans continued to eat salt cod and to fashion drums from the barrels. In fact, now that cod no longer comes in barrels, the barrels are still made for musicians. But once the huge plantation economies ended, these little islands became very small markets.

After two centuries of dumping on the Caribbean slave market, there was little quality control in North American salt cod. This was how Thoreau found the Provincetown fishery in 1851:

The cod in this fish-house, just out of the pickle, lay packed several feet deep, and three or four men stood on them in cowhide boots, pitching them on to the barrows with an instrument which has a single iron point. One young man, who chewed tobacco, spat on the fish repeatedly. Well, sir, thought I, when that older man sees you he will speak to you. But presently I saw the older man do the same thing.

The Mediterranean markets had constant complaints about the quality of Newfoundland cured cod. In 1895, a shipment of Labrador and Newfoundland salt cod was sent to Bilbao; the Basques, saying, “It was not liked here,” shipped it on to southern Spain. In the late twentieth century, right up to the 1992 moratorium, the Canadian government was still trying to convince Newfoundland fishermen not to spear the cod in the way Thoreau had described, because it damaged the fish.


The throat of the fish should be cut as near the gills as possible. The skin between the napes (known as liver strings) should be cut on both sides to prevent tearing when opening fish for gutting. They should be ripped close by the vent on left side, all guts and liver carefully removed, and heads cut off instead of breaking off.



The wrong way to split a cod, from Notes on Processing Pickled and Smoked Fish by A. W. Fralick, senior field inspector, Maritimes Region, Canada. (Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic, Lunenburg, Nova Scotia)

From the Middle Ages to the present, the most demanding cod market has always been the Mediterranean. These countries experienced a huge population growth in the nineteenth century: Spain’s population almost doubled, and Portugal’s more than doubled. Many ports grew into large urban centers, including Bilbao, Porto, Lisbon, Genoa, and Naples. Barcelona in 1900 had a population of almost one million people—most of them passionate bacalaoconsumers.

But North Americans did not succeed in this market. Though Newfoundland, Labrador, and Nova Scotia remained almost entirely dependent on fishing, there was little quality and they largely sold to Boston or the Caribbean. The one North American exception was the Gaspé, where a quality Gaspé cure was sold to the Mediterranean. Some 900 years after the Basques won the competitive edge over the Scandinavians by salting rather than just air-drying fish, the Scandinavians became competitive by perfecting salting. Norway and Denmark, which controlled Iceland and the Faroe Islands, moved aggressively into the top-quality Mediterranean markets and have remained.

Even today, with goods and people moving more freely than ever before, most salt cod eaters are attached to the traditional cure of their region. Modern Montreal is a city of both Caribbean and Mediterranean immigrants. At the Jean Talon market in the north of the city, stores feature badly split, small dried salt cods from Nova Scotia and huge, well-prepared salt cod from the Gaspé. The Caribbeans consistently buy the Nova Scotian, while the Gaspé is sold to Portuguese and Italians.


George Dennis’s fish-curing establishment, circa 1900, east Gloucester. (Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts)

In New England, just as the West Indies market declined, the domestic market grew. Salt cod became a staple of the Union Army, and Gloucester profited from the Civil War. But the war had also industrialized northern economies, and New England, a key player in the American industrial revolution, became much less dependent on its fisheries. The old merchant families moved their money into industry. The term codfish aristocracy was now used by an emerging working class to remind the establishment that they had gotten rich in lowly trade and therefore, for all their airs, were simply nouveau riche.

Their image as Revolutionary leaders faded, and, for all their aristocratic trappings, they were simply remembered as haughty people who had once made a lot of money from fish. In 1874, a Latin American revolutionary, Francisco de Miranda, visited Boston and after going to the Massachusetts State House, reported that the cod hanging there was “of natural size, made of wood, and in bad taste.” Worse yet, in the 1930s, Boston’s Irish-American mayor, James Michael Curley, a feisty populist who took on the Boston establishment, objected to calling them codfish aristocracy. He said the term was “an insult to fish.”


In the American South, slaves modified African cooking for white people. After the Civil War, this process continued as many former slaves found jobs cooking for corporations or the railroad. “I was born in Murray County, Tennessee, in 1857, a slave. I was given the name of my master, D. J. Estes, who owned my mother’s family, consisting of seven boys and two girls. I being the youngest of the family.” So begins the self-published book of Rufus Estes, “formerly of the Pullman Company private car service and present chef of the subsidiary companies of the United States Steel Corporations in Chicago.” Given the flaking technique in his recipe, the date, and place, the “codfish” is probably salt cod.


Take a piece of boiled cod, remove the skin and bones and pick into flakes. Put these in a stew pan with a little butter, salt and pepper, minced parsley and juice of a lemon. Put on the fire and when the contents of the pan are quite hot the fish is ready to serve.

—Rufus Estes,
Good Things to Eat, 1911