Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Let’s Go Fishing by Katherine Pym

Release date July 1, 20017

I wrote “The End” on my first draft of Pillars of Avalon, a story of 17th century Newfoundland, Canada. When I first started this project, I thought this would be difficult since settlers in the New World struggled to stay alive. They hunted, fished and peeked over big boulders to see if wild savages lurked in the distance, waiting to scalp them. 

How could I write a full novel of almost 95,000 words on episodes of crude survival that would numb the reader over time? It would make them think: Boy, I’m glad I didn’t live then. What a pain!

Then I came upon Sir David & Lady Sara Kirke. They were wine merchants living in London. King Charles I gave David and his brothers carte blanche (in the form of a letter of marque) to pillage and destroy French settlements along the Canadian coast. 

I thought, Oh good. A pirate story. I’ve always liked heroes with a slightly wicked bent. If one is too good, he/she is boring. 

But David Kirke was more than a king sanctioned pirate. While he pillaged and set ships afire along the St. Lawrence River, he was also a businessman. He saw opportunity wherever he went. One of those places was Ferryland, Newfoundland, where the fishing was supreme-o.

Fishing on the grand banks NL with icebergs
Men returned to England after a season along the grand banks and enthused how the waters teemed with fish. The cold waters were so crowded that to breathe, the fish jumped into fishing boats just to get away from the overwhelmingly packed seas. 

London and Dartmouth merchants leased ships of sail and traded goods like wine, clothing, and farm implements from England in exchange for dry salt fish and cod-oil. No money was to exchange hands. To transport money was illegal. Everything was traded, or supposed to be. When you see or read pirate stories, their chests filled with silver and gold coins, (if they are law abiding fellows) the money would have come from Spain or Portugal, France or any port of call in the Mediterranean. 

But I digress: 

Crude fishing equipment
Crude Fishing Equipment
Closer Look at one end
Boats with 5 men fished daily in the late spring to early autumn months. They were expected to haul in over 300 cod a day using the most primitive of tools. (In high summer, 1000 fishing boats could be in the water at the same time.) Cod could be as heavy as 120 lbs (54.43108 kg). Nets were apparently not used. Seins were used for the smaller schools of fish, like herring. 

Depending on the day and who did what, a fisherman would use this primitive device to haul upward to 100 fish per day. One would think the hemp line would slice through a leather glove and cut your hand. 

Every day, fish would be brought ashore to be processed. The fish would be gutted and beheaded by men called ‘Headers’. Cod livers would be thrown into barrels for cod-oil. The Header pushed the gutted fish to the ‘Splitter’ who opened the fish and removed the spine.
Notes have come down through the ages how quickly this could be done, up to “24 score in half an hour”.  If a team of gutters and splitters processed fish for 10 hours, that’s 9,600 fish per day—that’s one team. 

After the fish were gutted and salted, they were washed off in sea water, then laid flat on a rocky shore or flake. A flake is a low table covered with pine boughs or such which allow air to pass around the fish and dry uniformly. Boys would stand by, waving a large enough object to keep the flies away since maggots would destroy a dry salt crop.  

Fish Flakes covered with Cod

The calculations are like this: 

In the summer months, a period of 8-10 weeks, a crew of 5 would be expected to catch and cure 200 quintals (quintal=112 lbs or 50.80234kg of salt fish). That is an amount of 22,400 lbs/10,160.47kg of fish in a season. At 11 shillings per quintal (17th century prices), the merchants would garner several thousand pounds sterling per fishing boat per season. If a merchant owned several fishing boats, the numbers are staggering. 

Sir David & Lady Sara Kirke saw the potential and eventually went into the "sack" trade, where goods were traded for fish. They exploited this when they moved to Ferryland in 1638, and by the time of Sara's death in 1684 or 1685, she was a wealthy plantation owner. 

So, that’s one story line, but how many fishing tales are good for a long novel? Well, I found a whole bunch of other stories that filled the breach, which I will relate in another blogspot post. Very exciting.

 PILLARS OF AVALON will be released July 1, 2017. 


Many thanks to WikiCommons, public domain and
Pictures of fishing lines, page 26, Fish Into Wine, The Newfoundland Plantation in the Seventeenth Century by Peter E. Pope (University of North Caroline Press, 2004