The Empire of the Cod-Fish



During a voyage to America taken at the behest of the French king, Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix complained that “[w]e suffered a great deal during the whole time that the contrary winds detained us on the frontiers of the empire of the cod-fish, this by much being the most disagreeable and inconvenient place in all the ocean to fall in.” Indeed, the waters off of Newfoundland and New England are notoriously cold, unpredictable and dangerous, as generations of east coast fishermen will be happy to relate. Yet, by the time of Charlevoix’s writing, the empire of the cod-fish was occupied by hundreds of white sails, and had been since almost as long as Europeans had known it was there . For centuries, ships bearing crews from such disparate peoples as “the Bilcayans of Spain, the Basques and Bas-Bretons of France”, the Portugese, and the Dutch had been sailing to those frigid and unforgiving waters to mine the aquatic bounty of the sea. Despite the dangers and general unpleasantness of such a voyage, there were at least fifty ships fishing off of the coast of Newfoundland by 1517, when America was still a raw and undiscovered continent (at least to Europeans). Something, it seems, drove both enterprising individuals and government sponsored fishermen to brave winds and chilling dampness in order to haul in a catch of cod, even when the source of such a catch lay across an ocean. The reasons for this are evident in the writings of almost all contemporary observers: Charlevoix’s empire of the cod-fish was more than just a location, it was a metaphor for the entire mechanism of imperial power. Without detailed and reliable dietary information, it is impossible to know for certain, but it seems that without cheap and readily available protein in the form of cod-fish, that the early modern empires as we know them could not have existed. Fueling sailors, slaves and the working poor, providing employment for the disenfranchised and serving as a lynch-pin to the strategic interests of entire nations, the cod-fish trade was one of the core products of European economies and essential to the exercise of power.

This is certainly not the first paper to suggest that the cod was a crucial element of the creation of the modern world, though generally, the history of cod fish has been a history of localities, specifically Newfoundland and New England. Books like Judge D.W. Prowse’s A history of Newfoundland from the English, colonial, and foreign records and L.Z. Joncas’ The Fisheries of Canada largely opened up the discussion and it has been a rich field ever since. Both Newfoundlanders and New Englanders are proud of their history, which is well documented, and many of these histories deal with the question of cod and cod fisheries in great detail. The excellent The Cod Fisheries, by Harold A. Innis, while possessing a distinctly regional focus, examines the cod fishing trade in its entirety, especially from an economic standpoint. His understanding of prices, economic context and commodity value is immense, and as such, his book is a giant in the historiography. Notably, these histories have become increasingly melancholy in recent years, with titles like Net Destruction: The Death of Atlantic Canada’s Fisheries and The Last Cod Fish: Life and Death of the Newfoundland Way of Life. The bans, beginning in 1992, on cod fishing in Canada and elsewhere have spurred a large number of popular and academic studies of the history of cod, though these remain focused mostly on individual communities.

Other significant contributors to the history and historiography of cod fish as a commodity are the slew of agricultural and biological investigations spurred by the increasing scarcity of cod fish and the bans on fishing that resulted from the 20th centuries’ realization that the supply was not as infinite as previously assumed. Since appearing on the list of endangered species, these investigations have multiplied, and while not generally historical in nature, often relate to historical questions and inspire additional studies, scientific and historical.

Additionally, there have been some examinations of cod as a commodity, starting with James Davie Butler’s “Codfish; Its Place in American History”, which neglects some of the international aspects of the trade but takes a larger view than the regional or environmental examinations. Of course, there is a notable and obvious standout to all of these histories, and that is Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of a Fish That Changed the World. Though not explicitly academic, Kurlansky relies heavily on primary sources and is one of the first to fully acknowledge the debt the modern world – especially America – owes to the cod fish. Ultimately, his examination of the early modern period is more shallow than it could be, and the focus of his book is largely cultural and anthropological, but it remains an excellent and informative text despite its shortcomings. The historiography of cod is not a sparse one, but the extant histories rarely deal fully with cod as an international commodity, especially with regards to the way in which it tied early modern empires together.

