The International Fishery of the 16th Century
More Europeans at the end of the
15th century were engaged in fishing than in any other occupation
except farming. This fact reflects the importance that fish
played in the everyday diet of Europeans. It was a source of
protein that was easy to preserve, transport, purchase and
prepare. Moreover, in an age of rising (and warring)
nation-states, fish made an ideal military ration.
National governments came to
regard all maritime activities, including fishing, as essential
to the training of seamen needed by their navies in time of war.
Thus governments promoted fisheries not only because fish was
valuable as food and as an article of trade, but because they
were "nurseries for seamen". Even Protestant England
would legislate "fish days" to increase the consumption
of fish. The discovery of new fishing grounds as rich as those at
Newfoundland was guaranteed to attract the interest of all
Western European countries.
News of what John Cabot had found
spread quickly throughout Europe. Within 10 years of his voyage,
significant numbers of European fishermen had begun to make the
annual trip to the "New Found Land" to catch cod.
Few of these fishermen were English; instead, Bretons
and Normans from France, and Portuguese, predominated during the
opening decades of the 16th century. Breton fishermen were
visiting Newfoundland as early as 1504, while Norman fishermen
learned about the fishing grounds from Thomas Aubert, who had
made a fishing and reconnoitering voyage in 1508. By the 1520s
French ports regularly sent out between 60 and 90 vessels each
year. The size of the Portuguese fleet is unknown.
After about 1540, Basques from
northern Spain added another element to what historians refer as
the "International Fishery", so that by 1578 Anthony
Parkhurst was able to count over 100 Spanish vessels at
Newfoundland, all seeking cod. In contrast, the level of English
activity during this period was quite small - Parkhurst claimed
that in 1573 there were only four English vessels at
French Atlantic Fishing Ports
Illustration by Tina Riche, 1997.
Why was this? Why were the French
and Portuguese so quick to take advantage of Cabot's discovery,
while the English, who after all had sponsored his explorations,
were so slow? Part of the answer may be location. The forerunner
of England's Newfoundland fishery was its Icelandic fishery. This
was based in the seaports of England's north-eastern coast, on
the North Sea, which were poorly located to exploit the
Newfoundland fishing grounds. In contrast, the south-western
seaports (in the so-called "West Country") were ideally
situated to exploit fishing grounds on the other side of the
Atlantic. Eventually they would come to dominate the Newfoundland
fishery, but they could not develop a cod fishing industry
overnight. Nor could they establish markets right away for a
product that was so new to them.
The French Atlantic seaports that
were conveniently located to take advantage of the new discovery
had already become skilled at cod-fishing in the North Sea. What
is more important, they already had developed markets for cod in
northern and eastern France.
Markets were another important
factor. The fish caught at Newfoundland by Breton and Norman
fishermen ended up in inland markets such as Rouen and Paris.
Portuguese and Spanish fishermen benefited from the fact that
their countries were staunchly, even militantly, Catholic, with a
strong demand for fish to consume on fast days. In addition, both
countries had growing sea-borne empires in America and Asia, and
needed cod to feed the mariners and soldiers who were associated
with that growth.
England, in contrast, had no
comparable expanding domestic market. Its Icelandic and local
fisheries satisfied the demand for fish. In the absence of some
other market, there really was no incentive for English ports to
develop a major fishery at Newfoundland. While a decline in the
Icelandic fishery encouraged the expansion of the English fishery
at Newfoundland, significant growth occurred only after the
Spanish and Portuguese fisheries went into decline. This forced
southern European consumers to look for foreign suppliers of cod.
The English West Country ports had found the market they needed.
The Decline of the Spanish and
Portuguese Fisheries at Newfoundland
The decline of the
Iberian fishery (that is, the fishery of Spain and Portugal) had
less to do with events in Newfoundland than with developments in
Europe. The Spanish fishery was based in the Basque region in the
northern part of the country.
Basque fishing ports involved in the
Illustration by Tina Riche, 1997.
