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Fish into Wine: The Newfoundland Plantation in the Seventeenth Century

Author(s):Pope, Peter E.
Reviewer(s):Codignola, Luca

Published by EH.NET (March 2005)

Peter E. Pope, Fish into Wine: The Newfoundland Plantation in the Seventeenth Century. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2004. xxvii + 463 pp. $59.95 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-8078-2910-2; $24.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-8078-5576-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Luca Codignola, Department of Ancient and Medieval Studies, Universit? di Genova.

Atlantic history in general and Newfoundland history in particular have been recently regaled with two major innovative, thought-provoking, and thoroughly-researched books. These are Jerry Bannister’s The Rule of the Admirals (2003), mainly devoted to the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth century; and Peter Pope’s Fish into Wine (2004), which deals with the seventeenth century. These two authors, one generation apart, seemingly had some contacts, but did not work together. Pope makes sparse reference to Bannister’s articles, but not to his book. Bannister has read and appreciated Pope’s manuscript prior to its publication, but makes little direct reference to it. They share, however, a major revision of traditional Newfoundland historiography, which they trace all the way down to John Reeves (ca.1752-1829) and Daniel W. Prowse (1834-1914). They also acknowledge the historiographical turning point represented by Keith Matthews (1938-84).

A professor of archaeology and history at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Pope was for a long time involved with the Ferryland Colony of Avalon project, led since the early 1980s by MUN archaeologist James A. Tuck. His previous book, The Many Landfalls of John Cabot (1997), was prompted by the Cabot Quincentennial. His Ph.D. thesis (1992), as well as most of the articles he published in the 1990s, was directly related to the topic of this new book. Fish into Wine deals with the English Shore from 1610 to 1696, that is, from John Guy’s earliest settlements to the French war raids that destroyed most of them. The English Shore was (and is) the portion of Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula that goes from Salvage to Trepassey. (This circumscribed territory is more broadly referred to as the “Newfoundland plantation” in the title, “plantation” meaning both “colony” and “the waterfront premises from which the fishery was conducted” [p. 1].) The English Shore was home to a small population, which can be numbered at 200 in 1639 and 1,700 in 1681. During the summer, of course, the influx of seasonal workers multiplied the size of the overwintering population. However, far from being a local history of a relatively small community-on-the-move in a short segment of time, this book is one of the best examples I know which puts into practice the relatively new gospel of Atlantic history — advocated by all, done by very few. In fact, the Newfoundland fishery cannot be examined nor understood outside of its larger North Atlantic context. The fishery, the author maintains while carefully explaining all facets of its complex mechanism, “was a multilateral trade” in which Spain, Portugal, the Italian peninsula and the Atlantic islands imported Newfoundland cod, and sent wine and fruit to English and Dutch ports. The latter, in turn, exported labor and supplies to Newfoundland. (France had its own “enormous” transatlantic fisheries and was not a major part of this multilateral trade.)

About half of Pope’s book is devoted to the thorny issue of the settlement. Is it true that there was no “real” permanent settlement in Newfoundland until late in the seventeenth century, as maintained by the traditional Newfoundland historiography? Is it true that this absence was due to the planters’ opposition to settlement so that they could better control and exploit the fishermen? (The planters were “a certain class of settlers … who owned boats and plantations … and employed other men” [p. 1].) Is it true that such a permanent class conflict between planters and fishermen existed? Pope proves that, on the contrary, “the premise of inevitable conflict between fishermen and planters” is unfounded both in reality and as an “organizing principle for early modern Newfoundland history” [pp. 133-134]. He also shows that the English Shore was constantly inhabited since the early 1620s, summer and winter alike. In fact, far from representing a conflicting interest, settlement was indeed necessary to the fishery, economically and socially. Against the traditional image of early failures in settlement, wasted short- and long-term investments, and an overall “retarded” development (an image which the island shares with New France, one may add), the author shows that Newfoundland follows in the same pattern of development of several other North American colonies and North Atlantic locations — fishing areas such as Maine, the Lofoten Islands, southern Iceland, western Ireland, Britain’s woodland settlements, and the Novgorod coast of Russia’s White Sea, or regions such as Canada, Acadia, and the early Chesapeake. In sum, the author seems to support the school of thought that identifies New England as the real exception in the pattern of seventeenth-century colonial development, at least well into the 1660s. New England was indeed a special place, not only because of its religious origins, but also for the exceptional size of the early migratory waves that peopled it, and for “the quickly achieved stability of [its] inland … populations” [p. 233].

