1: The Race to Codlandia
He said it must be Friday, the day he could not
sell anything except servings of a fish known in
Castile as pollock or in Andalusia as salt cod.
--Miguel de Cervantes,
Don Quixote, 1605-1616
A medieval fisherman is said to have hauled up a
three-foot-long cod, which was common enough at the
time. And the fact that the cod could talk was not
especially surprising. But what was astonishing was that
it spoke an unknown language. It spoke Basque.
This Basque folktale shows not only the Basque
attachment to their orphan language, indecipherable to
the rest of the world, but also their tie to the Atlantic cod,
Gadus morhua, a fish that has never been found in
Basque or even Spanish waters.
The Basques are enigmatic. They have lived in what
is now the northwest corner of Spain and a nick of the
French southwest for longer than history records, and not
only is the origin of their language unknown, but the
origin of the people themselves remains a mystery also.
According to one theory, these rosy-checked,
dark-haired, long-nosed people were the original Iberians,
driven by invaders to this mountainous corner between
the Pyrenees, the Cantabrian Sierra, and the Bay of
Biscay. Or they may be indigenous to this area.
They graze sheep on impossibly steep, green slopes
of mountains that are thrilling in their rare, rugged
beauty. They sing their own songs and write their own
literature in their own language, Euskera. Possibly
Europe's oldest living language, Euskera is one of only
four European languages--along with Estonian, Finnish,
and Hungarian--not in the Indo-European family. They
also have their own sports, most notably jai alai, and
even their own hat, the Basque beret, which is bigger
than any other beret.
Though their lands currently reside in three provinces
of France and four of Spain, Basques have always
insisted that they have a country, and they call it Euskadi.
All the powerful peoples around them--the Celts and
Romans, the royal houses of Aquitaine, Navarra,
Aragon, and Castile; later Spanish and French
monarchies, dictatorships, and republics--have tried to
subdue and assimilate them, and all have failed. In the 1960s, at
a time when their ancient language was only whispered, having
been outlawed by the dictator Francisco Franco, they
secretly modernized it to broaden its usage, and today,
with only 800,000 Basque speakers in the world, almost
1,000 titles a year are published in Euskera, nearly a third
by Basque writers and the rest translations.
"Nire aitaren etxea / defendituko dut. / Otsoen
kontra" (I will defend / the house of my father. /
Against the wolves) are the opening lines of a famous
poem in modern Euskera by Gabriel Aresti, one of the
fathers of the modernized tongue. Basques have been
able to maintain this stubborn independence, despite
repression and wars, because they have managed to
preserve a strong economy throughout the centuries. Not
only are Basques shepherds, but they are also a
seafaring people, noted for their successes in commerce.
During the Middle Ages, when Europeans ate great
quantities of whale meat, the Basques traveled to distant
unknown waters and brought back whale. They were
able to travel such distances because they had found
huge schools of cod and salted their catch, giving them a
nutritious food supply that would not spoil on long
Basques were not the first to cure cod. Centuries
earlier, the Vikings had traveled from Norway to Iceland
to Greenland to Canada, and it is not a coincidence that
this is the exact range of the Atlantic cod. In the tenth
century, Thorwald and his wayward son, Eirik the Red,
having been thrown out of Norway for murder, traveled
to Iceland, where they killed more people and were again
expelled. About the year 985, they put to sea from the
black lava shore of Iceland with a small crew on a little
open ship. Even in midsummer, when the days are almost
without nightfall, the sea there is gray and kicks up
whitecaps. But with sails and oars, the small band made
it to a land of glaciers and rocks, where the water was
treacherous with icebergs that glowed robin's-egg blue.
In the spring and summer, chunks broke off the glaciers,
crashed into the sea with a sound like thunder that
echoed in the fiords, and sent out huge waves. Eirik,
hoping to colonize this land, tried to enhance its appeal by
naming it Greenland.
Almost 1,000 years later, New England whalers
would sing: "Oh, Greenland is a barren place / a place
that bears no green / Where there's ice and snow / and
the whale fishes blow / But daylight's seldom seen."
Eirik colonized this inhospitable land and then tried to
push on to new discoveries. But he injured his foot and
had to be left behind. His son, Leifur, later known as Leif
Eiriksson, sailed on to a place he called Stoneland, which
was probably the rocky, barren Labrador coast. "I saw
not one cartload of earth, though I landed many places,"
Jacques Cartier would write of this coast six centuries
later. From there, Leif's men turned south to "Woodland"
and then "Vineland." The identity of these places is not
certain. Woodland could have been Newfoundland, Nova
Scotia, or Maine, all three of which are wooded. But in
Vineland they found wild grapes, which no one else has
discovered in any of these places.