The enormous wealth
which Spain was plundering from its American possessions helped
to finance the development of a powerful and highly centralized
government in Madrid. This government began to assert itself
through all sorts of new regulations and restrictions. These
interfered increasingly with various economic activities,
including the fishery. At first the Spanish Basque seaports tried
to ignore many of these measures. However, in time new taxes,
combined with restrictions on trade and shipping, weakened the
ability of the Spanish fishermen to compete with their European
In addition, the great 16th century inflation caused significant
price rises. So far as the Spanish fishery was
concerned, this meant increased costs, while the rising price of
fish encouraged foreign suppliers to penetrate the Spanish market
Worst of all was the crippling
effect of Spain's war with England that began late in the 1580s.
Not only did the government requisition commercial shipping and
seamen (including those from the fishery) for military purposes,
but Spanish trade was now exposed to attack by English
privateers. In 1585 Sir Bernard Drake carried out an extensive attack on Spanish ships in Newfoundland,
although he was careful to avoid Spanish centres like Placentia and the Strait of Belle
Isle. The Spanish retaliated with attacks on English and French
shipping in 1587 and 1588. However, the Spanish cod-fishing
industry never completely recovered. Portugal suffered too,
because in 1580 she had been absorbed by Spain. The Portuguese
fishery was subjected to the same ill-effects of Madrid's
policies as its Spanish counterpart. Until peace was restored in
1604, the English continued to be aggressive in seizing and
destroying Iberian fishing ships.
The destruction of the Iberian
fishery at Newfoundland was not absolute and complete. Spanish
and Portuguese fishermen continued to cross the Atlantic
throughout the 1600s. There are French reports of Spanish
fishermen at Placentia in 1655, and English reports of Spanish
fishermen north of Bonavista after 1660. These suggest that a
Spanish sedentary fishery may have struggled on to the end of the
century. But their numbers were so reduced that, for all intents
and purposes, they might not have existed. This created an
exciting opportunity for the French and especially for the
The French and the English at
Spain and Portugal wanted cod,
and so did other Mediterranean buyers, such as those in Italy.
Since the Iberian fishery could no longer provide the necessary
quantities of fish to satisfy that demand, southern Europe turned
to anyone who could. The two countries that benefited the most
from this situation were France and England.
Between 1545 and 1565, the number
of fishing vessels outfitted at Bordeaux increased from about 20
per year to 40, the number at La Rochelle increased from about 12
to over 40, while the number at Rouen increased from roughly 12
at the beginning of the 1540s to over 90 by the mid-1550s. Les
Sables d'Olonne may have outfitted 100 vessels by the second half
of the 16th century, and substantial increases also occurred at
La Rochelle and Le Croisic. The English fishing fleets also
expanded from around 30 ships per year to as many as 200 by the
end of the 1500s. In 1615 Richard Whitbourne estimated there were
250 English vessels carrying 5,000 men and catching fish worth
£120,000. However, there is really little doubt that France was
by far the superior of the two. At mid-century, French fishing
vessels outnumbered English ones by roughly two to one.
Such growth did not necessarily
lead to friction between the fishermen of the two countries. The
French and English fisheries at Newfoundland were sufficiently
different at this time that there was nothing intrinsically
competitive or incompatible about them. The English,
favoured a "dry" cure in which the fish were brought to
shore where they were cleaned, split, and laid out on elaborate
"flakes" to dry. Although this method used salt much
more sparingly, the product was ironically known as
"saltfish." The dry cure was undoubtedly a better cure;
the fish was less likely to spoil, giving it a longer inventory
life and thus more flexibility both in its sale and in its use.
Athough the French Basque fishery was a dry fishery, as were parts of the Breton and
Norman fisheries, the French generally preferred a
"wet" cure, in which the cod was heavily salted in the
hold or packed in brine. The resulting product was called morue
verte ("green cod").
