Saturday, November 12, 2022

The Bishops' Sea: Marine Ecology, Industry Fundamentals, and Ethnogenesis


So here is, I think, a pretty basic question suited for a footnote as I gallop through the way that the politics of Sixteenth Century Europe led to the Pilgrims' exit from Leiden and the world of Lawrence Stone's Family, Sex and Marriage, which, to my shame, I still know from the cod summaries of others and not from a direct reading in spite of it being on my list since I first encountered Fenimore Cooper's Nineteenth-Century-novelist-style sly hints about the role of marriage, church and deception in American ethnogenesis. Ahem, digressive sentence over, direct question: What was it like to sail from Devon and Newfoundland. I mean, people did it, by the millions! Canada's most important contribution to the world's inventory of dirty drinking songs is about the "North Atlantic squadron." 

I've posted this Youtube-guaranteed bowdlerised version from Stompin' Tom before, but it's not hurting anyone to do it again. 

So, yeah, not finding it, although I'm pretty sure it's out there and I've just not landed on it. But what I did find is some fine scholarship posted to the web  herehere, and here, and a historiographic recommendation to Jeffrey Bolster's  Mortal Sea, which turns out to be a book which I've bounced off before, so now I've got two copies counting a Kindle edition. Oops. (It seems I wanted Peter Pope's Fish Into Wine, at $57 for a paperback delivered next month. Fuck!) Anyway, I am presented with a thesis which, after reading about early Scottish lawsuits and Kim Stanley Robinson's New York, 2140AD, of all things, I now have something to say.

Bolster's Mortal Sea is built around the premise that human fisheries have been having serious, deleterious effects on fish stocks since Barrett's Early Medieval expansion of the European fishery, and that, specifically, the establishment of the Newfoundland and New England fisheries can be explained as fishing industries being driven out of Europe's "depleted waters."

It is, and I say this as gently as I can, implausible that fisheries which did not collapse until the Twentieth Century were already in trouble in 1550. And on the contrary even Bolster admits that the annual North Sea herring catch (exceptional and highest annual total, 1602, 80,000t) is only a quarter of the recommended annual sustainable catch.  A scattershot selection of claimed extinctions and  declines is not a substitute for statistics, and some of the anecdotes seem poorly handled. It is thus claimed that the eider duck became extinct in the North Sea during the Sixteenth Century due to human predation. As the species certainly isn't extinct there now, we turn to a 1991 thesis that projects an observed increase in the eider population in the southern North Sea backwards to a presumed local extinction in the "Little Ice Age," that all--purpose climactic culprit. (And Trojan horse of climate change denialism.) In general it seems that these historic (and local) extinctions have more to do with habitat change than overexploitation, although the source I am here citing is more globally skeptical of claimed extinctions in general than some readers might be comfortable with.

Moving right along from Bolster's work, which I'm evidently now obligated to read twice over, we have an alternative thesis presented in less alarmist tones: a staggeringly long list of co-authors headed by Poul Holm and publishing in Quaternary Research,  propose a Sixteenth Century "Fish Revolution." In 1400AD, total Norwegian stockfish exports were in the range of 6250t, with Iceland adding another 2--3000t. No wonder our consumption proxies (bones!) suggest that herring consumption outran cod by five to one. Newfoundland production might have hit 200,000t by 1580, tripling overall fish supplies to Europe and raising annual consumption per capita from 0.75kg in 1500 to 3.2kg in 1650 (albeit this is qualified with the lethal words, "employing the demographic data of Maddison." But what the heck. I'm just throwing shade at Angus Maddison, since the question here is the population of Europe and not the amount of cod being fished and money being made.) 

This is a little crazy. 

(From Wikipedia.) How could the Newfoundland catch have possibly dominated the Norwegian sea catch as early as 1580? The authors go on to point out that the western voyage was extremely dangerous, with an estimated 5% of the French fleet lost in the crossing by wreck, capture by pirates, and "so forth." "Portuguese inventories document hundreds of ships captured by pirates in the middle Sixteenth Century." Which is a bit naive, but still. Anyway, the explanation for this is that "in 1502, the first recorded landing of 36 metric tonnes of cod (saltfish) from Northwest Atlantic waters fetched a price of  £180. Remember that when Henry VII arrived in London after Bosworth, there were £12,000 in the Treasury, and while that number is remembered because it is so low, the legendary fortune spent by Anton Fugger to secure the election of Charles V was on the order of £85,000. Our authors conclude that  

Indeed, in the past we have grossly underestimated the historical economic significance of the fish trade, which may have been equal to the much more famed rush to exploit the silver mines of the Incas (Pope, Reference Pope2004a).