The history of the cod fish is very much linked to the history of America, but it certainly does not begin there. Norwegians and Icelanders had been catching and drying cod for centuries before the discovery of Americaand significant cod spawning grounds exist in the North Sea, though these were well exploited by the Dutch in the 16th and 17th centuries, a fact that was of great frustration to Englishmen who saw the fish trade as an opportunity for financial and strategic advancement for the nation. Robert Codrington, who undoubtedly exaggerates, suggested that “the Cod, Ling, Hake, and the Fish taken by the Hollanders, and other Neighbors upon the British coasts all the year long, the totall will evidently arise to be above Ten Millions.” While the British trade in fish from the North Sea was undoubtedly brisk, it seems that the greater part was taken by the Dutch, judging by the frequent and irrepressible complaints of those involved in the trade. The discovery of Newfoundland and the seemingly inexhaustible banks of cod fish, must have seemed an incredible boon to those who saw the fishing industry as an essential part of building up Britain’s economic and national strength.

As has been noted, this trade was already being capitalized on by fishermen from the western coast of Europe, especially those sailing from France, Spain and Portugal. Thomas Jeffreys notes that “the French pretended claim of this part of the world is founded as early as 1504, when, as they say, the fishermen of Bayonne, Normandy, and Bretagne, used to fish for cod on the great bank of Newfoundland”. Though it was obvious to individual entrepreneurs and industrious ship captains, it was starting to become common knowledge in the 16th century that there was great natural bounty to be had off the coast of Newfoundland: “Another voyage, undertaken in 1536, was more successful: the adventurers, who had undertaken it with the assistance of government, informed their country, that a great quantity of cod-fish might be caught at Newfoundland.”

Through the end of the 16th century, large numbers of French, Spanish and Portugese fishing vessels were crossing the sea to take part in the lucrative cod-fish trade: the report of the Secretary of State to the House of Representatives estimates that “In 1577, the French had one hundred and fifty vessels there; the Spaniards had still one hundred;  and the Portugese fifty, when the English had only fifteen.”Though they never disappeared completely, the Portugese and Spanish seem to have “retired silently”,leaving the bulk of the trade to the English and French, who had established settlements on land in New England and Newfoundland. These were essential to the drying and curing of the fish, which could not be carried out at sea. Thomas Jeffreys states definitively that “in order to draw any advantage from it [cod fishing], the person who undertakes it must absolutely reside in the country”.  This was likely because the processing of cod was an involved, long term process that required uninterrupted access to the coastline. A report on this process notes that the cod must be allowed to “lie for a shorter or longer time, according as the weather permits, till it is half dry…after this it is exposed to the open air…in which manner it sometimes remains for fifteen days”While the lack of a secure place to land didn’t stop Spanish or Portugese fishermen from continuing to make the voyage to Newfoundland and the cod banks there, it did give a distinct advantage to French, English and later American fishermen. By the middle of the 17th century, observers in England were taking notice of the opportunities that were available on the Northeastern coast of America. “But the chief commodities of New-found-land yet knowne, and which is growne to be a settled trade, and that which may be much bettered by an orderly plantation there…is the Codfishing upon that Coast, by which our Nation and many other Countries are enricht and greatly comforted.”On the eve of the eighteenth century, the trade in cod fish had become an essential part of the imperial designs of Britain and France, and an integral part of their exercises of power. The next century would be marked by frequent, massive military engagements between the nations of Europe, and the vast natural resources of Newfoundland, especially cod, would play a crucial role in those conflicts.

