The English Migratory Fishery and Trade in the 17th Century
The basic characteristics of the
migratory fishery did not change very much in the 300 years of
its existence. The technology, the patterns of activity, and the
fundamental skills all had a certain timeless quality about them.
But this does not mean that the migratory fishery itself did not
change. Like everything else, it was affected by the political,
economic, and social developments occurring in the western world.
By the opening years of the 17th
century, France and England were the foremost participants in the
Newfoundland fishery. The century was anything but tranquil;
pirates and corsairs, civil and international wars, colonization
and settlement, political centralization, poor fisheries,
competition for control of the fishery and its development, all
created hazards and difficulties for the fishing industry.
Survival required effective responses, which often caused the
fishery itself to change. Some participants disappeared, while
others faded into secondary importance. A very small number not
only survived, but eventually came to dominate the fishing
industry and trade in the 18th century.
The English West Country Fishery
At the start of the 17th century,
the British cod-fishing industry was centred in the south-western
"toe" of England known as the "West Country."
In addition, the Channel Islands of Guernsey and Jersey
participated regularly. Between 1615 and 1640, 70% of the English
vessels that sailed to fish at Newfoundland came from the West
Country, a region which had the location, the capital, and the
men to assume the leadership in the British fishery at
Five counties made up the West
Country: Dorset, Devonshire, Somerset, Hampshire, and Cornwall.
Although the last two soon dropped out of direct involvement in
the Newfoundland fishery, both continued to be a source of
labour. Since the county of Somerset was involved in a variety
of other activities, the fishery became strongly identified
with Dorset and Devonshire.
|The English West Country.
Illustration by Duleepa Wijayawardhana, 1998. Based on research by Wendy Churchill.
The West Country had an important
and flourishing wool and cloth trade in addition to the fishery.
But in England as in the rest of Europe, the fishery was thought
to be of great economic importance because of the supplementary
employment it provided by stimulating dozens of auxiliary trades.
In his Discourse and Discovery of the Newfoundland (1620),
Richard Whitbourne described some of the products consumed by the
fishery: nets, hooks, leads, lines, rope, bread, and beer.
Bakers, brewers, coopers, chandlers, net-makers, tackle-makers,
smiths, hook-makers, carpenters, and rope-makers were among the
many tradesmen who never left their West Country homes, yet were
employed by the fishery just as surely as a splitter or a beach
master in Renews.
The West Country Merchant-Venturers: Facing the Risks
The Newfoundland trade was
controlled by a small number of West Country merchant-venturers,
who often referred to themselves as the "Western
Adventurers." They had common interests and concerns, were
often related by marriage, and accumulated considerable wealth.
This power and cohesiveness made them very influential within the
West Country. At the same time, because the Newfoundland trade
was highly competitive rivalries between individual merchants,
merchant families, or entire merchant communities could be
fierce. Religious and political differences further divided them.
This happened frequently during the 17th century, and
it is an indication of how troubled the Newfoundland trade was
during that period.
The first 20 years after 1600
experienced rapid expansion in the fishery. By 1620, possibly as
many as 300 English ships and vessels annually sailed to
Newfoundland, with some West Country ports each sending as many
as 80 vessels. Many factors account for this growth: the end of
the war with Spain in 1603, the elimination of the Spanish
fishery at Newfoundland, bountiful fish stocks, and an
availability of surplus capital. But a succession of hardships
following 1620 caused the fishery to shrink and forced some West
Country ports quit the fishery altogether.
Until about 1640 the fish trade
was plagued by marauding Barbary pirates known as the Sallee
rovers. They were renegade seamen from all nations who sailed out
of bases in North Africa. Piracy itself was nothing new to the
Newfoundland fishery; the notorious Peter Easton and Henry
Mainwaring were only two among the many who had raided
Newfoundland harbours during the 1610s. Because it was dispersed
and seasonal, the fishery could endure piracy of this sort. since
while some harbours suffered, others were left untouched.
The trade was different. The
value of the cargoes carried by fishing
ships when they
left in the spring, or by
sack ships approaching market
destinations in the fall, was enormous. If one of these was lost,
the impact on the merchant-venturer was significant.
sketch by Edward Barlow of the sack ship Real
Friendship in 1668.
Barlow was a mariner aboard her on a voyage from London
The following year, while loading fish in Newfoundland,
caught fire and was lost.
From Edward Barlow, Barlow's
Journal of His Life at Sea in King's Ships, East & West
Indiamen & Other Merchantmen from 1659 to 1703. (London, Hurst & Blackett, Ltd, 1934) I, 143.
It was the trade which was the
usual target of the Sallee rovers, who cruised the coasts of
Portugal and Spain while waiting to intercept merchantmen who
converged in the market ports. They even sailed into the English
Channel because neither France nor England possessed navies
capable of effectively challenging them. The losses in shipping
and men were staggering. In the four years from 1624 to 1628, the
town of Poole alone claimed to have lost 20 ships - a figure
equal to the number of ships the town had once sent out annually.
Thereafter, Poole was only able to send three ships to
Adding to West Country
difficulties were the frequent wars between England and various
European countries after 1620. Fishermen were "pressed"
into the navy, shipping became a target of enemy attacks, and
markets in hostile countries were closed to English fish. Even
the mere possibility of war could be disruptive. For example, in
1623 the threat of a war with Spain caused the English government
to place an embargo on fish exports to that country. The English
civil war (after 1640) and conflicts with Spain and Holland
during the 1650s disrupted the fishery and trade so deeply that
the number of ships in the fishing fleet had decreased from 300
to barely one hundred by 1660. Only 43 ships sailed for
Newfoundland by the year 1684.
Many West Country ports simply
abandoned the fishery altogether: The Cornish ports of Falmouth
and Fowey, as well as ports such as Lyme Regis, Weymouth,
Southampton, even Plymouth (one of the most important
participants at the beginning of the century) all gave up. The
worst years came after 1690 when yet another war, this time with
France, caused the English government to prohibit all fishing
ships from sailing to Newfoundland. This was a matter of
necessity: fishermen were needed to man the navy and as a result,
the migratory fishery did not resume until 1693.
Aside from the hazards of piracy
and war were all the usual risks associated with a speculative
and unpredictable industry and trade. Ships disasters, fraud,
poor fish catches and congested markets were all possibilities.
The life of a merchant-venturer was insecure because he might
easily prosper in the fishery, only to lose his fortune in other
activities. As a result, merchant-venturers, suspicious of new
situations, often adopted a pessimistic outlook. Their frequent
predictions of doom and collapse, cries of ruin, lamentations,
and complaints of meager profits dwarfed by mountainous costs
should all be viewed with some scepticism. Nevertheless, it is
true that by the end of the 17th century the English migratory
fishery had really been on the brink of collapse. One indication
of this is the disappearance of the names of many
merchant-venturers who had previously been active in the fishery
©1997, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site Project