I'm not sure that this is actually such a revelation. In fact, if I recall correctly (code for, I'm not walking all the way across my apartment to look at  a book), N. A. M. Rogers is always on about how Parliament overestimated the value of the Newfoundland fishery back in the day.  Our authors argue that the Northwest Atlantic fishery must have been more productive than the Northeast fishery, even absent depletion in the Eastern Hemisphere on the dual basis of the catch data as presented and assorted eyewitness accounts of the extraordinary richness of the western fishery, which is, again, a bit naive. People tell tall tales about America, where the streets are paved with gold. It's a thing! 

But then we get this:

Rural coastal settlements—lacking a ready market—concentrated on nearshore fishing and produced dried and salted fish for sale at seasonal fairs in combination with other maritime activities such as trade, privateering (essentially piracy), and other coastal trades. The coastal settlements differed from the rural hinterland by including households of fisher-merchants with international contacts. They stand out in the archaeological record as particularly rich in imported goods and show a wealth in some households that make the settlements more akin to an urban than a rural context. The rural coastal settlements may be found all around northern European coasts of the Atlantic and (western) Baltic. They were clearly linked to the late medieval rise in income that was conditioned by the high fish prices of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Settlement took place on open lands, dunes, rocks, and moors, in close proximity to the sea and sometimes right by the beach. Although settlers cultivated small garden plots, the land was often largely unfit for agriculture. The settlers themselves are likely to have come from impoverished landless origins. The settlements often depended on capital provided by urban merchants and landed nobility who took an interest in developing maritime trade and even piracy out of barren soil (Berg et al., Reference Berg, Jørgensen and Mortensøn1981; Holm, Reference Holm1999; Fox, Reference Fox2001; Kowaleski, Reference Kowaleski2003).

Clearly other people have been reading Kim Stanley Robinson! (A fun read, but you can tell the exact page that Robinson had written up to at the point that the publisher saw the manuscript, because it's the page where he cancels the future-finance-thriller and scribbles in "And then there was a climate-crisis-anarcho-syndicalist revolution and everyone lived happily ever after the end.") Point here is, you can't own the intertidal zone. Much of Robinson's book is about how real estate interests try to reclaim the intertidal by creating a banking environment in which residential structures in the intertidal can be as-good-as-owned, but instead of complex financial instruments you could just drain the polders instead.  The authors point out that this "plantation" society is inherently transitory without going into the revolution in reclamation then going on, and point out that that these communities are abandoned at the onset of the Fish Revolution, even as permanent, settled populations begin to appear in Newfoundland. These are dominated by the national English and French residential fisheries, and, the authors end, fisheries without this privileged national access drain away into a "migratory working population." 

I like "floating proletariat," better. The question I have here is, why are we even still talking about this mysterious western abundance when we have established that there is good reason for the work force to move west? Specifically, there are plenty of beaches for landing stages opening up in Newfoundland, while the same kind of real estate has been under pressure in Europe since the Middle Ages. The lawsuits I am here thinking about are Scottish abbeys enforcing their right to charge fees for stages rather than trying to enclose and farm them, but the point remains. If a fisher is charged to use a curing ground, it is more expensive to cure fish there than it is in a place where no-one is charging. 

So, about that settlement? Arthur Clausenitzer's thesis, available online, (yay!) is a historiographic review followed by a comparative study of archaeological investigations off Newfoundland and New England. For Clausenitzer, evidence for a residential fishery in Newfoundland prior to 1600 is weak. Away with your Vinlanders from Greenland, your Portuguese-before-the-Corte-Reals, your Iroquois Basque and your Farfarers, who, honestly, crackpot factor aside, seem more plausible all the time. The settlement of the Newfoundland shores is late, and, once established, is almost immediately subject to being drained away to residential fisheries in the Gulf of Maine which are barely later. 

Clausenitzer's study begins with a look at the "less known" sites of Clear's Cove and Renews, both sites of early recorded attempts at settlement in 1623 and 1612 of the Seventeenth Century and clearly the focus of continued but undocumented activity going forward into colonial days. Maybe it is something in the name? "Ferryland," also "Albion" is just ridiculously romantic. Anyway, a 1677 census at Clear's Cove found nine planters, five married, employing a further 44 men in 11 boats, and a few hogs. The archaeological work emphasises that this community, small as it was, participated in European society by consumption, providing a rationale for participating in it as staples exporters. Ethnic identification is evidenced by material culture, or some fancy academic talk like that.  He then cites a deposit found under foundation work for the 1622 Ferryland colony, thus a kitchen deposit of an undocumented transitory settlement of circa 1621. Similar to a collection from a deposit at Smuttynose Island off Maine, ceramics, smoking paraphernalia and building materials show affiliation with European culture. 

Meanwhile, at Clear's Cove, archaeology finds the remains of a drying rack and a cookroom and a local version of a wattle-and-turf residence. No personal goods are found. At Sagadahoc Island in the Gulf of Maine, a "remote" site, a "very generic and utilitarian assemblage" is more interested in storing food and through a Maine winter than in exhibiting cultural affiliations. (No Italian tableware here!) The striking exception is red clay pipes, widely distributed along the east Coast and once thought to be local production, but now petrologically analysed as produced by Chesapeake Bay and Jamaican industries. Some things were worth the effort to obtain. (The author strains to understand how the pipes got to their findspots, which seems a bit less than mysterious given that the tobacco got there.)

