Atlantic History Cod in the Atlantic World
Kurt Korneski
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0299


Though “cod” may refer to one of a number of species falling under the genus Gadus, including the Greenland cod and Arctic cod, the Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua)—“the fish that changed the world”—is of primary concern for understanding Atlantic history. This species evolved approximately forty million years ago, spreading out through the eastern and western Atlantic alongside the expansion of populations of caplin, herring, and lance, which serve as some of its main food sources. Ultimately inhabiting the entire region from Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, to Nain and Hamilton Banks off Labrador, the coasts of Greenland and Iceland, and the Bay of Biscay, the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, Sea of Hebrides, and the Barents Sea, Atlantic cod likely served as part of the diet of inhabitants in eastern and western Atlantic coastal areas for millennia. It appears, however, not to have been a dietary staple for residents of either region until the medieval period. At that time, Europeans, adopting methods the Norse pioneered and introduced through their 10th-century invasions, began to catch and consume large quantities of the fish. The popularity of the fish partly had to do with qualities of its flesh. Firm, flaky, and bright white in appearance, Atlantic cod is high in protein. It was also abundant and, when dried, able to last sometimes several years, making it an ideal source of nourishment for working people, armies, and those engaged in long-distance travel, among others. The precise timing of increased cod consumption in this region also reflected the need to find alternatives to freshwater and near-shore pelagic fish, the number of which declined as a result of overfishing and the contamination or destruction of habitat. The increased focus on cod both drove and enabled overseas expansion, with the fish eventually standing as one leg of the “triangular trade” of goods and people that linked Europe, the Caribbean, West Africa, and the American colonies between the 16th and the 19th centuries. The expansion of the cod fisheries, especially in the period of sustained European contact with North America, was momentous, with technologies and the spatial orientation of the fishery reflecting a mutually determining, shifting set of social, economic, cultural, and ecological conditions. The particularly pronounced decline and ultimate collapse of Atlantic cod on the Grand Banks stands as a testament to the mortality of even the most abundant and robust species in the Anthropocene era.

General Overviews

The economic, social, cultural, labor, and energy regimes of a wide range of locales combined in different ways to shape the cod fishery following the era of European expansion. That cod figured as part of an immensely complicated world system from at least the 16th century onward has meant that the fish is often included in historical analyses, though few scholars have attempted an overview of the fishery as a whole. Innis 1940 provided one of the earliest and most impressive efforts to do so. Innis’s work on the fishery complemented his earlier study of the fur trade. While the latter explored the intricacies of trade and the international determinants of change within North America, the former looked outward, focusing on the linkages that tied metropolitan centers and diverse peripheries in highly dynamic, mutually determining relations with one another. Innis’s work stood as the only major survey of the cod fishery for a half century, until Kurlansky 1997 provided a more popular overview. Written in the immediate wake of the collapse of Atlantic cod populations in the 1990s, Kurlansky’s book draws lessons from that devastating development for future policymakers. Rose 2007 in some ways brings together the works by Kurlansky and Innis. Rose shares with Kurlansky the goal of explaining “what went wrong?” Like Innis, however, Rose grounds his discussion in an immense body of natural and social-scientific research.

  • Innis, Harold A. The Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1940.

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    Beginning with John Cabot’s 1497 voyage to Newfoundland and ending in 1936, four years before the first edition of this work appeared, the focus of Innis’s research connects changes in dominant powers in the fisheries to shifting political, economic, and social developments, particularly in Europe and North America. The book’s main purpose was to use the trade in cod as a lens through which to analyze global trade and the mutually determining relations between imperial and commercial hubs and the peripheries that sustained them.

  • Kurlansky, Mark. Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World. New York: Penguin, 1997.

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    This study offers an account of how cod figured culturally, economically, and socially in Europe and the Americas, charting changes in the fishery from the earliest Basque fishery, through industrialization, to the collapse of Atlantic cod stocks in the late 20th century. Directed to a popular audience, Kurlansky’s work lacks the empirical detail of Innis’s earlier study.

  • Rose, George A. Cod: The Ecological History of the North Atlantic Fisheries. St. John’s, NL: Breakwater, 2007.

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    Rose provides the most recent overview of cod and the fisheries. He provides much detail about geomorphological and evolutionary histories that explain the abundance of cod off northeastern North America, before turning his attention to people. The human history he divides into six periods, each characterized by distinct combinations of fishing powers, methods of catch, market conditions, demographic patterns, and ecological circumstances.

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