In the other half of the book, Pope paints a social and economic history of the people who lived in the English Shore, trying to separate “vernacular” (i.e., local) developments from features shared by the whole Atlantic world. There were major “commercial and demographic pressures” throughout the North Atlantic, Pope explains, but these were “mediated by the economic culture of the time and place — in Newfoundland, most crucially, by the practice of service in the fishery” [p. 160], so that “the familiar material culture of the seventeenth-century Anglo-American world functioned somewhat differently there” [p. 305]. Central to the author’s depiction is the Ferryland settlement, which up to 1670 was more important than St. John’s. What did an outpost look like? What did fisherfolk exchange for fish? How much money did they make? What did they do with their money? Finally, and most significantly, how was it that such a small society, which periodically exploded upon the arrival of thousands of migratory fishermen, “held together … in the absence of formal political or religious institutions” [p. 207]? It appears not only that some investors such as Lord Baltimore and David Kirke did invest millions of dollars (in today’s money) in their enterprises, but also that all who lived around the fishery (including those involved in the supporting activities such as “lumbering, boat-building or scavenging for French boats, agriculture, and … the ‘hospitality industry'” [p. 337], were making more money than their counterparts elsewhere. Hence a propensity for spending, and the realization, on the part of the historian, that the supplies these people received from England (and the Netherlands), other than the implements directly linked to the action of fishing, mainly consisted of luxuries such as “wine, spirits, and tobacco” [p. 360] — not beer, and certainly nothing that showed any interest in decorating or renovating their living premises. Hence the “Fish into Wine” of the title.

Pope shows an exceptional mastery not only of the secondary literature, but also of all the pertinent primary sources, that he consulted at the Public Record Office at Kew, at Chancery Lane, and in Devon. Aside from his extensive footnoting, his thoroughness is well exemplified, for example, in his identifying a certain mistake in the original document [p. 161 n1], as well as in his discussion of the captions of two well-known illustrations of early Newfoundland produced by Gerard Edema [p. 326] and Herman Moll [p. 325]. Pope has also made good use of the resources available at Memorial University of Newfoundland and at the National Archives of Canada, where, for example, he has exploited the extensive Jan Kupp Papers, though devoting less then ten pages to Dutch trade. The author is particularly good at weaving archaeological findings into the smooth and rather pleasant narrative of the book. With its “more than a million artifacts” [p. 9], the Ferryland project uncovered an archaeological treasure trove which has few comparisons in North America, but also one in which an archaeologist-made-historian would have found it rather easy to drown. Most appropriately, although some portions of the book are mostly based on archaeological evidence [pp. 319-336], this is sparsely referred to by Pope and does not intrude on the narrative. Not that these findings are not important. On the contrary, they provide confirmation of the historical context and also glimpses over real-life experiences about which written documents are often silent. See for example the physical separation of men and women [p. 218], David Kirke’s cufflinks used as evidence of his gentlemanlike behavior [p. 269], the hidden cross showing religious practice and controversy [p. 296], and the inhabitants’ preference for smoking and drinking over better housing [p. 385].

As previously mentioned, Pope is well aware of his revisionist attitude towards the established historiography and minces no words in pointing his finger to a number of “[d]istinguished” and “accomplished” [pp. 66, 204] historians who have to this day contributed to the repetition of an unfounded tale. David Alexander, Gillian T. Cell, Glanville J. Davies, K. Gordon Davies, Christopher English, Naomi E.S. Griffiths, Elizabeth Mancke, Patrick O’Flaherty, and David J. Starkey are variously mentioned in this regard. On more theoretical grounds, such as “the rise of ‘modern,’ or ‘true,’ capitalism”[p. 164], Pope takes exception with some maritime and economic historians closer to his specific field, such as Sean Cadigan, Marcus B. Rediker, and Gerald M. Sider, whom he sees as too keen on their theoretical models at the expense of real-life experience. For example, Pope writes: “The payment of wages sounds more modern; it is certainly more typical of industrial capitalism. But, practically speaking, how would this change in economic culture have affected merchants and crews?” [p. 165]. In a more general North Atlantic perspective, Pope, together with Bannister’s The Rule of the Admirals, provides further ammunition to the idea that the absence of formal institutions did not prevent a society from existing and thriving. For example, the absence of a legally-constituted government or of an ecclesiastical hierarchy did not signify lawlessness or irreligion.

