formerly the Archives and Collections Society
[Back] to research pages
The North American Fisheries1
English commerce is an affair of the last three centuries, and really began on an extensive scale in the prosecution of these very fisheries. An enterprising German, Dr. Pauli, who had before brought to light the Saxon treasures of the Bodleian, has lately discovered in the accumulated dust of the tower, which he had the bravery to penetrate, a quantity of curious and instructive correspondence, concerning the trade of the island with the continent prior to and at the time of the discovery of America, when the Low Countries and the free towns of Germany controlled the commerce of the world. The more shame to Englishmen that this work has been done by a foreigner. It is evident that at that time there was little foreign commerce of magnitude in English hands. Newfoundland was discovered by Cabot in 1497, but many years passed away before the English fishermen took advantage of the rights they had acquired thereby. Harry the Bluff was too much occupied with his wives and the Pope to pay that attention to the extension of the foreign power of the kingdom which had characterized the latter years of the reign of his more vigorous father. In 1517 there were only about fifty vessels at Newfoundland -English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. The reign of Queen Elizabeth was distinguished by a more vigorous aid to this branch of national wealth. A succession of laws was passed for the encouragement of the fisheries, and the capital of the country was largely embarked in the business. In 1577, there were fifty English vessels on the Banks, and in 1603 two hundred, employing 10,000 men. Sir Humphrey Gilbert had taken possession of the island in 1583, in the name of Her Majesty, and planted a colony there. The sad fate of this heroic man is familiar to all through the touching poem of Longfellow. It was not thought beneath the dignity of the first men in the realm to enrich, or attempt to enrich themselves by these adventures. Raleigh took them under his protection, and Bacon was one of the patentees to plant a colony "in the southern and eastern parts of Newfoundland, whither the subjects of the realm have been used annually in no small numbers to resort to fish." The fisheries increased so rapidly, and became so prosperous, that large numbers made the island their permanent home, and began boat-fishing from the shore, which so seriously affected the sea fisheries that in 1670, instead of two hundred as in the beginning of the century, there were only eighty English vessels employed there. The alarm was sounded by the merchants: interested in the trade, and the same year a Government force was sent out to drive away British fishermen and destroy British property in a British colony. The destructive measure had the desired effect; in four years after the annihilation of the rival boat fisheries the vessels employed had increased to two hundred and eighty, and the men to nearly 11,000. The destructive wars with France which marked the eighteenth century, seem to have sometimes repressed and sometimes advanced this interest in the Island of Newfoundland. They resulted at last in driving the French out of the continent, since which time, the boat-fishing has gained upon that carried on in vessels, until there are at present but eighty of the latter. The boats now number ten thousand, and produce an annual yield of a million quintals, valued at £600,000. The total annual produce of the fishing interest of the colony is estimated at about £1,000,000.
The fish are caught near the land, with lines, and as often as the boat is filled, the catch is put ashore, where the "cutthroats" the "headers" the "splitters," the "dryers," and the "salters" pass them through from stage to stage till they are converted into the identical salted codfish which constitute the Saturday's dinner and the Sunday's breakfast from Hudson's Bay to the Potomac.
The fluctuations of the French fisheries in these waters have been very striking. In the early part of the sixteenth century, they had a dozen vessels there from the coasts of Normandy and Brittany. In the beginning of the seventeenth century they employed 150 vessels in this branch of industry-how large a portion off Newfoundland, we are not able to state, but probably a large one. In the middle of the eighteenth century, after the last fearful struggle of the reign of the magnificent Louis, but before the contest under his successor which lost the Canadas to France, nearly six hundred French vessels, employing 30,000 men were engaged in cod-fishing. The magnificent fortress of Louisburg was erected, at an expense of fifty millions of livres, to protect their interest, and control the continent of America and the surrounding seas. It fell into British hands in 1763, and was entirely destroyed. The French have now the right to fish, off a certain portion of the coast of Newfoundland, and also with- in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and occupy as a rendezvous for their vessels in these rough seas the two desolate Wands of St. Pierre and Miguelon, only two leagues in extent, and without wood or fuel. By the help of a large bounty (fifty francs per man on the outfit and from twelve to twenty francs per metric quintal. on the produce,) they succeed in maintaining four hundred vessels and twelve thousand men in this business, and produce annually from three to five hundred thousand quintals of fish. From this source though not a commercial nation, they are assured of an unfailing supply of seamen for the national marine. There is no better school for sailors than those seas. We have crossed them often, and rarely seen them quiet. The mingling of the current of the Gulf stream, setting up from the Bay. of Mexico, densely charged with caloric, which it retains even until it settles about the British shores, with the ice-charged stream from the north, produces a constant restlessness in the air above and the water below. Even if engaged in the boat-fishing off the Coast of Newfoundland, or about the Islands of St. Pierre and Miguelon, the French fishermen must pass through these seas; if engaged upon the Grand Bank, the most extensive submarine elevation in the world, and abounding in shoals of fish, he anchors with his little vessel of one or two hundred tons in deep water in the midst of them, and pursues his occupation in strong boats till the ,fare,,, is secured, and then takes it to St. Pierre for curing. The interest could not be supported without a large bounty. It requires larger vessels and a greater outlay of money than the rival colonial boat fisheries, and is carried on with the disadvantages of a distant home and uncertain market. It is to be regarded rather as an element in French national strength than as an item. in the national prosperity and wealth.
