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How did People in Bermuda Come to Eat Salted-Codfish???

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When I was growing up my mother used to make Cod Fish and potatoes for the family. My mother would put it in soak on Saturday and change the water several time to rehydrate the salted cod and to get rid of the salt so we can eat it on Sunday for breakfast.

It never made any sense to me because there was so much fresh fish around Bermuda. I never really liked it at first, I would have rather had pancakes or bacon an eggs. When I ate it I would mix it up with the sauce, potatoes, bananas and if we had avocado I would mix that as well. This gave the salted cod a more palatable taste. Now when it came to cod fish cakes, I used to eat them all day especially around the Easter holiday.

The Atlantic Cod (Gadus morhua) – from which virtually all salt cod is made – is a remarkable beast. Measuring up to 1.2m long and weighing as much as 40kg, it roams the icy waters of the North Atlantic, from Cape Hatteras to Greenland and from Iceland to the Barents Sea, with an almost aristocratic assurance. Like the haddock, it is perfect for human consumption. Its white flesh is dense, flaky and low in fat; its bones are easy to separate; and, while it is most often caught using nets, it can be landed with nothing more than a baited line.

Fishermen on both sides of the Atlantic have been eating cod since the earliest times. Recent archaeological research has revealed that it was an important part of the Native Americans’ diet; and it is probable that it was caught in Scandinavia’s coastal waters before historical records begin. But the practice of preserving cod is much more recent.

Salt-cod drying

Salt Cod required careful preparation. Before it could be cooked, it had to be soaked in water for just long enough. Too long and it would become soggy; not long enough and it would be like shoe leather. But it was nevertheless highly versatile and could be cooked into any number of recipes, from simple stews to lutefisk, still a Scandinavian classic. And the more non-Nordic sailors began to appreciate its merits, the more diverse the dishes became.  

Worth its salt

After a catch was made, ships would put into shore and prepare the fish in much the same way as before. Once the cod had been gutted, slices of flesh were packed between layers of salt in barrels. This reduced the water content to around 60 per cent. After a suitable period, the fish was then removed and dried as much as possible, to bring the water content down even further, to about 40 per cent. This was enough to last a long Atlantic voyage and it produced a more versatile product, lapped up by European markets. It was especially popular in the Iberian Peninsula, where its name bacalhau (in Portuguese) or bacalao (in Spanish) was taken from the Dutch kabeljauw, itself derived – somewhat awkwardly – from the French word for fresh cod (cabaillaud). But it was also eagerly consumed by the Italians and the Dalmatians, some of whom – rather confusingly – used the same word (baccalà) for both salt-cod and stockfish.

Little more than a century later, salt cod had become one of the mainstays of Atlantic trade. By 1660, English fishermen were salting no fewer than 150 shiploads each year for the European market. Buoyed by demand, fishing stations were established along the New England coast. In less than ten years, settlers founded more than half a dozen different ‘cod’ settlements in Massachusetts alone. And the money came rolling in.

Salted Cod and its relation to enslavement

But it was sugar which transformed salt cod from a valuable commodity into an economic sensation. By the late 17th century, much of the Caribbean had been given over to sugar production. The cane was grown on large plantations and was notoriously labor-intensive to grow. To keep costs down, plantation owners relied increasingly on enslaved people, captured from West Africa. But there was a problem: in order to grow enough food to sustain large numbers of enslaved people, plantation owners would have to devote great swathes of their land to crops or animals – which they were unwilling to do. Their solution was to give the enslaved people salt cod instead.

The New England fishermen could hardly believe their luck. Although salt cod was relatively easy to produce, the salting and drying process could go wrong in any one of a number of ways. Since Europeans had become rather particular about the quality of their salt cod, defective produce had previously been thrown away. But plantation owners weren’t so picky. Concerned only to feed their enslaved people cheaply, they would take whatever the New Englanders could supply – provided the price was right. This meant that the New Englanders could turn waste into profit – and a profitable new trade was born. Before long, producers abandoned European markets to concentrate on making low-grade salt cod for the Caribbean and Bermuda.

