Canada Hall

Shipboard Life

By the early sixteenth century, Europeans had heard about the rich fishing grounds off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Due to the numerous meatless days imposed by the Catholic Church, fish was in great demand. The coastal waters off Europe had been severely overfished, creating food shortages, so by the mid-sixteenth century, French, English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Basque ships began crossing the Atlantic to fish and hunt whales. Hundreds of ships and thousands of men were employed each yearcatching and processing cod off the Grand Banks.

CMC S92-6632 Each year, Breton and Norman fishermen came to fish on the banks of Newfoundland. These cod fishermen cast their lines from the deck of their ship. Without ever setting foot ashore, they cleaned and salted enough fish to fill the hold. This was called the "green cod fishery." The green, or fresh, method of processing cod is illustrated in a life-size diorama in one of the exhibits. Four men are standing in barrels to avoid being tossed overboard and to protect themselves from dampness, which caused a disease called "black leg," a severe form of arthritis. They are cleaning the cod, throwing the entrails overboard, and packing the fish in large barrels containing salt to preserve it.

The Basques from northern Spain and southwestern France were the most active whalers at the time. They established a dozen whaling stations on the southern coast of Labrador, along the Strait of Belle Isle.

Each spring, hundreds of ships with a crew of approximately l,000 men would make the four-week crossing to Terra Nova for the annual whale hunt. These expeditions usually ended by late November to avoid the winter ice, but sometimes ships would depart too late or freeze-up would come early, forcing them to spend the winter in Labrador. Insufficient protection against the cold, unhealthy living conditions and an inadequate diet took a toll on the number of sailors that survived the winter. Such was the fate of Joanes de Echaniz. On Christmas Eve 1584, he dictated his final will and testament from his ship, which was trapped in the ice at Terra Nova. The scene is recreated inside the ship's hold in the exhibition.

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