The Newfoundland and Labrador seal fisheries, one of the most valuable branches of this dangerous industry, were created by the French invasion of the British cod-fishing grounds and have grown to their present magnitude within a very few years. The vessels employed for this purpose from Newfoundland now number three hundred and forty-one, and the men ten thousand. The annual yield of the seal-skin is 500,000, valued at £50,000, and of seal oil over six thousand tons, valued at £170,000. In the early spring when the ice begins to descend, they leave the island in vessels hardly large enough for a Thames yacht, and force themselves into the floating fields as far as they can. They gather in the "game " (rather than the "catch") from all sides, stripping off the flesh and the fat, and leaving the coarse meat behind. It is not difficult for one who is familiar with the sea to picture the peril of such an occupation - the floating masses of ice tossing about on the restless ocean, the little craft wedged in among it, and liable at any moment to be crushed - the fearful storms descending from the Arctic - the hurricane dashing the snow over the deck, and clothing the rigging with sleet - the tossing waters severing the loose ice and piling it in fragments - and above all the prevailing northeast gales, driving the whole mass towards the mainland, and threatening instant destruction to all.
The cod-fisheries also upon the Labrador coast have become very valuable, and are in the hands of the Newfoundland and United States fishermen. It is estimated "that about twenty thousand British subjects are at present required during the fishing season, in the catching, curing, and transporting the various products of these remote seas." The cod fishermen arrive on the coast in the latter part of May, and early in June, and anchoring in some quiet place where they may ride in safety, they send out their boats, with a shipper and a man in each to look up the fish. If after search, none are found, or not enough to make it worth while to stay, they change their anchorage, until they find themselves in good waters. The fishing is carried on by boats, which return to the vessels with their catch, and the cleaning and curing is generally done by a portion of the crew who are taken for that purpose. Frequently British vessels take two "fares" in a season, in which ease the second load is cured at home.
The other cod fisheries are at Cape Breton, Prince Edward's Island, Magdalen Islands, and the Bay of Chaleurs, in the Gulf of St Lawrence, and in the Bay of Fundy, and about Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The descendants of the French Acadians whose memories are embalmed in Longfellow's Evangeline, still clad, according to Mr. Sabine, in the peculiar costume of Normandy, feebly prosecute the fisheries of the Magdalen Islands and of the Bay of Chaleurs in boats. The valuable waters which surround Cape Breton are turned to even less account.
