The Fishery


The Viking Contact
The Fishery
Early French explorations
The Birth of New France
Huron-Iroquois War


It took Europe a century to recover from the Black Death. By the mid-15th century, Portugal was busy exploring the coast of Africa, seeking a way to the riches of India and Cathay (China). In 1492, Spain, having completed the Reconquista, was ready to explore an alternative route by sponsoring Christopher Columbusís Western voyage. But Northern Europe was not idle. In England, Bristol sailors had, for some time, been interested in pursuing westward exploration; Bristol fishermen had also sailed as far west as Iceland in pursuit of cod. In 1497, John Cabot or Giovanni Caboto, like Columbus a Genoese by birth, an explorer sponsored by England, was the first European to touch North American shores since the Norse.


The main source that refers to the Cabot voyage is a letter written in 1498 by an English wine merchant calling himself "John Day" to a Spanish "Almirante Mayor" (almost certainly Christopher Columbus). The Day letter speculated that Cabot may have made a voyage in 1495 or 1496, prior to his 1497 voyage, during which he discovered North America. More information exists for Cabot's 1497 expedition in the small vessel Matthew, which left Bristol in May of that year. Day's letter offers some details of Cabot's 1497 journey, noting that landfall was made on June 24, "1800 miles west of Dursey Head which is in Ireland" and that Cabot and his Bristolmen "landed at only one spot of the mainland". The exact location of Cabot's landfall cannot be determined, but it was almost certainly in Newfoundland.


Cabotís voyage does not seem to have been inspired by Columbus's discoveries in the Southern Atlantic. Sailing from Bristol, Cabot's goal seems to have been the "Isle of Hy-Brasil," a fictional island believed to lie at a northern latitude, due west of Ireland. This was the traditional northern European route used by the Irish, the Norse, and other real and imaginary voyagers to the mythical islands of the Ocean Sea.


However, when he returned from his first voyage, Cabot's geographical imagination had extended to the exploration of a new land and the discovery of a water route from Bristol to the Orient. In 1498, Cabot was given a second letter of patent by King Henry VII to further explore this new land and, with a fleet of five ships, departed Bristol for the northwest. While he and his fleet disappeared and were heard no more, Cabot's death did not destroy English interest in pursuing the tantalizing glimpse of a route to Asia that his first voyage had offered.


Moreover, Cabot's voyage represented the beginning of the Newfoundland fishery. Indeed, after his voyage in 1497, John Cabot's crew reported on the unusual concentration of fish, particularly cod, along the coast of Newfoundland.


Following the century of the Black Plague, Europe was desperate for food, particularly for sources of protein that could be consumed during the 153 meatless days of the Catholic calendar. The English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Norwegian fishermen had been competing for the best fishing grounds in the Atlantic ocean, as far west as Iceland. The rich cod banks off the coast of Labrador therefore provided an incentive for more voyages to North America.


By 1580, over 400 Portuguese, Spanish, English and French ships with a combined crew of over 10,000 came every summer to Newfoundland in search of cod.









The French, Spanish and Portuguese fishermen tended to fish on the Grand Banks and other banks out to sea, where fish were always available. They salted their fish on board ship and it was not dried until brought to Europe.


The English fishermen, however, concentrated on fishing inshore. These fishermen used small boats and returned to shore every day. They developed a system of light salting, washing and drying onshore which became very popular because the fish could remain edible for years. Little by little, dry fisheries were established on land, two or three months every summer, and later gave birth to permanent settlements.


There was also a thriving whale hunting operated by Basques in Labrador.



While fishing did not require native labor, it was the occasion for contacts with Native Americans and the beginning of trade. The fishing activity thus led to the beginning of the fur trade with the Natives, with furs being exchanged for iron or brass pots and kettles and glass beads. By 1600, there were big summer gatherings of Algonquin, Hurons and Montagnais in Tadoussac to trade with Breton fishermen.


Source: John L. Allen, "From Cabot to Cartier: The Early Exploration of Eastern North America, 1497-1543", Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 82, No. 3, September 1992, pp. 500-521.

Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of the Association of American Geographers.

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