DENYS’ DESCRIPTION OF THE COD FISHERY AT NEWFOUNDLAND,
AS PRACTISED IN FORMER TIMES AND DURING THE OPERATION OF THE ACT 10–11 WM. III., CAP. 25.1
[Extracts from “ The Description and Natural History of the Coasts of North America,” by Nicolas Denys. (Paris : 1672, Champlain Society’s reprint and translation, 1908), Vol. II, pp. 269–336.]
The method of fishing the Cod called Merluche (Stockfish or dry Cod), of dressing it, of salting it, and of drying it, and of all the tools necessary therefor.
Let us speak now of the fishery for the dry fish, which is only, as I have said in the preceding chapter, the same Cod under the name of Merluche. It is smaller than the green Cod, which makes it easier to preserve, the salt penetrating it sooner than it does the green, which is much larger and in consequence thicker, and which would be eaten by maggots before it was dry, because of its thickness. This does not happen to the smaller one, which keeps, and serves for provision for the longest voyages and in the warmest climates. It is not that they do not catch large ones near the land, and even larger than on the Bank, but they are not dried ; they are put down green, that is to say, are salted, as is done upon the Bank.
Among all those who are accustomed to make this kind of fishery, the Basques are the most skilled. Those of La Rochelle have the first rank after them, and the Islanders* who are in the vicinity, then the Bourdelois (men of Bordeaux) and then the Bretons. From all those places there may go a hundred, a hundred and twenty, and a hundred and fifty vessels every year, if there is no hindrance through a need for sailors who are retained for the vessels of the King.
Concerning that which is customary when the ships are approaching the place where the fishery is to be made ; the manner of obtaining a position, that which is done at the landing, and how the company is set at work.
Whilst all these preparations for the fishery are being made on the vessel, she does not fail to advance upon her way. When nearing the land and the
1 The footnotes on this and succeeding pages are notes by the translator of the Champlain Society’s edition.
* That is of the Isle de Ré and Isle d'Oléron.
position where they expect to go to make their fishery, they sometimes meet two or three vessels together which have the intention of going all to the same  harbour, and each captain designs to be Admiral there. In order to obtain this Admiralty, when they are eight, ten, or twelve leagues from land, they lower at night a boat with their best oarsmen,
furnished with good oars. If they have a good wind which carries them faster than the oars, they make use of the sail. If during the day they perceive that the others are doing the same, they have no fear of capsizing, but vie with one another in carrying sail, in order to gain the lead. Sometimes the water passes over the gunwale of the boat. Nobody stirs for fear of losing the wind, excepting only the one who bails out the water. There are few persons who would wish to be in their company. If there is no  wind it is necessary to row. It is then indeed that they stretch their arms. There are no galley-slaves who pull so hard at the oars as they. No one speaks of eating or drinking for fear of causing delay. There is always some one who arrives some little time ahead of the others. The first who leaps on shore acquires the right of Admiral for his captain. It is for him to take the place he prefers, both for building his staging and for locating his vessel. If he finds on the shore wood from stagings which have been broken down during the winter, and which the sea has cast up there, he takes it, and anything else he finds there, as it suits him and by [right of] preference [over all others].*
The ship having arrived there, they all change their occupation except the  captain, and each one takes up that duty to which he has been assigned according to his engagement made before his departure. Thus it results that one who was only a sailor during the voyage becomes a boat-master when he has arrived at the place of the fishery. At the same time the captain sends all the carpenters ashore to prepare quickly his boats, if he has any of them on land. But they rarely go to a place where they have not some, or else they carry some with them. If they are lacking one, and find any on the coast, they take it, as having first right, provided always that the boats have no owner, and that there is no fisherman who claims them, either as proprietor or through  proxy from the owners, [and not if] the marks of the boats are plain. This right of Admiralty does not hold for the boats of another, but only for those which are found as waifs, of which he has the first right to make use. After he has a sufficiency of these things, the ships which have arrived in the same harbour have after him the same right in succession, according to the order of their arrival. An exception is Plaisance,† which is a harbour in the Island of Newfoundland, where a number of ships go to make their fishery ; there, when the Admiral has provided himself sufficiently with boats, he gives
* The right of Admiral was even more valued than our author implies. Among the English fishermen of Newfoundland this right became so highly developed that the fishing admirals not only ruled over the other fishermen in the same harbour, but even over the residents ashore. The subject is well discussed by Prowse in his History of Newfoundland.
