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Cod Almighty

Cod Almighty is the title of an upcoming book by Robert Fripp

Cod Almighty! Let’s hear tales of ventures, adventures, mysteries and yarns from the 500-year-old trans-Atlantic cod trade between Newfoundland and England’s southwestern counties.

“It is the fish that bring them first. / Cod in such numbers as to seem endless. / Cod to fill the nets and bellies / of hungry Europeans / with the tender white flesh. / Cod, it seems to them, without end.” [1]

This verse hides tales and events long gone that my book, Cod Almighty, will uncover again—when it is finished.

The cod fishery started long before Europeans ventured west. Inuit and Aboriginal peoples have fished since they settled the eastern coasts of North America. Theirs was a subsistence harvest. They fished to eat. In the earliest years, they hunted marine mammals. In time, they migrated down the Labrador coast and occupied Newfoundland for a thousand years. Bone harpoon points appear in the archaeological record, and possibly kayaks. A hunter, a harpoon and a kayak can do more than kill mammals.

Demasduit, a Beothuk, 1819, an illustration for Cod Almighty

Demasduit (1796?-1820), the wife of the last Beothuk chief, Nonosbawsut, was among the last of the Beothuk people. ¶ The Newfoundland and Labrador Archives. In the Public Domain.

The Beothuks of Newfoundland depended on a lifetime’s diet of cod. Beothuk people were well established when the Vikings arrived a thousand years ago, built their settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows, and left. By then, Newfoundland had supported Indigenous people for more than 500 years. But the Beothuks made not a dent in the Northwest Atlantic’s vast stocks of cod.

The Basques were surely the first Europeans to discover Newfoundland’s fishing grounds. They run   north along the Labrador coast as far as Baffin Island, and south along coastal waters to the Carolinas.

By the 1530s the Basques were well established. Their main prey was not cod. They hunted whales in Newfoundland waters and west along the north shore of the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. They set up camps as far west as the Saguenay. When whale numbers dropped, the Basques turned to catching cod.

French, Spanish and Portuguese fishers followed. They used “green fishery” methods, catching cod and other species in late spring and summer, salting them aboard their ships and returning to Europe with their holds full before the autumn storms. Cod was becoming a living and a foodstock for more. Hence the title of my book, Cod Almighty.

The British did things differently. As inshore fishers they used one- and two-man dories to catch cod with hook and line. Taking their catch ashore, they dressed and split the fish, hanging them on wooden racks to dry before export the following spring. This became known as the “dry fishery”. Processing cod ashore gave British fishers a stake in the land as well as the fishing grounds. Early on they ceased to be seasonal fishers, becoming settlers in small coastal communities—the outports—salting and freeze-drying their catch through winter.

Ah, winter! A hard time for men alone, deprived of women’s company. However, back in England, influential voices opposed permanent settlement in Newfoundland. Never mind the cod! People in the West Country knew well that permanent settlers faced thin soils and poor weather and harsh winters! Ironically, the year that Shakespeare wrote “The Tempest”, in 1610, the Bristol and London Company set out to establish a commercial colony in Conception Bay—a good name for new beginnings. However, despite the opinions of optimists, settlement was a long time coming. [2]

There would be few conceptions without women. “Soe longe as there comes noe women they are not fixed.” Captain Francis Wheler R.N., wrote that famous line in a report as late as 1684.

In the sixteen- and seventeen-hundreds, cod became a major commodity among colonists in North America, particularly in Newfoundland and Massachusetts. Cod stocks were so vast and catches so plentiful that major European investors became involved. Dorchester, the county town of Dorset, England, had grown and prospered from the wool trade through the middle ages, and Dorchester’s merchants had the wealth to become major investors in cod. Dorset supplied the ships and the men to man them.

Melcombe Regis had been a major port in medieval times. (It is reported to have been the port where the Black Death came ashore in 1348.) By the time the Newfoundland trade grew to need men and shipping, Melcombe Regis had merged with Weymouth. In England’s South West counties, Weymouth soon became an engine of the cod trade.

Still the cod trade with Newfoundland grew. Other English ports became involved, among them Poole. Poole, like Dorchester, had grown rich on the export market for wool, and was well equipped to invest in, and handle, the market for cod.

Recently, author Lizzie Cunningham [3] described the growth of the Newfoundland cod trade as a first, informal imperial adventure, the step that led to the growth of the British Empire. English, and later, British armies fed their soldiers with cod. Salt cod shipped to the West Indies fed slaves working in sugar plantations. Much of that sugar came to New England and Newfoundland to be processed as molasses, or rum, which frequently paid for more West African slaves.

Cod set up the perpetual motion of trans-Atlantic trade.

Cod, which could cross the Atlantic after freezing through a Newfoundland winter, might then cross other oceans and march far beyond, in soldiers’ packs. Cod became a staple food for British traders, troops and a weevil-free food for men of the Royal Navy. From that point on, the range of salt cod reflected the spread of British colonies.

Therein lies the reach and the power of cod. Cod Almighty!

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[1]  The opening verse of Cod, a poem by Cheryl Savageau

[2]  “In 1620, Captain Richard Whitbourne, of Exmouth, published ‘A Discourse and Discovery of New-found-land, with many reasons to proove how worthy and beneficiall a Plantation may there be made.” (This is a footnote on p. 40 of a book by John Wingate Thornton, “The landing at Cape Anne … ” 1854.)

[3] E.M. ‘Lizzie’ Collingham: “The Hungry Empire: How Britain’s Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World”