December 15, 2002

Putting farmers ahead of fishermen is just codology

Posted in ·
Share 

These expressions stem from the pivotal role the humble fish has played in our history. Being codded or fooled comes from the extraordinary habit that Elizabethan men had of wearing enormous purses, called codpieces, around their groins to give the impression of being hung like a horse.

Not surprisingly, they were, in most cases, only codding and presumably the expression “to be codded” comes from the fact that the gargantuan codpiece was a dramatically embellished version of what lay beneath. The cod, perhaps because of its dimensions, has been associated with crotches in almost every language spoken by fishermen throughout the ages.

Cod was central to life in 16th century Ireland and Britain. The great port of Bristol was built entirely on the proceeds of cod. When Italian explorer Giovanni Cabotto set sail from Bristol in 1497, five years after Columbus, he intended to find the northern passage to India for England as the Portuguese and Spanish ruled the southern seas.

Cabotto changed his name to John Cabot and sailed under the flag of Henry VII of England. After just 32 days at sea he found a rocky uninhabited land and seas teeming with cod. Jacques Cartier, Quebec’s national hero, claimed Newfoundland 20 years later for France.

Cartier also noticed the cod, but was more taken aback when he discovered 1,000 Basque fishing vessels off the barren Canadian coast, four thousand miles from home, happily salting cod as if it was the most normal thing in the world. The wily Basques had discovered the cod breeding ground of the Great Banks years before anyone but, realising that they were on to a good thing, kept the secret and never claimed the place for anyone.

Maybe the Basques understood that the only way they could remain the proud independent people that they still are was by having a strong economy. They certainly understood that cod was the new gold. Had they claimed the place, this would only have attracted the bigger fish such as France and England, so the Basques kept the secret for over a century as they guarded their independence with the proceeds from trading salted cod.

By 1520, 10 per cent of fish sold in the great fish markets of Oporto and Lisbon was salted Newfoundland cod, fished by the Basques. French and Spanish fishermen soon joined the Basques.

In the early 16th century, cod was beginning to change the commercial face of Europe. By 1550, 60 per cent of all fish eaten in Europe was cod, and amazingly this would remain the case for at least two centuries. Ports such as Bristol, La Rochelle and Bilbao expanded as huge fleets sailed to Newfoundland to bring back this new gold to a Europe that was undergoing a population explosion.

Meanwhile, south of Newfoundland in Boston, a great trading city was being financed via the proceeds of cod. The New Englanders built huge salting processors in places such as Cape Cod that dwarfed the amount that could be stored on Basque vessels.

Realising the game was up, the Basques abandoned fishing, not only because of the evident economies of scale but also because the British Navy protected the colonial fishing vessels from pirates on the high seas. And so the Basques began trading with the pilgrims of Boston.

The pilgrims fished, salted and shipped the cod. The Basques bought the best cod in Bilbao and sold it on to the gluttonous Spaniards who were busy pigging out at home on the proceeds of Latin American gold, stolen from the unfortunate Indians. The Bostonians then set off with Spanish wines and other provisions to the West Indies where their English speaking colonial cousins traded Spanish wines and some of the cheaper cod for sugar, tobacco and the crucial ingredient, salt, mined in Mexico.

The cheap cod was not for the planters themselves, rather it became the staple of the slaves. In no time, the puritanical Pilgrim Fathers of Boston (who banned singing on a Sunday because it was immoral) had found another commercial use for cod — feeding slaves.

An extraordinary triangle of globalised free trade emerged, which linked the cod merchants of Boston with their colonial brothers in the sugar plantations of the Caribbean and slave traders in West Africa. In 1645 a ship set sail from Boston laden with cod for the Canaries. The cod was traded for slaves who were brought to Jamaica and in turn sold for tobacco, salt and sugar.

During the 17th century, the humble cod and the slave trade became inextricably linked. As enormous sums flooded back to Boston, Bristol and Dublin, the merchants built mansions and fine squares with the proceeds of trade. The global currency that lubricated the system was that fish with only 0.3 per cent body fat, the cod.

Yet the value of cod was not recognised by some of the more grandiose rulers of the time. For example, the French crown was defeated in Quebec in 1759 because it diverted resources to the sugar-producing colonies of Martinique and Guadeloupe. In the process it kept two Caribbean islands and lost all of Canada.

Of course, cod proved much more valuable over the years than slaves and sugar put together. This strategic mistake is very similar to that of the Irish government when it put farmers before fishermen in the 1973 EU accession treaties.

So central was cod to the international financial system of the 17th and 18th centuries that the fish played a significant role in the American Revolution and thus in the Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the revolt of the United Irishmen.

Financed by their proceeds from cod, the New Englanders traded like demons. In fact, they were so successful that the British crown, under pressure from domestic lobbies, began to slap levies on trade from the colonies, particularly on the ubiquitous cod.

In 1769, Massachusetts claimed the levies were costing the equivalent of 400 fishing vessels a year and they would not stand for it. Although the revolution started with the Boston tea party, free trade and free enterprise were central to the colonists’ demands and cod was the commercial oil that fuelled everything.

Without levies on cod, there might not have been any American revolution and the huge political upheavals that followed in Washington, Paris and Vinegar Hill.

Cod remained the staple for Europe until it became apparent that the stocks were dwindling. This came as a huge shock in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly for the New Englanders and Canadians who had fished the Great Banks for years. When Canada moved to ban fishing to preserve stocks, an entire maritime way of life disappeared.

The same is true now in Ireland where cod and other fish have been fished almost out of existence. But the real crime here has been the shafting of fishermen to the benefit of farmers over the years. Recent rough estimates show the real loss to Ireland of putting farmers first could be in the region of €70-€80 billion. This figure is arrived at by subtracting the total value of the total fish catch in our waters since 1973 (€120 billion) from our direct transfers from the EU (€40 billion).

Obviously these figures are rough and ready, but they evidence a point. Not for the first time, we have been let down by vested interest and shortsighted politicians. You might say we have been codded yet again.

The author’s research is from the book Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, by Mark Kurlansky.