† The French took possession of Plaisance in Newfoundland in 1662 and held it until 1713, when they gave it up to England by the Treaty of Utrecht. By the same treaty the French were given the right to dry fish on the west coast of Newfoundland, a privilege which has led to much trouble in our own times. This right they relinquished in 1904.
the balance to whomsoever he thinks best among those who have need of them, excepting always those of proprietors or the bearers of proxies.
 The carpenters being on shore, the captain busies himself in placing his ship the best that he can, and to get her well moored. Then he leaves the mate with seven or eight men to strip her, in just the same way as if she were in harbour in France to pass the winter. There is no cordage left except the shrouds which serve to hold the masts upright. These orders being given all the crew goes on shore.
Arrived on shore, some of them set to work at the lodging for the fishermen, which is like a hall covered with a ship’s sail. The sides at the bottom all around are lined with branches of Fir, interlaced into pickets or stakes of four to five feet in height driven into the ground ; and the sail completes  the two sides. With respect to the two ends, which are, as it were, the two gables of this edifice, Fir poles are placed distant a foot from one another ; these are also interlaced with branches of Fir, which are compacted together as closely as possible, so that the wind can hardly pass through them. In the middle of the interior are placed large poles from end to end, distant the length of a man from one another, and these support the ridge. Other poles are placed from one to the other and are nailed at each interval, the whole so arranged that it does not shake. They make of them two stories, one above the other, where they put up their beds and sleep two by two. The bottoms of their beds are  of ropes, which they interweave like a racket, but with openings much larger. At each breadth of bed is placed a pole which keeps the two men apart, and prevents them from annoying one another at night by their weight, which otherwise would make them fall one on another if the cords which compose the bottom were not stretched tight by this pole in the middle. Their bed is a mattress of dry grass ; their covering is that which it may please them to bring with them ; whence many have for this purpose nothing but their cloaks. As for their chests, they place them along the walls and their beds. Such is the lodging of the fishermen. With respect to the size of this lodging it depends  as a rule upon that of the mainsail of the ship which covers it.
Whilst some are working upon this lodging, others are constructing that of the captain, which is built in the same fashion. But there is in the middle a partition of poles set one against the other ; in this is made a door, which is locked. One side is used for storing the provisions, and the other contains his table and his bed, [the latter] on one side or above, made of rope like the others. Sometimes it is bottomed with boards. He has a mattress and quilt.
In another place the steward with some of the boys at work to build the kitchen, which is covered with large turfs arranged like tiles one upon another,  so that the rain cannot enter it. And from the roof downwards, there are Fir branches all around, interlaced like the others. These the boys bring from the woods, as well for this as for all the rest of the lodgings. It is usually the doctor whose duty it is to make them go to the woods. All this is being done at once, and is finished in two or three days, even though it is necessary to go and get all the branches and poles in the woods, to carry them back, and to smooth them, for fear they might pierce and injure the sails.
Whilst all this is under way, the beach-master and the pilot, who have ten or twelve men with them, are in the woods to cut down Firs as large as the thigh, of twelve, fifteen,  sixteen to twenty feet in length, to make their stagings and the lodgings. Everybody is at work. It is necessary to carry them all the way to the shore of the sea, some seven to eight hundred paces, and sometimes a thousand or twelve hundred. For every year they are being cut away, and the nearest are always the first taken. There are places where so many have been cut away that no more are left, [and] it is necessary to go after them three, four, five, and six leagues away, and sometimes farther. There are scarcely any places left where it is not necessary to go fetch them from a distance. They go there with boats of three men each, who go and come day and night, but are unable to carry more than fifty to sixty each. When once [90, i.e. 88] the work has been commenced, it is almost useless to speak of sleeping, eating or drinking unless by stealth, except for the supper. Whilst some are transporting all the logs, others are at work preparing the stagings.
[91, i.e. 89]CHAPTER V
On the method of constructing the staging for the dressing of the Cod,
and of the work which it is to build it.