The disputes between the United States and the British Government grow out of alleged aggressions on the Nova Scotia and New Brunswick fisheries. Nova Scotia, the Acadia of Evangeline, is perhaps the richest fishing ground in the world. It is surrounded with deep bays and harbours, swarmed with every species of the piscatory creation, that come to the very door of the fisherman's hut. He is thus enabled, at little expense, to take cod with boats and lines, and mackerel with sieves and nets under the shore, safe from the reach of the storm and the swell of the Atlantic and ought with an expenditure of the least possible energy to drive out of the market the foreign competitor, who is obliged to fit out a large vessel, bring it a long distance, and is then not permitted to fish within three miles from the shore. But instead of entering into a manly competition, he enacts a stringent law against poaching, and calls upon the Home Government to enforce it, which is done in a very prudent manner, while he does little, according to Mr. Haliburton, but "eat, drink, smoke, sleep, ride about, and lounge at taverns." The Bank fisheries are nearer to this Province than to any other, the cod and mackerel lie on the shore for their exclusive catch, the shad, the salmon and the herring ascend their rivers, and yet they employ but ten thousand men in the business, aid their exports of fish are less than ££200,000 a year. They have most especially advantages for taking the mackerel, which come from the south in large shoals in the latter part of May and early in June, and make into the narrow inlets and the straits of Canso, on their way to the Bay of Chaleurs, to spawn. The Americans are obliged to catch this fish in the deeper waters with the hook; but the colonists have the advantage of taking them in the shallow waters off the shore with nets and sieves. To secure two, four, six, and even eight hundred barrels at a time, it is only necessary to set a sieve to tend it, and at the proper moment to draw it to the shore. They exported in 1851 a hundred thousand barrels of mackerel, or about one half of the whole catch of the same fish in Massachusetts the year before.
The American mode of catching this fish by line is enthusiastically described by Mr. Sabine:
"The master of the vessel after reaching some well-known resort of the fish, furls all his sails except the mainsail, brings his vessel low to the wind, ranges his crew at proper intervals along one of her sides, and, without a mackerel in sight, attempts to raise a school, scool or shoal by throwing over bait. If he succeeds to his wishes, a scene ensues which can hardly be described, but which it were worth a trip to the fishing ground to witness. I have heard more than one fisherman say that he had caught more than sixty mackerel in a minute; and when he was told that at that rate he had taken thirty-six hundred in an hour and that with another person as expert, he would catch a whole fare in a single day, he would reject the figures as proving nothing but a wish to undervalue his skill. Certain it is that some active young men will haul in and jerk off a fish, and throw out the line for another with a single motion, and repeat the act in so rapid a succession that their arms seem continually on the swing. To be 'high-line' is an object of earnest desire amongst the ambitious; and the muscular ease, the precision, and adroitness of movement which such men exibit in the strife are admirable ... Oftentimes the fishing ceases in a moment, and as if put an end to by magic: the fish, according to the fisherman's conceit, panic-stricken by the havoc among them, suddenly disappear from sight ... The approach of night, or the disappearance of the mackerel, closing all labour with the hook and line, the fish, as they are dressed, are thrown into casks of water, to rid them of blood. The deck is then cleared and washed; the mainsail is hauled down, and the foresail is hoisted in its stead; a lantern is placed in the rigging; a watch is set to salt the fish, and keep a look out for the night; and the master and remainder of the crew at a late hour seek repose. The earliest gleams of light find the anxious master awake, hurrying forward preparations for the morning's meal, and making other arrangements for a renewal of the previous day's work. But the means which were so successful then failed now, and perhaps for days to come; for the capricious creatures will not take the hook, nor can all the art of the most sagacious and experienced induce them to bite."
A word about the Bay of Fundy, and we have made the tour of the fishing-grounds. The fisheries within this bay are carried on by boats from the shore, and are deemed to be less important than those on the sea side of the Peninsula. The men engaged in them are poor and thrifty, and are so scantily paid for their dangerous occupation, pursued on a stormy coast, with tides of fearful height and velocity, that they have little temptation or opportunity to become anything better. The shore fisheries of the States and the Colonies here touch each other; but there is, strange to say, little jealousy between the subjects of Her Majesty mid the "free and enlightened citizens" of the Republic, and the colonial laws against poaching are consequently administered in the most lenient manner.
The rights of the United States fishermen in these waters are regulated by the Convention of 1818. They received by that instrument the liberty to fish "on that part of the southern coast of Newfoundland which extends from Cape Ray to the Rameau Islands, on the Western and Northern Coast of Newfoundland; from the said Cape Ray to the Quirpon Islands, on the shores of the Magdalen Islands, and also on the coasts, bays, harbours and creeks from Mount Joly on the southern coast of Labrador, to and through the Straits of Belle Isle, and thence northwardly indefinitely along the coast;" and the liberty to dry and cure in the unsettled bays of the same Newfoundland and Labrador coasts; and they renounced the liberty "to take, dry or cure fish on or within three marine miles of any of the coasts, bays, creeks or harbours of His Britannic Majesty's dominions in America not included within the above-mentioned limits;" provided their fishermen should be "admitted to enter such bays or harbours, for the purpose of shelter, and of repairing damages therein, of purchasing wood and of obtaining water, and for no other purpose whatever." The disputes grow out of this last clause, which John Bull says excludes his dear cousin from all the Nova Scotia bays, according to established principles of public law; while the young gentleman, in return, claims the right to fish in all bays over six miles from headland to headland at the mouth, and to enter the other for the specific purposes named. But, as we said before, we do not purpose to take this question out of the hands of the negotiators and deprive them of the glory of settling it.
