The American Revolution was to some extent a fight over the big, stupid, slow-moving codfish.
Codfish were by far colonial New England’s biggest export. The codfish was so important to New England that John Adams made sure the British allowed U.S. fishermen access to the Grand Banks and other banks off Newfoundland as part of the Treaty of Paris.
Adams believed the fledgling country needed a thriving fishery in order to have trained mariners who could serve in the navy. The U.S. Congress agreed with him, and in 1792 decided to pay fishermen a bounty for catching codfish.
The codfish had special importance to Massachusetts, where to this day the wooden Sacred Cod hangs above the chambers of the commonwealth’s House of Representatives.
The Sacred Codfish
Between 1768 and 1772, fish accounted for 35 percent of all the money New England made overseas. Livestock came in a poor second, at 20 percent.
When the American Revolution broke out, 10,000 New Englanders worked as fishermen, or eight percent of the adult male working population.
In Massachusetts, Marblehead and Gloucester ranked as the top fishing ports, with Salem, Beverly, Cape Cod, Ipswich and Plymouth heavily engaged in fishing.
The fisheries had a multiplier effect, generating income for people engaged in overseas trade, timbering, shipbuilding, ship rigging, sail making and other waterfront industries.
But powerful British plantation owners and fish merchants viewed the colonial fishing fleets as a threat to their own business. In 1733, they began to pressure Parliament to crack down on their colonial competitors. Their increasing success inhibited the New England economy and fomented much of the anger that led to revolution.
In the early 17th century, New England fishermen didn’t venture far from home. They fished in small boats near the shore.
But later in the 1600s they began to fish offshore in two-masted schooners with crews of seven or eight men. The skipper recruited the crews, chose where to fish, navigated and counted the fish. Sharesmen handlined for cod and processed the catch. The cuttails – inexperienced boys and young men – cut bait, baited the hooks and processed the catch.
By the time they reached 30, most fishermen retired from the trade or died from drowning, fishing accidents or fever caught in the West Indies. It was a physically demanding job in a profane work environment.
Nor was it always pleasant, as the fishermen cut up and salted the fish on board ship.
But as historian Christopher Paul Magra pointed out, “the nature of work in the commercial cod fishing industry uniquely prepared fishermen and fish merchants to play leading roles in securing American independence.”
In the 18th century the market expanded for dried codfish, which contained 80 percent protein. New England fish merchants began to ship dried codfish to the Catholic countries of Europe, where the Pope was declaring more and more meatless feast days. Dried codfish also fed the burgeoning slave populations on West Indian sugar plantations.
By the middle of the 18th century, New Englanders shipped most of their dried codfish to the West Indies and exchanged it for sugar, molasses and rum. They found the French island plantations sold sugar cheaper, and the French slave populations grew faster, than the British. Plus, the New England fish merchants had so much fish to sell they couldn’t unload it all on British customers.
So the New Englanders began to trade with the French. But the powerful British plantation owners did not appreciate the British colonists buying from their French competitors. So they persuaded Parliament in 1733 to pass the Molasses Act. It imposed duties on imported – that is, French – sugar, molasses and rum. Parliament reenacted the law every five years, but rarely made sure it was enforced.
By 1764, the British planters convinced Parliament to pass the Sugar Act, which put a tariff on sugar and banned the import of non-British rum.
Parliament did something else to harm New England fishing interests: It banned trade with the French in North America. British fish merchants in the West Country did not like the colonists trading with fishermen in Newfoundland – they wanted to do it themselves.
This time, Parliament ordered the Royal Navy to enforce the Sugar Act. British ships from Halifax began to seize New England’s fishing vessels. Edmund Burke, the Anglo-Irish statesman, condemned the Sugar Act. He described it as corrupt heads of state creating a monopoly to generate revenue and to use the military to enforce that monopoly.
The Sugar Act
The Sugar Act meant most of the dried fish processed in New England could not be sold. New Englanders retaliated by boycotting British goods. At the same time, fishing vessels lay idle in Massachusetts harbors and fishermen looked for work.
As tensions mounted between Britain and the colonies, some members of Parliament proposed a moratorium on the New England fishing industry. On March 30, 1775 – less than two weeks before the shot heard round the world – Parliament passed a law that limited New England’s trade to Britain and the British West Indies and banned New England ships from the fisheries off Canada. Under the law, ships couldn’t even carry fishing tackle unless granted special permission.
Unsurprisingly, New England’s cod fishermen played a disproportionate role in combating the British. Their role in the war led leaders like Adams to argue the fisheries served as nurseries for fighting men.
They helped lay siege to British forces at Boston, and they converted their fishing vessels into warships. The fishing fleets turned into privateers or became part of state navies, the Continental Navy or the coast guard.
Fish merchants like Marblehead’s Elbridge Gerry and Jeremiah Lee used their commercial contacts in Spain and the West Indies to buy military supplies for the patriots.
And a former fish merchant played a key role in one of the most famous actions of the American Revolution. John Glover and his men ferried George Washington and the Continental Army over the Delaware River on Christmas Eve, 1776.
With thanks to The New England Cod Fishing Industry and Maritime Dimensions of the American Revolution by Christopher Paul Magra. This story was updated in 2020.