While explorers, adventurers, soldiers, and priests pursued glory,
wealth and souls in Central and South America in the 1500s,
Capturing the imagination of Europe and the envy of nations lacking the ships and armies to do the same,
An apparently mundane industry slowly evolved a rich tradition of links between Europe and North America.
The trade in salt cod, also known as stockfish, bacalao, morue and poor john,
on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland began five hundred years ago.
Scandinavian, Basque, Portuguese and Bristol fishermen all have some claim to finding the Banks,
as well as the land to the west, before Columbus and Cabot crossed the Atlantic.
But then, as now, fishing was a secretive profession, and who was going to tell a rival that an unlimited supply of that most precious commodity,
cod, was there for the taking, just a few weeks’ sailing away?
Spanish, French, Portuguese and, eventually, English boats could be found on the Grand Banks from March to September.
The sheer abundance of the cod and improved methods of preservation indelibly affected the diet and economy of western Europe.
But the cod was not the first fishery to influence matters in Europe.
The herring fishery in the Baltic was a principal factor in the rise of the German Hanseatic League-a trading network that dominated western Europe from the 1200s through the late 1500s.
The demise of the Baltic herring stocks contributed to the Hansa’s downfall .
and opened new trading networks that quickly incorporated the new supply of American cod.
The cod fishery, perhaps even more than the gold and silver taken home in Spanish treasure fleets, tied Europe to the new lands.
Europeans, rich and poor, relied on the cheap, high-protein salt cod, which eventually also became the primary diet for slaves in the Caribbean.
Through the 1500s the industry was primarily migratory- men sailed to Newfoundland in the spring, as soon as the weather allowed safe passage.
They set up temporary quarters on the rocky North American shores and sent dories out to fish each morning, or anchored on the Banks.
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