CBC Digital Archives

Life in a cod town

It's greedy, it's ugly and it's built to last. For more than 500 years the Atlantic cod was the king of the global fish market, helping build empires, spark wars and found Britain's first colonies in North America. CBC Archives looks at how Canada's abundant cod stocks off of Newfoundland and Labrador were fished to the brink of extinction in what is considered one of the biggest ecological disasters of the 20th century.

"That's the way it is in Newfoundland. When we say fish, we mean cod." So says Stella Bury who grew up on Newfoundland's Greenspond Island around 1900.
The village, along with hundreds of others like it, operated as a strict "fishocracy" with the local merchants at the top and the fishermen squarely at the bottom.
In this CBC Radio clip, 81-year-old Bury reflects on the sometimes-difficult life in her home town and discusses the proper way to salt a cod. 
• Three hundred years after the Basques hauled in their first Newfoundland cod, the only other people setting bait in the region were a group of adventuresome British fishermen.
• That all changed in 1497 when British-backed Italian explorer Giovanni Cabbotto (a.k.a. John Cabot) stumbled across Newfoundland during a voyage to Asia.

• After a month exploring Newfoundland and Labrador's shores, he returned to tell King Henry VII that he was certain he had discovered the northeastern tip of Asia.
• But a few of his crew were more excited about the plentiful fish population and quickly let the Basque secret out.

• An Italian spy named Raimondo di Soncino wrote to the Duke of Milan in December 1497 saying the crew "affirm that the sea is covered with fish which are caught not merely with nets but with baskets, a stone being attached to make the basket sink in the water."
• Within a decade, news of the discovery had spread across Europe, and ships from France, Portugal, Spain and England were fishing in Newfoundland's waters.

• The Portuguese, French and Spanish began preserving their catch by pouring large amounts of salt on their fresh cod for the trip home.
• Lacking a cheap supply of salt, English fishermen were forced to dry and lightly salt their cod on land. As it happens, it proved a superior curing method; one that would become the backbone of Newfoundland's fishery.

• When Britain gained control of the region from Spain around 1600 it was salt cod — which was used as trade for lucrative olives, wine, dates and raisins — that helped establish the British Empire.
• In his 1938 book The Cod Fisheries, Harold Innis stated "Cod from Newfoundland was the lever by which [England] wrested her share of the riches of the New World from Spain."

• In 1610 Cupid's Cove became the first European settlement in Newfoundland. The town was established by The London and Bristol Company with the intent of profiting from the cod stocks.
• In the ensuing years hundreds of similar isolated fishing villages, or "outports," sprouted up along Newfoundland's shores, including one on Greenspond Island in 1698.
• By 1901 there were just over 1,700 people living in the town of Greenspond, which by then was known as "the capital of the North."

• But life wasn't easy in the bustling town. In this clip, Stella Bury recalls that the Greenspond fisherman "was nothing" in the social hierarchy, well below merchants and other officials.
• It was common in many outports for a fisherman and his family to stand up when a merchant entered church each Sunday.
• In spite of the critical role they played in the fishery, one bad season could force outport fishermen to go "on the tick" (or on credit) with many people in the community.

• In a 1833 book called British America author John McGregor talks of a "fishocracy" in port towns which "comprised in descending order:
1) The principal merchants, high officials and some lawyers and medical men.
2) Small merchants, important shopkeepers, lawyers, doctors and secondary officials.
3) Grocers, master mechanics, and schooner holders.
4) Fishermen."

• While cod fishing sustained many Canadians in port towns throughout Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and P.E.I., it was always more prevalent in Newfoundland and Labrador.
• This is a result of the existence of several prominent ocean banks, such as the Hamilton Inlet Bank off Labrador and the sprawling Grand Banks off the southeastern coast of Newfoundland.

• A bank is an elevated area of land underwater that extends from the continental shelf.
• The biggest of these banks is the Grand Bank, which is larger than the island of Newfoundland itself.
• Rich in sea life, this huge shoal offers a unique breeding area for cod. These factors combined help make the Atlantic cod a surprisingly easy catch for fishermen.
Medium: Radio
Stock-shot
Program: Voice of the Pioneer
Broadcast Date: April 29, 1979
Guest(s): Stella Bury
Interviewer: Bill McNeil
Duration: 7:46

Last updated: March 20, 2012

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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