I turn now to work on the Bass Strait Islanders, a community of "sealers and their aboriginal wives" with ancestral links to people now claiming to be indigenous Tasmanians. Studies of Tasmanian indigeneity are very interested in North American work, but the reverse isn't always true, and I think I see the point. Aboriginal Tasmanians have the same "Pretendian" problem that makes part-Cherokee a standing joke. Are the Islanders and their Palawa descendants true Tasmanians? What about urban (claimed) Lia Pootah?  Meanwhile the outside world still hasn't moved past the tiny and doomed colony near Hobart, so carefully curated by George Robinson, a synedoche for every "disappeared" Indian, gone to "disease, degradation and drink" since the smoke of the Stockport Indians disturbed Chingachgook's repose at the end of The PioneersIt is an argument that turns on multiple issues: in particular the alleged isolation of the Tasmanians, which might be deployed in many narratives; and the problem of the misogynistic violence which I note, also disrupts attempts to write a simple "Viking" foundation story of Iceland. 

These are difficult questions. Can I duck them? It looks like I can! All I need to do is focus on the archaeology and compare it to peri-Contact North America! Yay! It turns out that we can archaeologically characterise the sealer communities as working families, with wives essential to the work of preparing seal carcasses for sale of fur and presumably blubber. They built crude huts and farmed wheat, vegetables, potatoes, and goats. They built their own boats, and leave little in the way of material culture, although visitors of the 1840s and 1850s have a different picture, emphasising that the homes have books "of superior description." Gotta love those Victorians. 

In dealing with the Islanders' ultimate fates, the reasonable inference until such time that genetic testing in the community becomes less controversial, is a bifurcated ethnogenesis. White, Aboriginal or mixed race, the mid-Nineteenth Century population of the Bass Strait  Sealers had the choice of the sons of Earendil: Become Tasmanian, or White Australians. Given attitudes in the old days, we would expect the latter to be surreptitious. As much as traditional Australian policy gestured in the direction of the dark becoming white through assimilation and intermarriage, in practice subterfuge seems safer, and it seems like there is no going back. The lack of material culture from known sealer sites prepars the grounds for ethnogenesis, while the "books of superior culture" show the decision to go White and never go back. 

Are we seeing something similar in the transition from "little known" and "remote" sites to Ferryland and Smuttynose Island? That's what I'm going with! It is not at issue that there were European men on the ground throughout the Canadian and New England maritime frontier from at least the establishment of the Red Bay whaling colony. As far as we can tell this population was largely Iberian, Basque and French prior to 1575. The ethnogenesis of the Canadien and Acadien populations seems like a logical consequence. But what happened to Portuguese and Basque identities? Why did they fail, leaving the ground fallow for the emergence of Yankee (Yengisee?) and "Dutch" identities?

I find this a bit cringy

 More than that, there is the West Country problem that most of the "English" fishers of the first century were Cornish, and Cornish speakers. Here we've got the "Prince Madoc" problem. Early travellers routinely report meeting British speakers living in First Nations communities, and the "lost White race," with their Welsh word for "cow" are a version of the part-Cherokee story for an older generation. It's embarrassing to suggest that some of these stories might be true, but it is hard to argue with the David Ingram story. Eyewitnesses agree in placing Ingram onshore near Veracruz in September 1568, and telling the story of his walk across North America in a London tavern in 1582, apparently having reached Europe in 1569, and Ingram tells us that of his twenty-three companions, twenty gave up on the arduous journey and married into communities along the way. As crew recruited by a Devon gentleman, at least some of them would have been West Country men. In fact, it is at least vaguely plausible that the three who went on to reach Europe were a bit isolated from their fellow castaways precisely by being English speakers.

Ethnogenesis on the fishing coasts of Europe seems particularly mysterious. We have the erasure of Celtic identity in the northern islands and southwestern Norway, leaving DNA traces and stories of ancient bishops behind; the literally superficial Gaelicisation of the Scottish Lowlands, focussing on the fishing villages outside the old Pictish burgs. There is now a bit of a controversy in Cornwall, where the extreme claim is Celtic identity overwriting a substantial Anglo-Saxon substrate. At least I find a scholarly refutation of Gianfranco Forni's claim that Basque is an Indo-European language at last, although one that allows Basque to be a Creolisation of a language at the Celtic/Italic divide. Perhaps the Early Iron Age trading tongue of the Biscay coast?  The explanation is, it seems to me, the Bass Strait phenomena writ large. The incomers were largely male, and their descendants assimilated into indigenous culture, albeit one that itself was changing rapidly. It took settler fisheries and Pilgrims to reverse the flow. 

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