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The Fisherman?s Cause: Atlantic Commerce and Maritime Dimensions of the American Revolution

Author(s):Magra, Christopher P.
Reviewer(s):Surdam, David

Published by EH.NET (April 2010)

Christopher P. Magra, The Fisherman?s Cause: Atlantic Commerce and Maritime Dimensions of the American Revolution . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. x + 243 pp. $75 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-521-51838-3.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David Surdam, Department of Economics, University of Northern Iowa.

Christopher Magra, Assistant Professor at California State University, Northridge, has proposed a startlingly new interpretation of the American War for Independence. He believes that participants in the cod fishing industry, whether owners of fishing boats, merchants of cod, fishermen, and associated businesses were crucial instigators of the Revolution and necessary ingredients for the Revolution?s success.

He opens with a thrilling account of a British man-of-war intercepting a fishing brig, the Pitt Packet, in order to press gang some of the crewmen. When the crew fought the boarding party, fatally injuring a navy lieutenant, the event was another flashpoint along the road to revolution. John Adams, who later defended the British soldiers involved in the Boston ?Massacre,? defended the Pitt Packet?s crew, winning an acquittal on the grounds of self defense. This is an effective beginning of Magra?s tale; he draws the reader in.

Magra takes the reader through a step-by-step investigation. The first part of his book describes the colonial cod fishing industry. He then examines the Atlantic origins of the war before finishing with a discussion of the fishing industry?s participation in the war. Magra describes how the Massachusetts cod fishing industry ended up at the forefront of New England?s discontent with the British government. He acknowledges that his account differs from the traditional accounts that apportion the lion?s share of the revolution?s fervor to rural agrarian factions. Arguing that the Pitt Packet affair ?serves as a stark reminder that colonial resistance to British authority during the Revolutionary Era cannot be fully explained without investigating why those who made their living from the sea participated in this resistance? (p. 5), his purpose, therefore, is to ?investigate the connections between commercial fishing and the American Revolution? (p. 13).

There are no tables in the book. While official statistics on the value and weight of cod exports may be spotty, some sort of table would have aided his verbal description of the industry?s growth. This point aside, Magra has marshaled an impressive body of sources to support his arguments, including much archival information. He has delved deeply into sources held at Marblehead, Massachusetts, a key fishing port during the 1700s. He also examined records at Kew, England. These sources are meticulously mined.

His description of the attributes of cod is well done. Readers learn more about cod fishing than they ever thought to ask. Not only can cod be easily preserved, but the preservation process allows the meat to be stored for years. Cod has more food value per pound than beef or pork, having more protein and less fat. Cod was also cheaper than beef or pork. Cod are prolific, so that, given the existing technology, the fishing industry was unlikely to exhaust the supply. Catholics in French and Spanish colonies ate cod on meatless Fridays. Because cod was cheap, British and French plantation owners fed their slaves with cod.

The New England cod fishing industry competed with fishermen from Newfoundland and the West Country of England. The West Country fishermen grew envious of New England?s burgeoning trade with British and French West Indian sugar plantation owners. The New England fishermen had the advantage of being closer to the islands and of returning with molasses and sugar for the New England rum industry. The West Country businessmen were better connected with Parliament and got the Sugar Act passed. A decade later, Parliament passed the New England Trade and Fishery Prohibitory Bill. From the colonists? point of view, this bill was the final Parliamentary insult. The bill sought to prohibit New England colonies from trading with French sugar growers, among others, and to end their fishing in the Great Banks off Newfoundland.

While historically-literate Americans can enumerate the obnoxious policies enacted in the years between the French and Indian War and Lexington and Concord in April 1775, it is only fair to point out that the colonists benefited from British military and naval protection. The New England cod fishing industry grew out of the turmoil of the English Civil War and associated military victories over France. While the slogan protesting ?taxation without representation? is memorable, the colonists-turned-Americans also disliked ?taxation with representation.? The Continental Congress began enacting policies with more than a passing similarity to British policies during the Revolutionary War. Many of these policies adversely affected the cod fishing industry.

Magra?s third section on the fishing industry?s activities during the war is perhaps the least satisfying of the book. The cod fishing industry?s contributions to the war effort were many. Owners of fishing vessels, crews, and other members of the industry served in the American army and navy in greater proportions than average. Fishermen helped Washington cross the Delaware; Congress leased fishing boats for use as warships; and fishermen served as crewmen on the warships. Some of the fishing vessels shipped crucial war materiel from the West Indies to American ports. While such contributions were valuable, I?m not sure how key their contributions were. Sorting out the indispensable from the merely valuable is tricky business.

This is an impressive effort from a young scholar. I anticipate that Christopher Magra will continue to provide us with interesting and well-written books in the future.

David Surdam is an Associate Professor at the University of Northern Iowa. He has a forthcoming book, Can?t Anyone Here Make Any Money? Major League Baseball during the Depression, from the University of Nebraska Press. Email:

Subject(s):Military and War
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):18th Century