The economic and strategic minds of Europe were well aware of the potential value of the cod fish as a resource that needed to be encouraged and husbanded. The literature on the subject is vast and diverse, but it appears that most of the proponents of cod fishing as a area of national interest saw it as something that had to be built up for the good of the country. As mentioned, this begins well before Newfoundland enters the scene as an core area of competition, with the Dutch control of the herring and cod trade of Europe. Codrington, when speaking of the “insupportable insolencies” of the Dutch, states in no uncertain terms that “The Profits which the Dutch have made by their Fishing on the English Seas, are as vast as their Ingratitude is abominable”. Later, even after British cod fish trade in Newfoundland had taken off, John Drummond would criticize the leadership in Britain by saying that “Our Neighbors in Holland have rendered themselves a rich and flourishing People, by improving this inestimable Treasure…which exposes our Neglect and Sloth to all trading nations.”In a period dominated by highly profitable commercial crops like sugar, tobacco, wool and cotton, there were those who continued to insist that a failure to equally encourage the trade in cod fish was in many ways, a national failure that needed to be remedied. Not only was it a way to greatly enrich the nation and to strengthen your strategic interests, increased competition would weaken national competitors greatly. As early as 1623, English commentaries on Newfoundland were suggesting that “it would seem incredible, yet some men are of the opinion, that the people of France, Spain, Portugal and Italy, could not so well live, if the benefit of the fishing upon that coast, and your majesties other dominions, were taken from them “The potential value as a strategic asset was immense – those who saw the cod fish trade as an asset were convinced that supporting it would strengthen the nation and weaken her competitors.

This was clearly a consideration for both England and France in the Treaty of Utrecht and is reflected in the terms. Though the French “yielded up Acadia, Newfoundland, and Hudson’s Bay” they maintained possession of “the island of Cape Breton, which they reserved as proper for establishing a fishery, a principal object with the French about this time”. Even though they had given up a large portion of their territorial claims to the Newfoundland coast, holding on to Cape Breton and some nearby islands allowed the French to remain a serious economic competitor well into the eighteenth century, even though their focus was shifting away from North America. “So late as 1744,” the Secretary of State’s report notes, “the French employed there five hundred and sixty-four ships, and twenty seven thousand five hundred seamen, and took one million and two hundred and forty-six thousand kentals of fish, which was three times the extent to which England and her colonies together carried this fishery at that time.”The British were well aware of this fact, and though they were unable to stop French fishing, were frustrated by the encroachment on what they increasingly saw as their own source of natural wealth. William Douglass berates his “corrupt Administration” for granting “to the French the Liberty of catching, and curing of Fish in most advantageous Places” in the Treaty of Utrecht. According to Douglass, because of that “unaccountable Concession, the French had already the better of us in the Fishery trade, and in a few years more would have supplied all the Markets in Europe, and by underselling, entirely excluded us from the Cod-Fishery, which is more beneficial and easier wrought than the Spanish mines of Mexico and Peru.”Both countries would continue to attempt to monopolize the cod fish trade, but neither was able to squeeze the other out of the market entirely, even in times of war. This would be a central point of contention between the two countries until well after the American colonies received independence, but soon American concerns would overtake French and British.

The importance of the relationship of the New England colonies to cod is well known – the story of the Massachusetts House of Representatives hanging a cod fish in their own meeting in order to acknowledge their debt is a famous one. Adopting the attitudes of the British and French, policymakers and interested parties quickly began to suggest a strong cod economy would be good for the healthy of the nation: “The fishing banks are an inexhaustible source of wealth; and the fishing business is a most excellent nursery for seamen. It therefore deserves every encouragement and indulgence from an enlightened national legislature.” The entrance of America in to the cod trade would be of great economic and social benefit to New England, though they remained minor partners until the 19th century.

It is important to note that the arguments regarding cod fish are not purely economic. The control of the cod trade enriches the country, certainly, but in doing so, it also improves the nation as a whole. Sir Roger L’Estrange said that even if a fishery failed to turn a profit, that it was “an undertaking, not only of Common Benefit, but (as the Case stands), of Absolute Necessity, to the Safety, and well-being both of King and People”.  Securing the cod trade and establishing fisheries is good national policy, regardless of the economic benefits. Nowhere is this better seen than in Edward Misselden’s The Circle of Commerce (1623), wherein he argues that “the Ports…are the walles and gates of the Kingdome” and that the fishing trade is “as Royall as Reall: as honourable as profitable. It promises Renowne to the King, Revenue to the Crowne, Treasure to the Kingdom, a purchase for the land, a prize for the sea, ships for Navigation, Navigations for ships, Mariners for both: entertainment for the rich, employment for the poore, advantage for the adventurers, and an increase of trade to all subjects.”

