Fishing a Borderless Sea: Environmental Territorialism in the North Atlantic, 1818-1910


Over the centuries, processing and distribution of products from land and sea has stimulated the growth of a global economy. In the broad sweep of world history, it may be hard to imagine a place for the meager little herring baitfish. Yet, as Brian Payne adeptly recounts, the baitfish trade was hotly contested in the Anglo-American world throughout the nineteenth century. Politicians called for wars, navies were dispatched with guns at the ready, vessels were seized at sea, and...

See more details below
$25.78 price
(Save 13%)$29.95 List Price
Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (7) from $10.45   
  • New (3) from $19.15   
  • Used (4) from $10.45   
Sending request ...


Over the centuries, processing and distribution of products from land and sea has stimulated the growth of a global economy. In the broad sweep of world history, it may be hard to imagine a place for the meager little herring baitfish. Yet, as Brian Payne adeptly recounts, the baitfish trade was hotly contested in the Anglo-American world throughout the nineteenth century. Politicians called for wars, navies were dispatched with guns at the ready, vessels were seized at sea, and violence erupted at sea.
     Yet, the battle over baitfish was not simply a diplomatic or political affair. Fishermen from hundreds of villages along the coastline of Atlantic Canada and New England played essential roles in the construction of legal authority that granted or denied access to these profitable bait fisheries. 
     Fishing a Borderless Sea illustrates how everyday laborers created a complex system of environmental stewardship that enabled them to control the local resources while also allowing them access into the larger global economy.

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780870138744
  • Publisher: Michigan State University Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/2010
  • Pages: 164
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Brian J. Payne is an Assistant Professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, where he teaches courses in environmental and maritime history.

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents


1 "White-Washed Yankees": The Beginnings of the Bait Trade, 1790–1854....................29
2 "Intrusion of Strangers": Seeking Local Control in an Emerging National Context, 1854–1885....................59
3 "A fisherman ought to be a free trader anyway": The Bait Trade in Diplomatic Controversy, 1886–1888....................97
4 "Peaceable Settlement": Bait and International Law, 1888–1910....................121
Read More Show Less

First Chapter

Fishing a Borderless Sea



Copyright © 2010 Brian J. Payne
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87013-874-4

Chapter One

"White-Washed Yankees"

Throughout the fishing season of 1836, Liverpool (Nova Scotia) fish merchant Philip Carten traveled through the small fishing villages of western Nova Scotia. Like other Nova Scotia fish merchants, Carten sought out inshore fishermen from whom he could purchase baitfish, principally herring or mackerel, in order to outfit his off shore fishing vessels for a voyage to the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. This off shore fishery depended upon inshore fishermen to supply the bait needed for their voyages, thereby allowing them to concentrate their efforts strictly on the catching of ground fish such as cod and halibut. By 1836 this system had been the standard practice for at least a generation. Like the vast majority of Nova Scotia fish merchants, Carten purchased fish via company credit; instead of paying cash for his supplies, he sought to extend store credit to the inshore fishermen. This season, however, Carten was unable to secure any baitfish from the numerous fishermen scattered across the coast of western Nova Scotia. They instead preferred to wait for the arrival of New England fishing schooners than to sell their fish to domestic merchants.

In a letter to the Assembly of Nova Scotia, Carten complained bitterly that this trade practice threatened the complete collapse of Nova Scotia's fishing industry. American trade challenged the historical relationship between merchants and fishermen in Nova Scotia, he argued, and the entire domestic fishing industry operated upon the basis of this system of credit and debt. Carten charged that the American vessels arrived in the harbors of Nova Scotia "having onboard Gin, Boots, and Shoes, Apples, Soap, and other articles and open a regular Trade with the Fishermen and sold the above Goods, taking in return Mackerel."

Although merchants like Philip Carten considered this illicit bait trade as disloyal to their native land and industry, the extent to which it operated clearly shows that the fishermen themselves found it quite lucrative. Carten confronted the disloyalty of native fishermen and the legality of the presence of the foreigners. In his letter to the House of Assembly, he expressed his frustrations and stated that many in his class felt "indignant at the preference given to Foreigners told them they had no business there.... stated to the people that they were injuring themselves and robbing the Country of its living." Yet the introduction of American goods and capital offered an alternative to the monopoly held by Nova Scotia merchants and provided another source of income for the small-scale fishermen of the province.

The close cooperation between American fishing schooners and local Nova Scotia bait fishermen that developed during the first half of the nineteenth century challenged the economic control of Nova Scotia fish merchants by introducing American capital into the domestic economy of Nova Scotia. This began immediately following the American Revolution with the arrival of large-scale fishing schooners from Gloucester into the inshore fishing areas of Nova Scotia. By the 1830s, it developed into extensive networks of trade and smuggling and expanded to the direct employment of Nova Scotia fishermen by New England's fishing fleet. These "White-Washed Yankees," as they were often labeled, used the closer cooperation with American fishing interests as a means of economic independence, which illustrates their understanding and use of larger global networks within the North Atlantic fisheries. Local fishing communities could then utilize these global networks in their efforts to gain increased control over their most immediate environment and resources—principally inshore waters and baitfish.

