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The Turn to Terra Nova? : Challenging the Role of Crisis and Discovery in the Birth of the Newfoundland Fisheries, 1450-1550

Fri, April 12, 8:30 to 10:00am, Hyatt Regency Columbus, Clark


Historians have framed the Anglo-Portuguese discovery of Newfoundland and its waters as a windfall for Europeans. Several recent studies have argued that Europe was undergoing a crisis in fish production at the turn of the sixteenth century, to which Newfoundland’s boundless stocks provided the answer. This paper will argue that such a framework is misleading, and does not reflect how early modern Europeans understood the environment, geography and food resources of the north Atlantic. Newfoundland was neither born of nor solved an environmental-food crisis within Europe at the turn of the sixteenth century. This paper will make two interrelated arguments.

First, Newfoundland was only one of many major commercial, oceanic fisheries which Europeans developed between 1450 and 1550. Iceland, the North Sea, Irish Sea, Morocco and Saharan Africa were all the sites of intensified production. Crucially, these fisheries expanded in tandem with Newfoundland: the northwest Atlantic did not replace, but rather complemented other fisheries. In highlighting this constellation of fisheries, this paper will start to de-center the northwest Atlantic from our history of early food production in maritime spaces.

Second, even as they added it to a wider network of fisheries European mariners did not conceive of Newfoundland as something new. The language used by mariners who visited the fishery framed the region as ecologically and climatologically akin to northwest Europe, and as a place distinct from North America. Their use of the term ‘Terra Nova’ to label the fisheries ensured that the fisheries were mentally separated from the wider Atlantic world while connecting them to other northeast Atlantic fisheries. This mental framework helps explain how mariners understood the environment of the northwest Atlantic, how they swiftly adapted to it and how they were able to integrate Newfoundland into a wider system of food production by 1550.


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