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26 CHAPTER 2 Encounter and Trade in the Early Atlantic World SUSAN SLEEPER-SMITH Around 1500, European fishermen began crossing the Atlantic to spend the summer months fishing the codfish-rich Grand Banks of the North Atlantic. In 1583, when England’s Sir Humphrey Gilbert dropped anchor at St. John’s harbor at Newfoundland he discovered sailors from thirtysix ships fishing together—French, Spanish, English, and Portuguese, all blissfully ignoring the maritime rivalry of their nation-states. Most fishermen spent the entire summer here, living on dry land, processing fish, and securing fresh vegetables and meat from Indians they encountered along the coastline. During these same summer months thousands of Indians gathered to trade at nearby Tadoussac in St. Lawrence Bay, where the metal goods that Indians received from fishermen entered the extensive indigenous trading network that stretched across North America. Archaeologists have gathered extensive evidence of that exchange process, primarily in the form of metal goods, from Indian village sites along the eastern seaboard and far west into the Great Lakes basin and the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys. Neither Europeans nor Indians left written records of these encounters, but the trade that occurred in this region of the Atlantic shaped future encounter. Trade framed these initial interactions , and colonies such as Jamestown and Plymouth endured because of their encounter with Indians. After the Pilgrims landed they survived because of stores of Indian corn. In the spring, when the colonists’ barley, oats, and wheat did not germinate, Indians shared their knowledge about crops that could be successfully harvested. Encounter with Indians first took place in the sixteenth-century North Atlantic, a century and a place we know little about and one that is generally glossed over in standard U.S. textbooks. Trade with Indians had broad and profound global implications, influencing the direction of European colonization, shaping transatlantic empires, and changing the consumer worlds of both Indians and Europeans. Trade with North American Indians was an extension of Europe’s competitive maritime world. The Columbian Encounter was quickly Encounter and Trade in the Early Atlantic World 27 followed by a swarm of rival explorers. Henry Hudson explored for the Dutch, Giovanni da Verrazzano and Jacques Cartier for the French, John Cabot for the English, Ponce de Leon and Cabeza de Vaca for Spain, and Corte-Real for Portugal, and amid this sea of early competitors, it was John Cabot’s voyage that drew the greatest attention. In a public audience with the king, Cabot was faced with the dire prospect of explaining his failure to find a passage to the Far East, and he defended himself by describing a wondrous land with abundant old-growth forests, fertile soils, and mineral resources. What captured the attention of his audience was his description of fishing along the Grand Banks. So bountiful were these grounds that a basket lowered into the ocean’s waters immediately filled with fish. Word about these fishing grounds quickly spread throughout Europe. Fish were a valuable cargo and a resource Europeans were rapidly depleting. In this Roman Catholic world there were as many as 166 fast days when people could not eat meat. The preferred food in Portugal, Provence, Spain, Italy, the Levant, and the continental interior of Europe was salted cod. It did not spoil during prolonged transport, was easily stored, and remained edible for up to three years. In 1502, a ship bearing the first recorded cargo of North American cod arrived in Bristol, England. That vessel held thirty-six tons of salted fish, a highly valuable cargo worth 180 pounds. In the mid-sixteenth century England estimated that 350 European ships were involved in the fishing trade. Records from French port cities suggest that the English underestimated the fishing trade: the French alone sent 500 vessels across the Atlantic to fish. France had the largest fishing fleet, and, along with the Bretons, Basques, and Portuguese, they dominated the Grand Banks. Fishing boats arrived in April or May, and the shore-based crews lived on land until the end of August or early September. Before fishing even began, it took the crew an entire month to retrieve wood from adjacent forests, build or repair the boats, construct stages for landing fish, prepare the wooden drying flakes, and build the cook rooms and cabins where the men lived when they were not sleeping. Once the initial construction was completed, the hard work began (figure 2.1). Fishermen slept little during fishing season. They were expected to...


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