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Posted by portugalpress on April 14, 2016
Arne Jakobsen
Dory fisherman and boat
Sculpture of cod fishermen in the Maritime Museum, Ílhavo
Statue of cod fisherman in Fuzeta
White ship Soto-Maior

Danish-born Arne Handberg Jakobsen served in the Royal Danish Navy at the time of the cod wars in the 1960s, and he has never lost either his interest in the cod fishing industry or his admiration for the hardy cod fishermen. For all of us who have accepted that cod are fished by trawlers, Arne’s story of the Portuguese fishing fleet is remarkable.

On the southernmost roundabout near the centre of Fuzeta is a more than lifesize statue of a figure in oilskins and a sou’wester, holding by the gills a very large cod. This statue was erected in 2013 in memory of the fishermen from Fuzeta who joined the White Fleet to catch cod on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.

Some of these fishermen still survive to this day in Fuzeta, although most of the Portuguese cod fishermen came from the areas around Aveiro, Figueira da Foz and Viana do Castelo.

Portuguese fishermen knew of the cod banks off the coast of Canada after Corte Real’s and Martim Homem’s voyages over the Atlantic in the 1470s, and they fished there in the 16th century before their interest was curtailed by the losses to Portuguese shipping at the time of the Spanish Armada of 1588.

It was not until the 19th century that Portugal resumed its interest, and until the 1960s there was an annual fleet of sailing ships from Lisbon which crossed the Atlantic to fish. It was called the White Fleet because the hulls of the ships were painted white.

The mode of fishing was by dory. The dory was a tiny one-man boat which set out each morning from the mother ship, and each doryman fished cod by line. When his dory was full, or at the end of the day, he would return to the ship, offload the cod, and begin the process of gutting the fish which would then be thrown into the hold for salting.

It was a very hard life, and the working day could be as long as 20 hours. The bunks were normally shared, and the food was distinctly fishy. The unhealthy close proximity of the life was a breeding ground for TB, which was also a major problem in Portugal itself.

Some of these ships were steel hulled, but most were wooden and carried up to 60 dories. Many of these ships were acquired outside Portugal, and the Portuguese owners subsequently removed engine and propeller, because it was cheaper for them to operate by sail power, particularly since the cost of labour in Portugal at that time was very low.

There are pictures of these ships being towed back into harbour not because they are in trouble, but because they did not have the power to enter harbour by themselves. The cod museum at Ílhavo, near Aveiro, has a cut away mother ship on display.

The mother ships stayed on the grand banks for about six months. At first, these ships usually fished around Sable Island to the south of Newfoundland because this island offered some shelter from the hurricanes which assault that coast every August.

Men usually signed up for their six-month stint, and some of their wage was forwarded to their families to cover living expenses during the man’s absence. Even so, both sides of these fractured families suffered deprivation. Dorymen were paid for the number and weight of cod they caught, and they retained the chin barbel of each fish as a means for counting their catch.

The assessment of their catch was made by the mother ship’s officers and there was consequently ample room for cheating and for ill-will. 

During his research, Arne has discovered that the cod was often transported back to Europe on ships from other nations such as Denmark.

The salted cod was transported back to Portugal, and on the return journey to the north, these ships took Portuguese salt.

Between 1890 and 1939, there were 120 Danish schooners engaged in this trade. 

During the 1950s, the renowned sailor Alan Villiers was invited to make the journey on the White Fleet, and his book based on his experiences is called “The Quest of the Schooner Argus: a voyage to the Grand Banks and Greenland on a modern four masted fishing schooner”.  His story was also published in the National Geographic magazine. Villiers was honoured to have a Portuguese white ship named after him and he also received a Portuguese decoration.

The White Fleet came to an end in the 1960s and 1970s because marine engines had been developed, powerful enough to trawl the cod fisheries. There was no longer any place for the single-manned dory with its line-fisherman.

Trawlers, of course, disturb the sea-bed and take fish indiscriminately, and much of the by-catch is immediately discarded. This overfishing saw the collapse of the Canadian cod banks as from 1992. Cod fisheries which had been exploited by man for over 500 years were overfished and ruined by man within 20 years.

It remains an astonishing fact that Portuguese consume about 30% of the cod fished every year, but are responsible for fishing only about 2% of the world’s catch.

What is not perhaps astonishing is the love for salted cod in Portugal. Most Portuguese have been raised to appreciate salt cod as a delicacy, and retain that taste into adult life.

Arne gave his talk to Algarve History Association members in January and, during his research for this talk, he came to know Jean Pierre Andrieux, a writer and historian from St John’s Newfoundland.

M. Andrieux is advisor to the Canadian government on fishery restriction and also the Spanish Honorary Consul in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Monsieur Andrieux is holder of the award The Order of Canada and he and Arne have exchanged over 60 emails sharing information about the history of cod fishing.

Arne has put Jean Pierre in touch with Erik Kromann, the director of the maritime museum in Marstal, Denmark.

Jean Pierre visits Aveiro every year to meet with old captains who called in St John’s in the old schooner days and this year he plans also to visit the Algarve in order to meet Arne.

“I find it most rewarding that the spread of knowledge via the Algarve History Association can reach other parts of the world,” said Arne.

On Monday, March 28, Peter and I, Arne and Barbara had the pleasure of dining with Jean Pierre and his wife, Elizabeth, and we are, of course, proud to have stimulated such interesting multinational historical research and collaboration.
Arne plans to follow this talk in January with another next year, but this time about the export of salt from Portugal.

By Lynne Booker

Lynne Booker, along with her husband Peter, founded the Algarve History Association.