By the early sixteenth century, Europeans had heard about
the rich fishing grounds off the
Grand Banks of
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,
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.
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.