Codfish was the first New World product consumed on a large scale in Europe. It has seldom been considered a colonial product because the cod fishery began long before the establishment of colonies in northeastern North America. The acquisition of codfish did not require trade or even contact with the continent's indigenous peoples, since fishermen took cod out at sea, either out on the banks or along the coasts of what is now known as Newfoundland, Labrador, the Gaspé Peninsula, the Canadian maritime provinces, and the American state of Maine.
Europeans did not compete with indigenous peoples for codfish because this stretch of the North American coast was one of the least populated areas of the entire continent, the fishermen themselves only frequented it for a short period each year, and codfish was not a resource exploited by the Amerindians, who relied almost exclusively on intertidal and river species for their livelihood. European fishermen salted and preserved codfish directly onboard their ships or on uninhabited islands or shores during the summer months, but even the latter operation did not necessitate the installation of permanent settlements, since the codfish were loaded onto the ships and the drying stations were abandoned at the end of the season.
Nonetheless, the cod fishery allowed the European fishermen, particularly the French and the English, to "occupy" the coast, to symbolically consume this space, and progressively construct a colonial territory. The fishery was a "protocolonial" activity that helped to initiate the process of colonization through mass consumption.
The New World cod fishery developed early in the sixteenth century and at a rapid pace in a large number of Atlantic ports in southern England, western France, northwestern Spain, and northwestern Portugal. Cod fishing in the "New-Found-Land" is mentioned as early as 1502 in English records, 1510 in Norman archives, and 1512 in French Basque archives. Already substantial by the 1520s and 1530s, this fishery grew at a remarkable rate in the middle of the century. Wherever they have been preserved, the notarial archives reveal a rapid increase in voyages to Newfoundland, especially from France. For example, in Bordeaux the departures registered by notaries grow from approximately ten per year in the 1540s to more than fifty per year beginning in 1560. The same increase took place in La Rochelle and Rouen.
The tally made by the sixteenth-century English navigator Anthony Parkhurst in the course of a reconnaissance mission in 1578 set the number of European ships involved in the fishery at approximately 380: 150 French cod-fishing vessels, 100 Spanish, 50 Portuguese, and 30 to 50 English, along with 20 to 30 Basque whalers. Parkhurst probably underestimated the size of the fleet, since the incomplete notarial records of Bordeaux, La Rochelle, and Rouen indicate that there were more than 150 vessels at midcentury at these three French ports alone. More plausible are the figures of Robert Hitchcock, author of, A Political Platt for the Honour of the Prince (London, 1580), based on intelligence reports sent from French ports, setting the French fleet at approximately 500 ships in about 1580, to which one must add the less substantial, but nevertheless sizable, Spanish, Portuguese, and English fishing fleets.
These figures point to an immense fishing enterprise that has been largely overlooked in the maritime history of the North Atlantic.. In light of these figures, it would appear legitimate to estimate the European cod fishing fleet in the early 1580s at 700 or 800 ships, which would have had a combined loading capacity of some 60,000 tons burden, and they mobilized more than 16,000 fishermen each year.
The Newfoundland fleet surpassed by far the prestigious Spanish fleet that traded with the Americas, which had only one quarter the loading capacity and crewmembers. According to Pierre and Huguette Chaunu (1953), the fleet engaged in Hispano-American commerce comprised between fifty and one hundred large vessels, which loaded an annual average of 16,000 tons and were crewed annually by four to five thousand men during the 1570s. These figures demonstrate that the Gulf of the Saint Lawrence represented a site of European activity fully comparable to the Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean. While North American codfish obviously did not possess the value of silver and gold, it demanded large numbers of vessels and men—at least three to four times what was needed for the routes that led to the South American trades—and thus had unexpected implications for the development of the North Atlantic maritime economy.
Little known in the Middle Ages, in the sixteenth century codfish became the most widely consumed fish in western Europe, surpassing hake and even herring, the king of medieval fish. The French naturalist Pierre Belon (1517–1564) devotes a long article to codfish in La nature et diversité des poissons (The Nature and Diversity of Fish, 1555)—the first natural history on fish written in French—and states that "there is no place where it is not sold." Codfish penetrated far into the interior of France, Spain, and Portugal, reaching even small country towns. Cod was not only found everywhere, almost everyone consumed it. It turned up on the tables of princes as well as those of villagers and peasants.
In all of the large port cities, professional sorters (who were incorporated) carefully graded the fish so that they would meet the demands of consumers from different social classes. The top-quality cod reached the best aristocratic tables of both Protestant and Catholic families, and it was featured in the most refined French cookbooks. The most renowned cookbook in seventeenth-century France, the Cuisinier françois by François Pierre de La Varenne (1618–1678), the cook for the bishop of Châlons near Troyes—a location well inland—offers five recipes for codfish and another for codfish pâté. Cod figured in the privileged diet of both religious and secular institutions, and it often appeared on tables in the refectories of ecclesiastical institutions, establishments that served as models in matters of food, perhaps even more than aristocratic tables. The French navy also ordered large quantities of cod to feed ships' crews during military campaigns at sea. And account books for hospitals or convents show regular purchases of codfish. Cod also graced servants' tables in large houses, hostels, and inns.
Codfish was sought after and widely consumed because it satisfied a European longing for space and a desire to consume the "New Land," especially in France and England. Exotic foods are directly linked to space. As Sidney Mintz (1985) and others such as David Bell and Gill Valentine (1997) have demonstrated, to eat a foreign food is to bring its place of origin to one's own place and even into oneself, to domesticate it and make it familiar. Consuming an exotic food requires a symbolic appropriation of the place of origin and at the same time an occupation of that territory, in order to make appropriation possible. It is because of this double affiliation with territories, that consumption and colonization are so intimately linked and the production of food so central to colonization. Notably, most colonial products brought from the Americas in the early modern period were foods: codfish, sugar, coffee, and cocoa.
Codfish was considered an exotic product in the sixteenth century because the name of its place of origin, the New Land, is regularly paired with the name of the fish in the documents of the period. The earliest English and French records that mention cod-fishing expeditions to the New World specify that the product comes from the New Land. In Bordeaux, long before wine had acquired this privilege, the contracts for sales of cod drawn up by notaries indicated "codfish from the New Land"; the same is true of the provisioning contracts of the great aristocratic houses of Paris. And La Varenne, in his celebrated Cuisinier françois, titles one of his recipes "Codfish from the New Land"; of the ninety-three recipes he provides for fish, this is the only one to which he attributes a place name.
As its name suggests, the New Land evoked the mythic origins of a virgin territory, exempt from original sin, a paradise that sheltered the fountain of eternal youth. The term expressed the hope of attainment of the terrestrial paradise promised in the New Testament Apocalypse (the Book of Revelation)—a world dating from before the Fall described in Genesis, in which Christians could live in harmony with the elements and establish a direct and peaceful relation with their creator.
During the sixteenth century, the French, English, Spanish, and Portuguese began to actively include North American codfish in their everyday lives. The consumption and domestication of codfish was a means of symbolically appropriating the geography of the New Land and of making it financially feasible for colonization, at the same time that it immediately changed the daily lives of those future colonizers. North America was being incorporated into the European diet, domesticated as it were, whereas on the other side of the Atlantic, fishermen transmitted European diseases, which decimated native populations and cleared the land for European settlement. This first protocolonial phase of colonization set the stage for the establishment of permanent French and English settlements and a colonial administration in New France, Newfoundland, and New England at the beginning of the seventeenth century.
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