Bermuda enslavers also rushed in to capitalize on this. Bermuda enslavers had salt raking plantations in various parts of the Caribbean. They would take enslaved people from Bermuda to places such as Turks Islands to perform the brutal task of salt raking then take the salt to places such as Newfoundland where they would trade it for salted cod. They would then sail to Bermuda and the Caribbean delivering salted Cod.

The hidden cost of the Turks Island salt was made clear when The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave. Related by Herself was published in 1831. Prince worked in the salt pans for ten years, and described standing in brine up to her knees from four in the morning until darkness fell, with two short breaks for food.

“Our feet and legs, from standing in the salt water for so many hours, soon became full of dreadful boils, which eat down in some cases to the very bone.”

A pound of salted fish or meat was doled out by the enslavers on Sundays to augment the barely survivable diet of the Caribbean plantation enslaved.  It’s not hard to understand what this protein would have meant to anyone living on a diet of yuca, name, banana and breadfruit or how it was combined in minuscule portions with those foundation carbohydrates to create archetypal recipes.  As the slave population grew so did the demand for cod.

Recently salted cod in its many pricey permutations has reemerged on trendy restaurant menus in Bermuda. We still eat it on Sundays predominantly, the same day the enslavers gave it to people of African descent.

 

1673. Bermuda claimed and settled the Turks Islands. The salt trade was established.

The dissolution of the Somers Island Company was a watershed in the history of the colony. Free from company trade restrictions, Bermudians abandoned tobacco agriculture and took to the sea in pursuit of commerce. They developed an extensive carrying trade, selling salt from Turks Island and trading goods between North America and the West Indies. This formed the basis of the economy of Bermuda until the early 1800s.

1678. Bermudians first sailed south to establish the Turks Islands in the Caribbean as the center for decades of their industry for salt raking and salt trading. It was six years before the end of the Bermuda Company. They realized the value of salt in preservation. Their ships had two masts and loose-footed sails. They were used for storage, fishing and going from island to island.

1701.The Bermudian sloop Seaflower, one of those in the lucrative Bermuda salt business in the Turks & Caicos Islands, was seized by Bahamians. In response, Bermuda's Governor Bennet issued letters of marque to Bermuda-based privateers. 

1703. The Royal African Company sent slaves from Gambia on a ship bound for Bermuda, but bad weather forced the vessel to go to Turks Island. Eventually, half of the slaves were placed on board a Bermuda-bound vessel.

1706. Spanish and French forces seized the Turks, until then controlled by Bermudians who were unable at that time to defend them successfully.

1710. A Bermudian crew on the Bermudian privateer the Rose commanded by Captain Lewis Middleton sailed south and succeeded in recapturing the Turks Islands by defeating two French and Spanish vessels. Middleton and his crew expelled the French and Spanish who in 1706/1707 had invaded and taken over the Bermudian salt industry interests and had captured an English vessel. They also cleared out the 30-man garrison left by the Spanish and French. It was probably Bermuda's only independent military action. This time, unlike earlier, there was no interference from the Bahamas, with the French and Spanish having almost completely wiped out the earlier Bahamas interference

1788. Birth of Bermudian slave Mary Prince at Brackish Pond, on a farm owned by Charles Myners. Her mother was a household slave and her father was a slave in the shipbuilder's yard at Crow Lane. Her story is both the first-hand account of slavery in Bermuda and the first ever compiled by a woman. She was sent to the Caribbean to work in the Turks Islands, then taken to London by new master John Wood, tried to escape, came under the protection of the London-based Anti Slavery Society and her story became famous.

1799. Turks Island, so long a dependency of Bermuda and the center of Bermuda’s salt trade, from where Bermuda acquired all its salt that was sold to many places overseas, sent by ship, was formally annexed by the Government of the Bahamas. This seizure, which was not protested by the British Government in London despite the angry protests of Bermudians, was to have a traumatic effect on Bermuda’s entire economy

Cod Fish BermudaGina Davis
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