Organizing the Migratory Fishery

Given the uncertainty and hardships which accompanied the 17th century fishery, how did a merchant-venturer strengthen his chances for survival and success? How were the fishery and trade structured in order to minimize risks? To answer such questions, we must examine the nature and organization of the fishery and trade, which in turn requires an examination of the way they were financed, outfitted, and conducted.


Financing was a fundamental concern because of the heavy expenses involved: ships, provisions, equipment, salt, and labour. At the same time, financing also provided the merchant-venturer with the best opportunity of reducing the number of risks. If a merchant owned shares in several ventures rather than investing everything in one ship, he eliminated the danger of losing everything in the event that he lost one ship. Instead of relying solely upon the outcome of one voyage, he made his money by receiving a portion of the profits from several voyages. An example of share-ownership is provided by the Charity of Southampton in 1638. This vessel was owned by five merchants; one owned a half-interest in her, two owned three-eighths, and the other two owned the remaining eighth.

Share-ownership also allowed for investment by entrepreneurs and speculators to whom the fishery was primarily an opportunity for profit. Among the many people known to have invested in the fishery early in the 17th century were a Plymouth tailor, a Southampton grocer, a clothier, and a weaver.

The traditional image of the fishery as an activity that was exclusively associated with specific West Country ports and merchant-venturers is an oversimplification. Share-ownership brought together men from multiple towns that were often geographically distant from each other. For instance, we know that one particular fishing ship was owned by investors from Southampton, Jersey, Poole, and Salisbury (an inland farming town). Moreover, as a result of share-ownership, one individual might own a portion of several vessels which may have included both fishing ships and sack ships.

This was a sensible diversification. Fishing ships were small, usually 80 to 100 tons at most, and packed full of men, provisions, and equipment on their ocean crossing to the fishing grounds. Such vessels were too small to transport the entire crew back from Newfoundland and still carry a cargo of salt fish to market. It also was not efficient to carry the fishing crew, along with the ship's crew, to the Iberian markets before returning to England. This dilemma accounts for the appearance of sack ships which were large (up to 200 tons) and devoted exclusively to the task of transporting cargoes of salt fish to the market. The smaller fishing ships returned directly to England with their fishing crews and cargoes of various Newfoundland products such as train oil (cod oil), salmon, and furs.

In the past, some historians argued that sack ships and fishing ships were competitive types of shipping, and that there was antagonism between their backers. However, it is now becoming understood that the picture is much more complex than this. All these activities were interrelated and complemented each other.


Share-ownership was not limited to shipping. Several individuals may also have jointly owned outgoing cargoes of victuals and equipment. By dividing investment capital among several cargoes, a merchant-venturer avoided the risk of losing his entire investment due to one mishap.

He was able to further reduce hazards if he sub-contracted the task of collecting the outgoing cargo. For instance, every port had victuallers who agreed for a fixed sum (usually a share of the profits) to assume all the responsibilities and risks of provisioning the ship. At the beginning of the 17th century this job was completed in England but with the establishment of New England colonies in the 1620s and 1630s, the fishery acquired another source of provisions. Livestock, flour, bread, and products from the West Indies - like molasses, sugar, and especially rum - were carried to Newfoundland in exchange for fish. The dependability and quality of New England's provisions quickly made that region an essential element of the Newfoundland trade.

Ireland developed a very similar role; English fishing ships discovered the advantages of stopping at Waterford and Cork for barrels of salted meats and butter. According to one estimate, in 1680 Irish meat cost 40% less than English meat. Thus, by the 1690s English fishermen in Newfoundland regularly consumed peas, bacon, cabbages, beer, cider, oats and bread from the West Country; flour, bread, meat, molasses, and rum from New England; and salt pork, salt beef, butter, and biscuit from Ireland.

The merchant-venturers approved of this diversified system of supply. Provisions were frequently cheaper and better in quality, and investment was more secure because it did not depend upon a single source.


As the task of fitting out the fishing ship neared completion, men hired to work as fishing crews began to arrive in port. They came from two different sources. One source of labour was the coastal West Country villages which provided the skilled men who had prior experience as mariners and possibly as fishermen. Most came from inland villages. An agent employed by the merchant-venturer recruited them, usually at one of the many midwinter fairs held in the countryside. Such recruits were invariably "green men," meaning that they were inexperienced and lacked the skills needed in the fishery. As many as 10,000 men may have left their rural West Country homes each year. Clearly, the fishery provided the region with an important source of employment.

Many of the men who signed up only worked for a season or two and then returned to other occupations after they had earned some money and satisfied their curiosity about life outside their rural villages. This fluidity in the labour supply was advantageous to the fishery. Whenever it was forced to contract, as in time of war, men who were not hired were free to find other employment. And the high turnover of "green men" allowed the merchant-venturer to justify a low level of pay. These men were given the most menial assignments while they learned basic skills on the job.

Nevertheless, in one sense they were the most important element of the labour force because it was the fishery's alleged ability to transform "green men" into seamen that impressed the government, which wanted a reserve of experienced seamen for its navy. The official perception of the fishery as a "nursery for seamen" resulted in the implementation of policies designed to protect and nurture the migratory fishery. These were policies that the merchant-venturers were determined to preserve.

The men who worked in the fishery were customarily paid with a share of the catch. This was a legacy of the era of the international fishery, and share-payment was also found in the French fishery. Sometimes the division of shares was carefully defined; the owners specified how many shares would be given to the captain, the pilot, the beachmaster, the dressers, the stowers, and so on right down to the "youngsters" and "boys" (the novices). Other times only a general crew's share would be specified, perhaps one quarter or one-third of the total catch, and it was left up to the crew to decide upon the actual distribution.

Salt Shovel
A good example of a beech wood shovel used in the migratory fishery to spread salt over dressed fish. Found at the Ferryland archaeology site, it may have come from one of the vessels sunk in the harbour. The date is uncertain but it falls between 1600 and 1800.
Courtesy of the Department of Archaeology, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John's, NL.

Advantages to the Share System

The share system spread the risks of a voyage and encouraged productivity and efficiency: the greater amount of fish caught and properly cured, the greater the final reward. The system protected both the interests of the crew and those of the merchant-venturer.

According to Richard Whitbourne, a 100-tonne fishing ship could expect to earn gross profits of about of £2,250 in a single season. These profits were split three ways: one share went to the owner or charterer of the ship; one to the victualler; and one to the crew. After costs were deducted the victualler and the owner received approximately £330 each, which was a respectable if not enormous profit.

The fishery could not take place without salt. This had to be imported from southern Europe, usually from Portugal, and was often part of the return cargo of the ships that had carried the previous season's catch to market.

Those ships arrived in Portugal or Spain in October or November. They had a relatively short time in which to sell their salt fish, buy salt and other cargo, load it on board, and sail back to England well before the departure of the spring fishing fleet. Precise timing was vital. Indeed, deadlines dominated the entire business of the fishing industry and trade all year-round. This undoubtedly contributed significantly to the merchant-venturer's anxiety.

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