When the Pilgrim Fathers first concluded to make their journey to the New England coast and sought of the English king a charter, they were asked by the thrifty James, what profit might arise. “Fishing,” was the answer. Whereupon, according to the narrative of Edward Winslow, the king replied, “So, God have my soul; ’tis an honest trade; ‘twas the apostles’ own calling.” The redoubtable Captain John Smith, making his way to the New England coast from Virginia, happened to drop a fishline over what is known now as George’s Bank. The miraculous draught of fishes which followed did not awaken in his mind the same pious reflections to which King James gave expression. Rather was he moved to exultation over the profit which he saw there. “Truly,” he said, in a letter to his correspondent in London, “It is a pleasant thing to drop a line and pull up threepence, fivepence, and sixpence as fast as one may haul in.” The gallant soldier of fortune was evidently quite awake to the possibilities of profit upon which he had stumbled. Yet, probably even he would have been amazed could he have known that within fifty years not all the land in the colony of Massachusetts Bay, nor in the Providence and Rhode Island plantations produced so much of value as the annual crop the fishermen harvested on the shallow banks off Cape Cod.
As early as 1633 fish began to be exported from Boston, and very shortly thereafter the industry had assumed so important a position that the general court adopted laws for its encouragement, exempting vessels, and stock from taxation, and granting to fishermen immunity from military duty. At the close of the seventeenth century, Massachusetts was exporting over $400,000 worth of fish annually. From that time until well into the middle of the last century the fisheries were so thoroughly the leading industry of Massachusetts that the gilded codfish which crowns the dome of the State House at Boston, only fitly typifies by its prominence above the city the part which its natural prototypes played in building up the commonwealth. In the Revolution and the early wars of the United States, the fishermen suffered severely. Crowded together on the banks, they were easy prey for the British cruisers, who, in time of peace or in time of war, treated them about as they chose, impressing such sailors as seemed useful, and seizing such of their cargo as the whim of the captain of the cruiser might suggest. And even before the colonies had attained the status of a nation, the jealousy and hostility of Great Britain bore heavily on the fortunes of the New England fishermen. It was then, as it has been until the present day, the policy of Great Britain to build up in every possible way its navy, and to encourage by all imaginable devices the development of a large body of able seamen, by whom the naval vessels might be manned. Accordingly parliament undertook to discourage the American fisherman by hostile legislation, so that a body of deep-sea