The increased productivity that these American schooners brought to the North Atlantic resulted from a rapid industrialization of New England's fishing fleet. This new industrial fishery, centered on the ethics of American capitalism, which Philip Carten and his fellow Nova Scotia merchants viewed as distinctive from English mercantilism, brought added competition for English fish merchants in the form of fish production, global marketing, and labor recruitment. The industrial fisheries of New England sought to concentrate their efforts on the profitable market fish, like cod, while outsourcing the supportive economies, like bait fishing, to smaller operations. This new dynamic in the fisheries forced a reevaluation of local resource use and environmental management techniques, and all of these factors played a role in the dramatic and sudden shift in economic power over the North Atlantic fisheries. The concentration of power in New England fisheries resulted from unique economic and political developments that were not replicated in Atlantic Canada. This New England fishing economy benefited from cash payment to workers, government bounties, and a rapidly expanding protected domestic market. These features aided in the recruitment of labor and facilitated trade beyond United States territorial limits.

Two strikingly different methods of payment existed for fishing laborers during the nineteenth century. The first system utilized a method of debt-credit relationship that tied merchants and fishermen together—often referred to by historians and economists as either "truck" or "clientage." The second system incorporated a currency or wage-labor method based on work time or production output. The latter relied on access to liquid capital, as well as a substantial local labor force, and therefore only industries that existed in a major metropolis, such as Boston or Gloucester, Massachusetts, could adopt such a system. Conversely, the truck system was most successful in peripheral areas with limited capital and a small labor force. The arrival of an American fleet that practiced wage labor presented significant problems to the merchants of Nova Scotia because it threatened the economic bond between the employers and the workers, and therefore challenged their socioeconomic control over the labor force by presenting the fishermen with another viable option. For this reason, the merchants of Nova Scotia attempted to strengthen the truck system by pressing for legislative action in both the province and throughout the empire to prop up the traditional mercantile system. Theoretically this would prevent the introduction of American capital and business methods into the local economy. Illegal practices such as employment and smuggling among the fishing laborers, however, greatly limited the effect of this theory.

Virtually every participant in the North Atlantic fisheries utilized the truck system at some point in time. When European colonials first established a resident fishery in North America, they had neither the capital nor the labor force to compete with migratory European-based firms. In addition, the immediate presence of a large amount of cheap land made it difficult for early American fish merchants to retain their labor force. In order to prevent a larger migration to the agrarian sector, these merchants needed to develop a system whereby their laborers would be dependent upon them. Likewise, due to the shortage of currency available in the colonies, they needed to reduce the risks of fishing voyages and limit their capital investment in that industry. The truck system answered these needs.

Instead of extending capital to be invested in the industry, merchants extended credit to fishermen. The fishermen could use this credit to purchase the food and tools necessary for the voyage. This not only limited the amount of raw capital that each merchant needed for the industry, but it also answered the need of the fishermen who had no capital to invest. Merchants also guaranteed the fishermen a continual supply of necessities throughout the winter. In return, the fishermen would supply the merchant with their catch, which the merchant posted to their credit at a deflated rate. As a result, this system assured the merchant that he would receive something for his investment, and need not fear that a competitor would take the product. This practice reduced the financial risk of the voyage. Finally, the system tied the fishermen to the merchant by debt. Annual catches seldom covered the fisherman's total credit advances, leaving him indebted, and this prevented most fishermen from migrating to another industry or even another merchant.

Fishing firms throughout the North Atlantic relied heavily on the debt-credit bond between the merchants and laborers well into the nineteenth century. Nova Scotia merchants used the truck system as their chief form of economic structure, but many contemporary businessmen and politicians in the province saw this system as a limitation to the potential business growth when compared with the more flexible methods used by American merchants. For example, Nova Scotia politician Gilbert Tucker argued in 1837 that this method restricted the region's development:

Our fishing Vessels are owned by poor men, they get their out-fits on credit, at the highest possible rate—their hands are generally hired, his own spirits are dulled from the knowledge of the disadvantageous circumstances under which he has to labour, his hands have the same feelings, in some measure, with the additional one, of the uncertainty of being paid, thence their want of energy and the unprofitableness of our fishing.

This lack of economic incentive, some argued, limited the ability of Nova Scotia's fishing industry to compete successfully in the global market.

The reality of the world market made demands on the mercantile system that it could no longer meet. While these fishing operations in the provinces bordering the Atlantic held tightly to their traditional ways of running the fishing industry, British authorities began to deconstruct the protective system of mercantilism that Nova Scotia fish merchants depended upon so heavily. Following the Napoleonic wars, the British Empire further adopted the philosophy of free trade and gradually opened several of its ports in the West Indies, by far the largest market for Nova Scotia's fish merchants, to American-based fishing firms. Meanwhile, rapid population growth and the beginnings of an industrial age in the United States created an even larger market for fish and fish products for its growing urban work force. Thus, by the 1830s the international advantages in fish marketing favored the firms in the United States over those in British North America.

