Ocean Hermit – sailing, solitude and stories

My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.

* The fish that changed the world – until we all but wiped it out!

Those who argue that economic exploitation of natural “resources” can go on for ever because it always has gone on, should read Mark Kurlansky’s book “Cod, A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World”. The book is not primarily about the collapse of stocks in the early 1990s but rather a fascinating investigation of all aspects of this  fish – cultural, economic and political – without which the American Revolution might never have taken place or at least have been delayed many decades.How so? You may ask. Simply put, it was cod that turned the struggling, half-starving settlers in the New England colonies of into an international commercial power.  The colonists took poor quality salted cod, the cod that could not be solt in Europe, to the slave islands of the Caribbean where the high-protein food was fed to the African slaves. for the return, the ships loaded with molasses from which rum was produced back in New England.  “The West Indies presented a growing market for the rejects, for anything that was cheap.  In fact, West India was the commercial name for the lowest-quality salt cold,” write Mark Kurlansky.

In addition, though New England ships were not slave carriers they did supply salt cod to slave merchants who used the fish to buy slaves. At the time when New Englanders were increasingly preoccupied with “freedom”, they were noticeably selective about whose freedom they were championing.

“The French politician Alexis de Tocqueville, in his 1835 study…wrote about an inherent contradiction in the New England character….New England was the great champion of individual liberty and even openly denouncing slavery, all the while growing ever more affluent by providing Caribbean planters with barrels of cheap food to keep enslaved people working 16 hours a day.  By the first decade of the eighteenth centruy, more than 300 ships left Boston in a good year for the West Indies.”

The great danger with single subject books, such as this one, is that – as the little girl observed, “This book tells me more about dolphins than I wanted to know.”  Fortunately Kurlansky avoids this pitfall.  The book is a great mixture of history, recipes, curious trivia and useful analysis.  A good read for anyone curious about this fish that was once cheap and ubiquitous but which, despite warnings for decades about overshishing, is now next to impossible to obtain.  What does this tell us about the future of global commercial fish stocks which, according to the UN’s FAO are 60% fully exploited, overexploited or depleted.  And the situation has only deteriorated in the last decade.

Buy now:   Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World


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This entry was posted on February 3, 2010 by in Books/Language, Current Affairs and tagged , , , , .
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