Though we’ve seen that proponents of the codfish trade were well aware of the grand political potential of having a strong fish economy, they were also aware of the domestic benefits of policy decisions that encouraged the cod trade. As an argument against the current state of taxation on fisheries, one commentator suggested that “there are four hundred and fifty thousand People employed in the Fisherys” of the Netherlands. Though many of these were likely involved in herring rather than cod fishing, it illustrates the potential employment benefits of setting up and supporting fisheries. The advantages of having a robust fishing fleet in order to produce potential seamen and balance the scales of naval power were so evident to the French crown, that “feering that her fishermen could not maintain their competition without some public patronage, adopted the experiment of bounties on her own fish, and duties on that of foreign nations brought in to her markets”. This action is the essence of mercantilism made law – all of the fears and desires of the mercantile economy are presented here: the desire to keep profits within the nation, the sense that the fish trade is a zero sum game and the close pairing of economic and military policy. The Dutch and later French policies of encouraging cod fishing with government funds was successful enough that Edward Vernon published a tract suggesting that Britain do similarly, “so that to put our subjects upon a level with them in this respect, at least all the trade can be absolutely gained, we ought to grant them a like exception, or a bounty equivalent to it.” The wisdom of placing a bounty, however small, on a good that is traded in such massive quantities is not immediately obvious, but what is obvious is that the benefit to the nation was almost immeasurable in terms of providing employment and producing sailors to man the ships of the navy when the next war came. Vernon later noted that:

“The White Herring and Cod Fishery, if thoroughly established, would tend greatly to the benefit of the nation; for it would be an additional branch of commerce, employing a great number of hands, that are now idle (and, in that light, an evident and direct burden upon the public) it would augment our shipping, increase the number of our seamen, and add to the general balance of trade, as it would enable us to export goods to a great value, which yet cost us nothing but labour. Now these, which are all national advantages [emphasis mine] must absolutely accrue from the employment of the joint stock in carrying on these Fisheries, whatever fare may accompany the company’s design; for tho’ they trade to profit or loss, in respect to themselves, the public is sure to gain, provided they trade at all.”


Vernon is certainly exaggerating to serve his own interests, but it is clear that the fishery was a powerful tool for national advancement, providing the public with profit, hands to man the ships of the line, jobs for those without them, and an increase in overall trade. As the fishing trade came to be dominated by cod fishing, the essential role of cod in building the early modern economy only grew stronger.

Cod, as a commodity, lacked the massive profit margins and potential for vastly increasingly personal wealth that plantation crops had, which had at times would irritate those with an interest in more stable forms of trade and employment. Britannia Languens, bemoaning the “decay of national strength”, complains that “our Fishing for White Herring and Cod was deserted for this Trade[plantations], and the Continual transplanting of multitudes of our Manufacturers and other people, hath inevitably more and more sunk and disabled us in all Manufactures and home-Employments”. Though cod could “seeme a base and more contemptible commoditie in the judgement of more neate adventurers”, it was a resource that was both extremely practical and infinitely useful. In addition to being able to pack large quantities of cod into barrels for economic and high-quantity shipping, cod also produced cod-liver oil or train oil, a valuable and lucrative trade good. Charleroix noted, like other authors, that “These, Madam, are true mines, which are more valuable, and require less experience than those of Peru or Mexico.”Though it would ultimately prove to be untrue, at the time it seemed evident that cod, unlike the gold and silver mines of America, would continue to provide forever, that “a ship filled with cod, and a galleon, are vessels equally laden with gold…that mines can be exhausted, and that the fisheries never are”. Gold mines also did not provide employment for free men, help man the decks of the nations warships and increase the profits of both the rich and the poor. Cod fishing was a unique trade in that it had the potential to enrich all the classes of society, and that it did not require extensive training or massive overhead to begin exploiting.