Consequently the French did
not feel compelled to challenge the English, who were quickly
establishing themselves on the shores of the Avalon Peninsula.
Although a French dry fishery had sprung up by 1600 in response
to new market opportunities, there were plenty of places to catch
and cure fish besides the Avalon Peninsula, such as the Gulf of
St. Lawrence and even the North American mainland. Generally, the
French were not interested in establishing territorial claims in
Newfoundland before the middle of the 17th century.
Market opportunities were not the
only factors in defining the nature and growth of the English and
French fisheries. Historians have often explained the choice
between the dry or wet cure by reference to the availability of
salt. France had an abundance of salt and in consequence its
fishermen favoured a wet cure; England did not have an abundance
of salt and in consequence its fishermen favoured a dry cure. It
is now thought that it was the market which determined the choice
of a dry cure by the English fishery, since this is what was
wanted in Spain, Portugal and the Mediterranean. The French
eventually responded in the same way, despite their abundance of
The two fisheries also differed
in the trading patterns that had begun to take shape by 1600. The
French fish trade served a diversity of markets, both domestic
and foreign. The Breton and Norman ports initially responded to
domestic markets for "green cod" in northern and
eastern France. As a market for saltfish developed in Spain,
French channel ports, and especially southern French Basque ports
developed a dry fishery as well. In other words, we cannot
characterize the French trade in fish any more easily than we
could characterize the French fishing industry. It did not base
itself in the ports of a single region, it did not favour a
particular kind of cure, and it served a diversity of markets,
both foreign and domestic.
The English fish trade presents a
striking contrast. Ignoring the domestic market, English
merchants concentrated their efforts almost completely in the
market ports of southern Europe. They had quickly recognized that
the saltfish trade was a reliable way to redirect some of the
riches of Spanish America to England: fish could be traded for
bullion, or used to purchase fruits, wines, and other desirable
southern European commodities. At first, the fish-laden ships
returned to their home ports in England where the fish would be
transshipped to market. Gradually this practice ended, and the
fish was sent directly to Spain or Portugal from Newfoundland.
Southern European Markets
Illustration by Tina Riche, 1997.
By 1600, the fish was often
stored on vessels whose sole purpose was to transport such
cargoes, and which arrived at Newfoundland as the fishing season
ended. Usually much larger than fishing vessels, they were known
as "sack ships." The origin of this name is not clear.
The preferred explanation is that these ships were also used in
the Spanish sherry trade, and sherry was commonly called
"sack." Or perhaps "sack" was a corruption of
sec or sèche, the French word meaning dry, which
identified the saltfish (morue sèche) which was
the ships' cargo. Recently Peter Pope has argued that the term
sack is almost certainly derived from "vino de sacca," or "wine for export" (Pope 264).
The resulting pattern of ship
movement (from England to Newfoundland to southern Europe and
back to England) has been called the "triangular
trade." This is something of an oversimplification. The
vessels which carried the fishermen from England to Newfoundland
were not necessarily the same vessels which carried the fish from
Newfoundland to southern Europe. Nevertheless, there is some
truth to the term, since it accurately describes the principal
directions in which investment capital (in the form of shipping
and cargoes) moved within the Newfoundland fishery.
During the period of the 16th
century international fishery, the European migratory fishery at
Newfoundland became firmly established, along with some of its
fundamental characteristics. Who participated in the fishery, how
and where they fished, how and where they disposed of their catch - these and other features were firmly in place by 1600. By
this time France was dominant in the fishery and England was its
only serious rival.
Conflict between the two
countries at Newfoundland was not inevitable: the fishery was a
common property resource over which exclusive jurisdictional
rights could not yet be exercised; the French favoured more than
one curing process, which reduced the risk of conflict with the
English; and the French fish trade did not necessarily respond to
the same market demands as did the English trade. Yet as each
country entered the age of competition for trade and empire, each
would come to view the fishery as a national asset. As a result,
control of the fishery would become an issue for conflict.
©1997, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site Project