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The Mapmakers: An Essay in Four Parts
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Waters of Riches

John Cabot was not searching for new fishing grounds when he discovered his "New found land" in 1497; he was seeking a new commercial route to Asia. Yet within just a few years, hundreds of ships carrying thousands of fishermen were sailing annually to the rich fishing grounds he had stumbled upon. Breton and Norman fishermen were voyaging to Newfoundland as early as 1504, soon to be joined by the Portuguese, the Basques, and the English. So many nationalities were represented in this new enterprise that historians commonly speak of the 16th century as the era of the "International Fishery."

Map: Fishing grounds around Newfoundland, 1693

The remarkable speed and intensity with which Europeans began exploiting these "waters of riches" reveals much about Europe in the 1500s. The vitality of the fishery was a result not only of the abundance of cod but also of the strength of market demands brought on by population expansion, urbanization, and commercial growth at home in Europe.

Europe's vigorous exploitation of the New World's fishing grounds was possible because the necessary seafaring skills, fishing technologies, curing methods, and markets had already been well developed, thanks to the long-existing European fisheries in the Irish Sea, off Iceland, and elsewhere. The Newfoundland fishery was an extension of a well-established domestic industry that served established domestic markets and employed tried and tested methods to catch, preserve, and deliver fish.

It is important to understand that fish was never the food of the poor. By the time fish from North American waters were caught, cured, transported and delivered to market, most Europeans could not afford them. Yet, as the population of Europe grew, and as Europe became more urbanized, there were enough Europeans who could afford it, and for whom a diet that included fish was desirable. There was soon a constant, ready market for fish delivered from the New World.

Image: Catching, curing and drying cod in the early 18th century

Perhaps most important to the development of the fishery was the fact that the fish found in such abundance in Newfoundland's waters was cod. Unlike herring, mackerel, or salmon, cod is relatively fat-free and preserves well using techniques involving salt and air-drying. In fact, the flesh can become so dehydrated that it becomes remarkably light in weight, making it perfect for transporting not only by sea but also overland. All these factors were significant to the fishery  --  the abundance of cod, the simplicity of catching it, the ease of preserving it, the relatively low cost of transporting it to markets both coastal and inland, and the growing demand in Europe by those able to afford it. Combined, these things made the fishing grounds of northeastern North America truly "waters of riches" that attracted the attention of Europeans from the moment they were discovered.

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