The industry of cod fishing was clearly something that was of great benefit to the nation, and an enterprise that was of great interest to financiers and thinkers who wanted to both enrich themselves and improve the overall strength and stability of their home countries, but we have yet to explore the obvious benefit of producing a food commodity that is nutritious, easy to transport and stays edible for a long periods of time in a pre-refrigeration era.  This is, of course, the actual profit, monetary and otherwise, of trading in such a valuable resource. In John Drummond’s Accomptant’s Pocket-Companion, a guide for “merchants, gentlemen of estates and others to begin their books”, he makes it clear that a wise merchant and investor will have an interest in catching and curing cod, “which is a Branch of Trade of the most universal Demand, by all Countries on this side of the Line.” The demand for cod fish was, as we shall see, massive, and included consumers from every corner of society, from sailors to slaves, peasants to kings and everyone in between.

The most desirable and profitable market remained, even after consumption grew in America, the Mediterranean countries. The discovery of cod on the shores of Newfoundland was a great boon to the fishermen of Northern Europe, because though “the Cod from the banks of Holland and the Coast of Ireland are much superior in Quality to the American cod” the supply was “in no Degree adequate to the Spanish, Portugese and Italian Markets.” The market for salt cod in the Mediterranean was a consistent and valuable source of revenue for those willing to take advantage of it. The inconsistency of the salting and curing process meant that some of the cod that would be produced were “merchantable” and the rest refuse, which we will return to in a moment. The best cod would be sold in the markets of the Mediterranean, and became such a central dietary element of some of those cultures that a later visitor to Portugal would note that though “the benefits of foreign trade…have never reached the Portugese peasant” and that “the only foreign luxury he is yet acquainted with is tobacco; and when his feeble purse can reach it, he purchases a dried Newfoundland cod-fish”.

It is not, at first immediately obvious why this is. Located across the ocean and not directly linked with English or French national interests, the high demand for cod in the Mediterranean countries was the result of social and cultural needs, as well as economic ones. In addition to being cheap, readily available protein, salt fish, especially cod, filled a religious niche that was otherwise left empty. Less in important in England, it was crucial in France and other Catholic countries to have salt fish available for Lent – Charlevoix claims that “Were it not for the cod-fish and eels there would hardly be any such thing as keeping Lent”. This was such an important consideration that in 1694, the King of France, “being desirous to advance the Interest of his subjects” reduced the duty on foreign fish during lent from twelve livres to six per 100 weight, “to enable them to bring the Salmon and green Cod from the nearest Places, for their Provision in Lent” William Douglass suggests to merchants that “August and September are the best Times for selling a Fish Cargo in the Roman Catholic Countries, their Lent Stock by that Time is expended.”The cod trade tied deeply into the cultural bonds of Europe, as well as the economic and political ones. This European market, though persistent and valuable, made up only a part of a massive international trade economy.

The Atlantic Cod was literally the fuel on which the international economy ran. Though it was wind that powered the ships that carried the trade goods across oceans and into the transnational ports where they would be sold, it was the sailors who manned those ships, and they were largely fed with cod. As early as 1642, during a voyage to the Dutch West Indies, an observer records that the seamen received “six ounces of salted cod every monday and wednesay”. Not all of this cod was from the new world, but it was certainly cod that was the centerpiece of many maritime diets. New England cod, especially, was often unfit for consumption by discerning individuals, because “New-England dry Cod-Fish, is more Salt burnt…No Sun-burnt, Salt-burnt, or that have been a considerable time pickled before dried, are to be deem’d merchantable fish”, meaning that Icelandic Cod, especially, would end up feeding the navy: Sir John Collins, accomptant to the Royal Fishery Company tells us that “this sort is commonly used for the Victualing of Merchant Men, and in the Reign of King Charles the First, was also used 3 days in the Week for Victualing the Navy Royal”. It is easy to see why this was a popular option for feeding sailors – one 24 inch cod could provide the entire daily allowance for eight men at seven pence. As Collins says, “for Victualling of Ships…Iceland Cod well cured is very cheap and proper”. Cod and cod fishing did not just train sailors and make them available for the navy, it fed them as well.