The remains of a Viking camp have been found in
Newfoundland. It is perhaps in that gentler land that the
Vikings were greeted by inhabitants they found so violent
and hostile that they deemed settlement impossible, a
striking assessment to come from a people who had been
regularly banished for the habit of murdering people.
More than 500 years later the Beothuk tribe of
Newfoundland would prevent John Cabot from exploring
beyond crossbow range of his ship. The Beothuk
apparently did not misjudge Europeans, since soon after
Cabot, they were enslaved by the Portuguese, driven
inland, hunted by the French and English, and
exterminated in a matter of decades.
How did the Vikings survive in greenless Greenland
and earthless Stoneland? How did they have enough
provisions to push on to Woodland and Vineland, where
they dared not go inland to gather food, and yet they still
had enough food to get back? What did these Norsemen
eat on the five expeditions to America between 985 and
1011 that have been recorded in the Icelandic sagas?
They were able to travel to all these distant, barren
shores because they had learned to preserve codfish by
hanging it in the frosty winter air until it lost four-fifths of
its weight and became a durable woodlike plank. They
could break off pieces and chew them, eating it like
hardtack. Even earlier than Eirik's day, in the ninth
century, Norsemen had already established plants for
processing dried cod in Iceland and Norway and were
trading the surplus in northern Europe.
The Basques, unlike the Vikings, had salt, and because
fish that was salted before drying lasted longer, the
Basques could travel even farther than the Vikings.
They had another advantage: The more durable a
product, the easier it is to trade. By the year 1000, the
Basques had greatly expanded the cod markets to a truly
international trade that reached far from the cod's
In the Mediterranean world, where there were not
only salt deposits but a strong enough sun to dry sea salt,
salting to preserve food was not a new idea. In
preclassical times, Egyptians and Romans had salted fish
and developed a thriving trade. Salted meats were
popular, and Roman Gaul had been famous for salted
and smoked hams. Before they turned to cod, the
Basques had sometimes salted whale meat; salt whale
was found to be good with peas, and the most prized part
of the whale, the tongue, was also often salted.
Until the twentieth-century refrigerator, spoiled food
had been a chronic curse and severely limited trade in
many products, especially fish. When the Basque
whalers applied to cod the salting techniques they were
using on whale, they discovered a particularly good
marriage because the cod is virtually without fat, and so
if salted and dried well, would rarely spoil. It would
outlast whale, which is red meat, and it would outlast
herring, a fatty fish that became a popular salted item of
the northern countries in the Middle Ages.
Even dried salted cod will turn if kept long enough in
hot humid weather. But for the Middle Ages it was
remarkably long-lasting--a miracle comparable to the
discovery of the fast-freezing process in the twentieth
century, which also debuted with cod. Not only did cod
last longer than other salted fish, but it tasted better too.
Once dried or salted--or both--and then properly
restored through soaking, this fish presents a flaky flesh
that to many tastes, even in the modern age of
refrigeration, is far superior to the bland white meat of
fresh cod. For the poor who could rarely afford fresh fish, it was
cheap, high-quality nutrition.
Catholicism gave the Basques their great opportunity.
The medieval church imposed fast days on which sexual
intercourse and the eating of flesh were forbidden, but
eating "cold" foods was permitted. Because fish came
from water, it was deemed cold, as were waterfowl and
whale, but meat was considered hot food. The Basques
were already selling whale meat to Catholics on "lean
days," which, since Friday was the day of Christ's
crucifixion, included all Fridays, the forty days of Lent,
and various other days of note on the religious calendar.
In total, meat was forbidden for almost half the days of
the year, and those lean days eventually became salt cod
days. Cod became almost a religious icon--a
mythological crusader for Christian observance.
The Basques were getting richer every Friday. But
where was all this cod coming from? The Basques, who
had never even said where they came from, kept their
secret. By the fifteenth century, this was no longer easy
to do, because cod had become widely recognized as a
highly profitable commodity and commercial interests
around Europe were looking for new cod grounds. There
were cod off of Iceland and in the North Sea, but the
Scandinavians, who had been fishing cod in those waters
for thousands of years, had not seen the Basques. The
British, who had been fishing for cod well offshore since
Roman times, did not run across Basque fishermen even
in the fourteenth century, when British fishermen began
venturing up to Icelandic waters. The
Bretons, who tried to follow the Basques, began talking
of a land across the sea.