The book’s complexity, however, let alone Pope’s critical commentaries on his fellow researchers, would require a battery of specialists in several fields — economic, social, maritime, let alone North Atlantic history — to do them justice. It is because the issues at stake are so complex that I particularly appreciated the author’s circumspection in identifying a clear-cut relationship between causes and effects. Pope is rather keen in using qualifiers such as “may” and “perhaps.” At least twice he points to chronological coincidences that surely must be more than just that, but that he does not feel safe to explain [pp. 18, 40]. Furthermore, in spite of his thoroughness in describing the structures of economic exchanges linked to the fishery, Pope continually emphasizes the fact that there are elements at play that have nothing to do with economics and in fact have no explanation, except individual or communal (“vernacular”) preference. See, for example, the West Country folks’ reliance on dry cod, which was not caused by lack of salt but simply by their habits as consumers [p. 15]; the fishermen’s preference for wages to shares, only due to the early modern workers’ “aversion … to wage labor” [p. 166]; the inexplicable shift in Ferryland’s ties from south Devon to north Devon [p. 148]; anyone’s rationale for investing in ship owning, itself not a profitable enterprise [p. 118]; the various “degree[s] of attachment to the place [Newfoundland]” [p. 193]; finally, the “many possible motives for migration” [p. 55] and the several “seasonal tasks driven but not exclusively determined by the production of salt cod” [p. 311]. An interesting discussion of the shift in ships’ names is another case in point [pp. 286-288]. In fact, the author’s avowed preference for quantifiable data over “impressionistic evaluation[s] of change over arbitrary … periods, determined simply by documentary happenstance” [p. 226] seems somewhat misplaced, given the fact that, in this book, his own “impressionistic” evaluations are at least as valuable as his more factual data. To be sure, it is sometimes the case that a reader or a reviewer finds a book very good, until he or she gets to the parts that deal with his or her own field of specialization. Having contributed to the author’s field in the specific terrain of Catholicism in Lord Baltimore’s earliest colony, I can testify that there is nothing that I would add or modify in the author’s treatment of it.

Finally, even such a good book leaves room for the reviewer to suggest some improvements. From a substantial point of view, two sentences are puzzling. One compares Portuguese and English expansionism, and attributes their relative strengths to the overextension of their expansionist imperial commitments — as if the same people were involved in empire-building and as such they had to make a choice between the fishery and other ventures (Brazil and Newfoundland, for example [p. 16]). The other sentence explains the slowness of Newfoundland’s growth in population by stating that the “inward flow of migrants … must have been roughly equaled by the flow out” [p. 237], a sentence which forgets natural growth as a factor in the demographic growth — a factor that Pope himself calls into play when he recognizes that by 1660 “the planter population had begun to reproduce itself” [p. 412]. From an editorial point of view, in an otherwise splendidly-produced book, it should be pointed out that there is no bibliography, for which the “Abbreviations & Short Titles” list is a poor substitute. (There is, instead, a most useful Glossary, without which no Newfoundland book seems to be complete.) Footnotes are extensive and thorough, yet the practice of consistently footnoting paragraphs, even when only one reference is required, instead of specific locations within the paragraphs, makes it difficult, at times, to locate the exact reference. In footnotes, is not the current practice to make archival references (PRO, CO 1, etc.) precede specific items (Calvert to Kirke, 6 Oct. 1630)? There is no good map of the fisherfolk’s regions of provenance in England, as the map at p. 94 is not detailed enough. The sub-chapters dealing with the geography of the English Shore [pp. 311-336] should have been placed at beginning of book, as they are very useful as an overall introduction. Finally, typos are almost non-existent, but two perhaps expose the U.S. publisher (Fredricton [p. 363] and Quebecois [p. 434]).

In conclusion, this is a major piece of historical scholarship that will remain, for a long time, a landmark in North Atlantic historiography both from the methodological and the substantial point of view. Both the author and the publisher, together with the institutions that have variously assisted in the research, including the Colony of Avalon Foundation, must be heartily congratulated.

Luca Codignola is Professor of History and Director of the Research Centre in Canadian Studies and the Age of European Expansion. His latest articles include “North American Discovery and Exploration Historiography, 1993-2001: From Old Fashioned Anniversaries to the Tall Order of Global History?” Acadiensis XXXI, 2 (2002): 185-206; “Missionnaires fran?ais ? Saint-Pierre et Miquelon (1763-1792),” La Soci?t? Historique Acadienne, Les Cahiers, 2005 (forthcoming); and “Postface,” in Christophe Colomb, Les journaux du premier voyage, Montr?al: Bor?al, 2005. His full c.v. is available at

Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):17th Century