This, it appears, was largely the domain of Icelandic and North Sea cod, because of quality concerns, as well as the relative efficiency of transporting the cod to merchant ships and navy from the North Sea. Newfoundland and New England cod, however, filled another crucial niche in the imperial economy – as provision for slaves. As we have noted, most of the cod fish that was marketable was sent to Europe, but the “Refuse Cod-Fish” was largely shipped off to the West Indies for “Negro Provision”. The availability of this cheap cod was crucial to the persistence of the plantation economy in the West Indies, which largely produced not food for themselves and imported what they could to feed the working black population. “The ships from the West-Indies import syrups, sugar, coffee and tobacco, but in lesser quantity, always in exchange for the cod-fish,” Thomas Pichon notes, “because of the communication between this part of America for the maintenance of the negros employed in the West-India trade”. The demand must have been massive, given the extremely high number of enslaved blacks working in the West Indies. As an indication of the quantity of this trade, Wiliam Dickson, secretary to Governor Edward Hay of Barbadoes, reports that, in addition to what corn they can grind themselves, slaves receive “one pound and a half to two pounds and a half of salted cod-fish, often of a bad quality”. This was even less than what was given to slaves in other colonies, according to Dickson, “an advantage which may be owing to much greater attention being paid to the raising of provisions”, though he does not give an indication of how much cod fish is consumed elsewhere.  Both England and France had extensive plantation colonies operating in the Americas, and both had extensive cod fishing operations – it stands to reason that the two were closely linked.

Modern day observers have noted that the best indication of a planter’s commitment to maintaining the health of their slaves was the was the provision of cod. In addition, the trade in cod fish prevented plantation owners from having to devote time and attention to raising food, allowing their slaves to work longer hours. As it has in Portugal, cod fish became such an integral part of the diet of the West Indian islands that it remains an important part of many Caribbean recipes. As a energy supply for slaves, upon which the structure of mercantilism was built, cod operated as a crucial, inextricable part of the economy. Without it, it is hard to imagine the West Indian plantations running as profitably as they did.

It has been demonstrated that the trade in cod fish was essential to meeting the cultural and economic needs of Europe, powered the production of plantation crops, and provisioned the sailors who were responsible for transporting the goods from one end of the sea to another. The trade was so massive that it affected all related industries – it is not at all strange that John Collins’ treatise on salt deals equally as deeply with the cod fish trade. The two were inextricably linked, and the duties on salt were an important consideration when assessing the viability and profitability of salt cod. The reach of the cod trade was so vast that on the Ivory Coast, visitors hoping to trade were required to give to each of the “Frippons, or common scoundrel blacks, one bottle of brandy, a dish of cod-fish, and a ration of biscuit”. The story of the cod fish is the story of empire.

It is also, as mentioned, the story of mercantilism, as well as its tragedy. It’s hard to tell when demand begins and ends, but the fierce competition between French and English fishermen, as well as the bounties provided by both governments, may well have created an artificially large volume of trade. Though Charlevoix and others would insist about the cod, that “the number of which seems equal to the grains of sand which cover this bank” or that the banks were “inexhaustible”, they certainly were not. Fishing of the Newfoundland and New England cod banks would continue, en masse, until re-examination in the twentieth century put a hold on overfishing. It is unclear how much of this we owe to the national politics of the 17th and 18th centuries, but the establishment of a cultural, social and economic precedent can be traced back that far at least.

The cod fish trade has been examined at great length, and by many previous authors; it is something that is so crucially important to so many communities that it can hardly go without examination. What has gone largely unexplored is the way in which cod drove the international economy as a whole. As we’ve seen, the catching and curing of fish was an essential part of the English, Dutch and French economies and it was an important product to the Roman Catholic and Mediterranean countries for centuries. It provisioned sailors, and though seamen were certainly able to get nutrition elsewhere, it is hard to imagine providing them with cheap protein without access to salt fish, especially cod. Importantly, it was an essential element of the slave diet in the West Indies, linking it to the avenues of trade that ran from Europe to the colonies. Cod traveled in every direction from the North Sea and from Newfoundland and New England, providing fuel in the form of human power to all corners of the empires of England, France, Spain and the Netherlands. The economies of the 17th and 18th centuries were already massively complex, and it would not do to exaggerate the effect of the salt cod trade on these fledgling empires, but it is difficult to envision an early modern world without access to such an abundant, persistent and affordable resource. In a significant way, all empires were empires of cod fish.



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