Land & Sea

Stunning footage of the Portuguese White Fleet in 1967

See a remarkable Land & Sea episode that starts on the dock in Lisbon, goes to the Virgin Rocks and lands in St. John's.

Travel back to a time when more than 35 vessels sailed from Portugal to the Grand Banks each spring

Portuguese fishermen who went to Newfoundland's Grand Banks would be separated from their families for up to seven months. (John O'Brien/CBC)

This week's archival episode of Land & Sea is truly special: a 50-year-old film of incredible quality, shot by John O'Brien.

Portuguese Fishermen on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland is narrated by Portuguese speaker Angelo da Silva and gives a rich look back at a bygone fishery.

The film opens with fisherman Antonio de Graca, aboard the Vila do Conde in Lisbon. It's April and he's travelled to the city from a village called Povoa de Varzim.

Men from all over the country are boarding fishing vessels in the capital as well as Portuguese port towns: Aveiro, Viana Do Castelo and Porto.

It's an emotional scene on the dock as wives, girlfriends, mothers and children wave to their men, knowing they'll be away for six to seven months. The gleaming white vessels steam out of the harbour of "Lisboa" for their annual pilgrimage to the Grand Banks.

The film crew records life on the Vila do Conde with a crew of 23 as well as 56 fishermen and their dories. The wooden dories are stacked on the deck until the vessel arrives at the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. 

Rising at 3 a.m., everyone works to hoist the dories up and out over the side.

A conche and a compass

As each dory is lowered, a fisherman hops in with his lunch tin. On board, he has jiggers, a woven basket for fishing lines, a conch shell in case he gets lost in the fog, a compass, a bailer, a bait box and a sail rolled around a mast to use when the wind is in his favour.

'A full dory could have 10 quintals of fish aboard.'  - Angelo da Silva

The fishermen row out from the mother ship to set trawls that can be up to a quarter of a mile in length.

They also jig off the gunnels as generations of Newfoundlanders have done.

The Dorymen set out for the day's catch off the Virgin Rocks. (John O'Brien/CBC)

The "pescadores" are paid according to how many fish they bring back to their mother ship. In the same general area, there are many dories with fishermen from other Portuguese ships: the Luiza De Ribau, Senhora Da Vida, Gazela and the Dom Denise. 

Back to the mother ship

When the dories are filled with cod, the men row back to their mother ship to off load their catch. When the dories are full, they're extremely low on the water, and the fisherman have to continuously bail to keep them afloat

A Portuguese fisherman returns to his mother ship with a dory full of northern cod. (John O'Brien/CBC)

The captain of the Vila do Conde and his dog Laika keep an eye on their 56 dories bobbing on the horizon. At 10 p.m., when it's quite dark and not all the men are back, the captain sounds a siren to signal that all hands must return immediately.  

Even though it's well after dark, the catch still has to be cleaned, split,  salted and stacked in the hold before supper. Each individual fish is forked into the hold of the mother ship as Portuguese folk music is played over loudspeakers to keep the men's spirits up. 

The fishermen come to St. John's for supplies and to mark Portugal Day. (John O'Brien/CBC)

Under a framed print of The Last Supper, the fishermen drink red wine and dine on a well-deserved supper of salad, cod soup, meat and bread. It's a boisterous dinner, with talk about the day's fishing and their upcoming visit to St. John's on June 17 for what is called Portugal Day.

Once in St. John's, the fishermen are joined at the statue of Gaspar Corte-Real by citizens, members of the army, dignitaries and then-premier Joe Smallwood.

From the sacred to the profane

There are over 30 vessels from the White Fleet docked in St. John's Harbour including the fleet's mother ship, the Gil Eannes, a hospital and supply vessel. Once the ships dock, supplies are brought aboard, laundry is washed and strung everywhere on decks, boots are waterproofed and hand-painted dory sails are unfurled to air out.

Some of the sails are decorated with sacred iconography and others sport more playful and profane images.

Many Newfoundlanders still remember how Portuguese fishermen would play soccer by the harbour in St. John's. (John O'Brien/CBC)

The fishermen walk on Water Street to shop and to feel the ground beneath their feet again. A fierce game of futebol breaks out on the harbour apron. On board the Vila do Conde, the ship's carpenter takes time to repair leaking dories and lead is melted to pour some new jiggers.

There's a vigorous folk song session at the Fisherman's Centre in the King George V Institute. Fishermen go there to collect mail from home, drink espresso or beer, play dominoes and, on this night, enjoy the ukulele and harmonica players and their rowdy fishermen's chorus.

A fiery end

The film ends dramatically, back on the Grand Banks, as the hull of theDom Denise splits open from the weight of the salted cod in her hold.

An impromptu singalong breaks out at the Fisherman's Club on Water Street. (John O'Brien/CBC)

The ship is taking on water and there's nothing that can be done to save her. Fishermen and crew grab what they can, including a couple of saint's statues, and pile into dories.

Before abandoning ship, they light theDom Denise on fire. To leave her adrift would endanger other vessels.

The abandoned, sinking fishing vessel is burned to hasten her demise. (John O'Brien/CBC)

Our narrator tells us that the loss of a ship this way was not uncommon; theDom Denise was the second Portuguese vessel to sink in 1967. Three vessels sank the year before.

As the vessel burns, you can't help but think about how this way of sustainable fishing on the Grand Banks would soon come to an end, to be replaced with the more damaging fishing practices of factory freezer trawlers. 

More Land & Sea

We invite you to take a deep dive into our collection of archival episodes of Land & Sea on our YouTube channel. 

You can also enjoy episodes from our current season here. 

About the Author

Angela Antle

Host, Atlantic Voice

Angela is a producer who works from St. John's and is the host of Atlantic Voice, a Sunday morning documentary program on CBC Radio.