Nova Scotia's merchants resisted the opening of the free ports from every possible angle. Their enduring belief in the benefits of traditional mercantilism became the basis of their objections, and in letters to King George IV, the Assembly of Nova Scotia attacked plantation farmers in the West Indies for threatening the destruction of the mercantile system. One letter in 1822 stated:

Some of your Majesty's Subjects are united with Foreigners, in endeavouring to change a system which Your Majesty's Government has pursued for some years, with so much advantage to all Your People who are interested in the permanent welfare and prosperity of Your Dominions in North America, and the West Indies.

According to these politicians, transatlantic trade of North Atlantic fish, British North American agriculture, West Indies sugar, and British manufactured goods benefited all British subjects throughout the world. One petition succinctly noted: "Your Majesty's Loyal Subjects in North America have no desire to advance their local interests at the expense of those of the Empire in general, but humbly conceiving that in the present case, the general interest is identified with theirs."

These Nova Scotia politicians suggested that the mercantile trade also benefited England's own industrial power by making the British subjects in the Western Hemisphere "better customers every year to the British Manufacturers." If the United States grew to dominate the staple trade in the West Indies, these politicians argued, they would surely also dominate the trade of goods throughout the Atlantic world, thus threatening the whole Empire. If London officials allowed the Americans into this market, "Great Britain would provide a Country, which appears destined to become her Rival, with the means of procuring Freight upon their several Voyages, and thus add to their commercial wealth and their maritime power at the expense of her own."

Nova Scotia's political leaders thus endeavored to preserve their "Commercial Privileges," which they believed they possessed as subjects of the British Empire. Tables and data accompanied the letters to London to prove that the North American colonies fully supplied the British West Indies with necessary staple resources such as grain, fish, and lumber. While the West Indies claimed to be deprived of these basic necessities, the Nova Scotians critiqued both the West Indies and the United States for falsely manufacturing these shortages. In another letter to King George IV, the Assembly of Nova Scotia accused those in the West Indies of improperly and inaccurately encouraging the British government to "abandon the wise regulations which excluded the People of that Country [the United States] from participating in a Trade, which it has been always the policy of the Mother Country to reserve for British Subjects."

In addition to these new markets that American fish merchants found in the West Indies, the American economy itself went through an extensive period of expansion throughout the nineteenth century. Most American historians who focus on this economic development concentrate on the expansion in western agriculture. Yet this growth also profoundly affected the North Atlantic fishing industry. First, the general population increase, and the specific growth in the urban population of the northeast, created within the borders of the United States one of the world's largest markets for cheap food supplies, including fish. Second, the commercialization of American society and industry resulted in the concentration of capital and power in the Northeast, thereby giving the business leaders of the fishing industry the capital to invest in new fisheries.

This investment often came in the form of new ship designs that could meet the needs of the growing industry, and many contemporary observers commented on the vast superiority of vessel design and outfitting in Massachusetts. Royal Navy officers who patrolled the fishing waters off the Atlantic Provinces were well versed in naval architecture and held no illusions about the shortfalls of local design and construction. These officers recognized the wide variety and quality of vessels in the North Atlantic. For example, Captain James Daley observed in 1853 that

The American fishermen deserve a great deal of praise. Their vessels are of the very best description, beautifully rigged, and sail remarkably fast; well found in every particular, and carry large crews, a great many of whom are men from the provinces. The difference between the American and English vessels is very great, for all the English vessels in the Gulf of St. Lawrence the past fall, there were only four or five could in any way compete with the American.... I can scarcely convey to you a description of most of the English vessels; they are of the worst models, badly masted, poorly rigged, wretchedly found in sail and rigging, and about half manned.

Increased profits in New England allowed for improvements in vessel design, but these improved vessels also facilitated the further growth of New England's industry; this technical improvement was thus both a cause and result of intensive capital investment and improved market orientation.

The concentration of wealth in the Northeast also gave southern New England merchants greater influence in governmental affairs, and this power ensured that the federal government would continue to support the fisheries through the use of bounties on both fish and ships. Beginning in the late eighteenth century and lasting until the early 1860s, the American government set out an aggressive plan to encourage the expansion of the fishing industry. The New England fishing firms received handsome bounties based upon their total catch and the size of their vessels. In southern New England, business leaders took advantage of this bounty system and began to construct several large fishing vessels. This resulted in a concentration of capital and power in a few large corporations within the fishing industry. These corporations then invested large sums of money in the industry and expanded their domination of the fishing grounds at the expense of the more modest firms in Maine and the Atlantic colonies.


Excerpted from Fishing a Borderless Sea by BRIAN J. PAYNE Copyright © 2010 by Brian J. Payne. Excerpted by permission of MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)