In the 1480s, a conflict was brewing between Bristol
merchants and the Hanseatic League. The league had
been formed in thirteenth-century Lubeck to regulate
trade and stand up for the interests of the merchant class
in northern German towns. Hanse means "fellowship" in
Middle High German. This fellowship organized town by
town and spread throughout northern Europe, including
London. By controlling the mouths of all the major rivers
that ran north from central Europe, from the Rhine to the
Vistula, the league was able to control much of European
trade and especially Baltic trade. By the fourteenth
century, it had chapters as far north as Iceland, as far
east as Riga, south to the Ukraine, and west to Venice.
For many years, the league was seen as a positive
force in northern Europe. It stood up against the abuses
of monarchs, stopped piracy, dredged channels, and built
lighthouses. In England, league members were called
Easterlings because they came from the east, and their
good reputation is reflected in the word sterling, which
comes from Easterling and means "of assured value."
But the league grew increasingly abusive of its
power and ruthless in defense of trade monopolies. In
1381, mobs rose up in England and hunted down
Hanseatics, killing anyone who could not say bread and
cheese with an English accent.
The Hanseatics monopolized the Baltic herring trade
and in the fifteenth century attempted to do the same
with dried cod. By then, dried cod had become an
important product in Bristol. Bristol's well-protected but
difficult-to-navigate harbor had greatly expanded as a
trade center because of its location between Iceland and
the Mediterranean. It had become a leading port for
dried cod from Iceland and wine, especially sherry, from
Spain. But in 1475, the Hanseatic League cut off Bristol
merchants from buying Icelandic cod.
Thomas Croft, a wealthy Bristol customs official,
trying to find a new source of cod, went into partnership
with John Jay, a Bristol merchant who had what was at
the time a Bristol obsession: He believed that somewhere
in the Atlantic was an island called Hy-Brasil. In 1480,
Jay sent his first ship in search of this island, which he
hoped would offer a new fishing base for cod. In 1481,
Jay and Croft outfitted two more ships, the Trinity and
the George. No record exists of the result of this
enterprise. Croft and Jay were as silent as the Basques.
They made no announcement of the discovery of
Hy-Brasil, and history has written off the voyage as a
failure. But they did find enough cod so that in 1490,
when the Hanseatic League offered to negotiate to
reopen the Iceland trade, Croft and Jay simply weren't
Where was their cod coming from? It arrived in
Bristol dried, and drying cannot be done on a ship deck.
Since their ships sailed out of the Bristol Channel and
traveled far west of Ireland and there was no land for
drying fish west of Ireland--Jay had still not found
Hy-Brasil--it was suppposed that Croft and Jay were
buying the fish somewhere. Since it was illegal for a customs
official to engage in foreign trade, Croft was prosecuted.
Claiming that he had gotten the cod far out in the
Atlantic, he was acquitted without any secrets being
To the glee of the British press, a letter has recently
been discovered. The letter had been sent to Christopher
Columbus, a decade after the Croft affair in Bristol,
while Columbus was taking bows for his discovery of
America. The letter, from Bristol merchants, alleged that
he knew perfectly well that they had been to America
already. It is not known if Columbus ever replied. He
didn't need to. Fishermen were keeping their secrets,
while explorers were telling the world. Columbus had
claimed the entire new world for Spain.
Then, in 1497, five years after Columbus first
stumbled across the Caribbean while searching for a
westward route to the spice-producing lands of Asia,
Giovanni Caboto sailed from Bristol, not in search of the
Bristol secret but in the hopes of finding the route to Asia
that Columbus had missed. Caboto was a Genovese who
is remembered by the English name John Cabot, because
he undertook this voyage for Henry VII of England. The
English, being in the North, were far from the spice route
and so paid exceptionally high prices for spices. Cabot
reasoned correctly that the British Crown and the Bristol
merchants would be willing to finance a search for a
northern spice route. In June, after only thirty-five days
at sea, Cabot found land, though it wasn't Asia. It was a
vast, rocky coastline that was ideal for salting and drying
fish, by a sea that was teeming with cod. Cabot reported
on the cod as evidence of the wealth of this new land,
New Found Land, which he claimed for England.
Thirty-seven years later, Jacques Cartier arrived, was
credited with "discovering" the mouth of the St.
Lawrence, planted a cross on the Gaspe Peninsula, and
claimed it all for France. He also noted the presence of
1,000 Basque fishing vessels. But the Basques, wanting
to keep a good secret, had never claimed it for anyone.
The codfish lays a thousand eggs
The homely hen lays one.
The codfish never cackles
To tell you what she's done.
And so we scorn the codfish
While the humble hen we prize
Which only goes to show you
That it pays to advertise.
--anonymous American rhyme