The inhabitants of New England have been fishermen from the outset. Gossnold went fishing off the Massachusetts coast in 1602, and in honour of his success, gave the name of Cape Cod to the sandy arm which reaches round into the sea, and takes up a part of Massachusetts Bay. The steeple-crowned saints who followed in his footsteps some eighteen years after, had an eye to the same good things in coming to this "stern and rock-bound coast". A ten-years' residence amongst the herring-catchers in Holland had taught them the value of such matters, and they showed a commendable determination in taking hold of them and turning them to a good purpose, which their descendants have since been constantly striving to imitate.
In 1625, they had established a settlement at Gloucester, on the opposite promontory of the bay; and at the close of the seventeenth century, the products of the colony of Massachusetts Bay amounted to £80,000. They were undoubtedly injured by the witch mania, which ran through that part of New England, to the terror of old women, honest men, and people whose measure of sanctity and reverence for the ecclesiastical rulers was in doubt; but the exports had advanced by the middle of the eighteenth century to £150,000, notwithstanding the wars for the possession of Canada and the fishing grounds. So large had the interest become, that New England was able to furnish seven thousand sailors for the expedition against Louisburg. Since the peace of 1815, it has not advanced in proportion to the increase in the wealth and power of the country. American statesmen attribute the want of vitality to the superior advantages which the colonial fishermen enjoy in the exclusive use of their shore fisheries, to the stringent enforcement of the provincial laws, and to the want of sufficient protection to those interests in the United States. But we are inclined to think that the real cause of the decline is to be found in the impulse given to other and more lucrative branches of navigation and commerce in the United States, which draws away capital and men from the fisheries; and to the improved condition of the labouring classes, which allows them better food than cured fish.
It in impossible to conceive anything less inciting than the Massachusetts shore all the way round from Plymouth to Cape Cod. In some places, there is scarcely a blade of glass to relieve the desolate appearance of the sand, and where the soil is firm enough to give it life, it is not deep enough to give it much strength. We have been told that the gardens, such as they are in the extreme towns, are supplied with earth from Boston, brought down as ballast in the little craft which ply across the bay, and in the fishing smacks which land their cargo there, and then come home to winter. The island of Nantucket has even less claim to be called land. Without rocks, or rivers, or trees, or hills, and scarcely with grass, it just lifts its sandy surface above the level of the ocean, protected by a belt of breakers from the swell of the Atlantic, but by nothing from the storms that lash it into fury. As on the Western Irish, and the Eastern coast, so on Nantucket and Cape God everybody lives by the sea;. and of course sometimes an unexpected hurricane brings mourning and desolation into every house. They have not much of this world's wealth, (or rather the Cape Cod people have not, for the islanders are rich from the whale fisheries,) but on the other hand they are not poor. In the winter the young men and damsels go to the public schools, and the fathers look after their matters about home, get the vessel, lines and nets in trim for the next year's work, read the local newspapers, (and possibly a weekly journal from Boston,) to "post themselves up" as to what is going on in the outer world, of which this is the only time they get a glimpse. Some one, the staidest and most respectable, is selected for the "General Court" in Boston : that is, for the Legislature of the State. Care is taken, however, to pick out a person who has not too recently enjoyed the lucrative salary of two dollars a day belonging to the office. He goes to Boston, finds lodgings in some cheap part of the town, votes knowingly on all questions connected with the inspection of fish, and leaves the rest of the legislation to take care of itself. Meanwhile, his neighbours have been getting ready for taking the spring fares, and in May, or early in June they set sail for the Grand Bank or for Labrador, or the Bay of Fundy, or Nova Scotia. Their mode of fishing resembles substantially that of the French, which we have undertaken to describe; and if they are successful, they return home in the autumn, having suffered much and passed through many dangers, and with a reward quite inadequate to the difficulties and perils.
 Refs: from Fraser's Magazine for November 1854 [Back]
Copyright © 2012-2015
Revised: 6 January 2015