Ocean's End: Travels through Endangered Seas

By Colin Woodard | Go to book overview

three
Run on the Banks

FIVE HUNDRED YEARS AGO John Cabot returned from the waters around what is now Newfoundland and reported that codfish ran so thick you could catch them by hanging wicker baskets over a ship's side.

Like most European explorers before him, Cabot had been hired by a monarch to find a westward trade route to Asia. Fifteenth-century Europeans relied on long-distance trade with Asia even more than Europeans do today, and England's Henry VII hoped the Venetian navigator would succeed where another Italian, Christopher Columbus, had failed five years earlier. Asia was the source of the spices used to preserve and flavor meats and other foods; of sugar, drugs, silk, porcelain, and cotton cloth; and of fine steel, rugs, and jewelry of a quality superior to any produced in Europe. A faster trade route would bring windfall profits to crown and country, at least until the other powers caught on. But like Columbus, Cabot was defeated by the existence of North America and the vast Pacific Ocean.

Instead Cabot discovered a resource that would change England forever, the basis of a maritime trade that would give that tiny island kingdom the wealth, skills, and shipbuilding capacity that transformed it into a global empire. He had discovered the most fantastic fishing grounds the world had ever seen, waters so teeming with life that a vast swath of the New World was colonized just to harvest its seemingly limitless bounty.

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