The staging [échaffaut] being so indispensable as it is in this fishery, it will not be inappropriate if I describe it here, in order to make its use better understood.* It is necessary to know at the outset that all the wood of which it is made up is obtained in the same country where it is built. It may be forty, fifty, or sixty paces long, according to the size of the vessels, to which we assume  always that the number of men is in proportion. Its breadth is nearly a third of its length, and its end which is not covered is also about a
* The description of the shore fishery for cod in the following pages is, I believe, by far the most detailed that has come down to us, and is in fact well-nigh monographic. No doubt other French writers have given some account of the subject, though the only early writer on Acadia who describes it appears to be Lescarbot (Histoire de la Nouvelle France, ed. 1612, 824), who has a very brief but excellent comment upon it. There is a brief but good account of the Newfoundland and Acadian fisheries in the Gentleman’s Magazine for 1755 (Vol. XXV. 217), and abstracts of other early accounts are contained in Prowse’s History of Newfoundland. Of later works the best I have found is in M‘Gregor’s British America (London, 1832), Vol. I. 227. There is matter of interest also in M. H. Perley’s Report on the Fisheries of New Brunswick (Fredericton, N.B., 1852), 7, and appendix ; in T. F. Knight’s Shore and Deep Sea Fisheries of Nova Scotia (Halifax, N.S., 1867), 24 ; and in Pierre Fortin’s Reports of Fisheries in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, a work I know only from the citations in Knight’s pamphlet. A brief description of the fishery as practised by the Acadian fishermen of Bay Chaleur is given by Bishop Plessis in his journal of his voyage of 1811–1812 (in Le Foyer Canadien, 1865, 99, 123, 135). A little pamphlet, Inventory of Articles in the French Fishing Stations on the Coasts of Newfoundland, 1905, gives the modern French names of many articles used in the fishery. For most of the information about the terminology of the Newfoundland and Nova Scotian fisheries of the present day I am indebted to the very kind aid of Archbishop Howley of St. Johns, Newfoundland, and to Mr. C. H. Whitman of Canso, N.S., both of whom have answered very fully my many inquiries.
quarter of its length ; it ends sometimes in a point and sometimes square, and extends into the sea, so that the boats can always come alongside.*
To begin the construction of the staging, there is placed at fifteen, twenty, or twenty-five feet out in the water a huge stake of eighteen to twenty feet in height. For this purpose, three or four men place themselves in the water, when the tide is low, as far out as they can. The stake being set upright, there are put in place three or four buttresses, the ends of which are at the bottom of the sea, while the  other ends are against the stake as high as a man can reach to nail them, [which he does] with a nail as large as the finger. This stake being well fastened upright, another of the same kind is planted on the land, and exactly opposite that [is placed] a second, so that these two last determine the breadth of the staging. This forms a triangle when the end of the staging, or its stage-head, ends in a point.
Between these two last-mentioned stakes and that which is in the sea, there are also planted other stakes a fathom apart along the two sides, so that the whole forms a triangle of which the point is in the sea. All of those stakes being set upright, with the buttresses well nailed on, there are nailed to each one of them three and four of those large  poles from the bottom to the top, equally spaced, in such manner that they serve as a ladder for mounting upon the staging.† To strengthen this point, there are placed also under all the extent of this triangle a number of upright stakes well shored up. After this a quantity of large poles is placed crossing from one to the other, with others which run from top to bottom diagonally. Thus this point is so well provided with beams, and is so solid and well nailed, that it is able to resist the roughest waves, as well as the impact of the boats which land there continually when they come from the fishing. The pile-work of this point being thus set up, there are placed across it large pieces  of wood at the height of eighteen to twenty feet from the bottom, beginning with this first stake which forms the point. These cross-pieces are properly the beams which support the flooring ; this, at high water, is elevated five feet or thereabouts above the surface of the water at the point of the staging. This being done, the staging is continued of the breadth of those two stakes which are on the land and which also determine the breadth of this point ; and this breadth is continued thirty-five or forty paces always upon the same level. Thus the stakes which are planted upright to sustain the flooring of the staging become progressively less in length, because the shore runs ascending towards the land like a comedy theatre. All  these stakes are also well propped and strengthened with cross-pieces, as in the prow of the staging. Cross beams
* The staging is still an essential feature of the cod fishery, where extensively prosecuted, and it is still called chauffaud by the French and Acadian fishermen. Our author’s very detailed description of its construction can be followed more readily by aid of his illustration, reproduced herewith. It happens, however, that another illustration, given a few pages later (page 311), taken from Moll’s map, agrees in some respects better with our author’s description than does his own illustration, while it supplies much additional detail.
† The present-day stagings made by the fishermen of Newfoundland, the English at least, are built with square ends (called stage-heads), while the horizontal poles (called longers) which serve as ladders are placed upon pieces (called strouters) inclined against the end of the staging.