That leave might be given to hang up the representation of a cod-fish in the room where the House sits, as a memorial to the importance of the cod fishery to the welfare of the Commonwealth as had been usual formerly”.

Motion passed by the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Boston, 17 March 1784.[1]

The imposing monument to the cod in the House of Representatives of the Massachusetts State House in Boston arose my curiosity. As a child, growing up in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, cod was a central part of my diet. Every Friday, as a practicing Catholic family, we ate fish. As often as not, the typical lunch for that day would be Serenata. This dish consisted of cod ( boiled, so as to remove the salt), onions, hard boiled eggs and olive oil, liberally sprinkled with salt and pepper. It would be served with yucca and avocado.

I grew up thinking that this dry salted cod, which my mother bought at the local Plaza del Mercado , came from Spain. Little did I know !

As early as 1604, Bartholomew Gosnold, a British barrister, explorer and privateer, discovered the vast amounts of cod that populated the coast of Massachusetts. He called the area Cape Cod.

The four-foot-eleven-inches, carved-wood sculpture of an Atlantic cod fish is the third such piece to hang in the Chamber of the Massachusetts House of Representatives in Boston. The first one was lost in 1747 when a big fire destroyed the city. The second one disappeared during the American Revolution. The present one has been there since 1784. It weighs 80 pounds. The craftsman was John Welch ( 1711-1789), a well-known wood carver in his day, and captain of the venerable Artillery Company. His tomb is at the Tremont Street side of the King’s Chapel burial grounds.

When Massachusetts moved its legislature in 1798, the sculpture was moved with it.  When the legislature moved to its newly-built Hall in 1895, the piece, wrapped in an American flag, was lowered in a ceremony , placed on a bier, and carried by three Representatives in a procession escorted by the sergeant at-arms. As they entered the new chamber, the full House rose and gave a vigorous round of applause.[2]

In 1933, the editors of the Harvard Lampoon took the sculpture from the House of Representatives and hid it. After a thorough police search and a secret phone call, it was recovered. On April 26 1933, The Los Angeles Times published a poem about the theft :

From Winthrop Beach to Bunker Hill/ From Cambridge to Revere, the voice of happiness was still, one heard no note of cheer/ A pallor whitened every face/ All eyes were red and swollen/ A dreadful crime had taken place/ The Codfish had been stolen/

acevedo cod 2

In 1968 it was taken again, this time by students of the University of Massachusetts. Once again, it was recovered, though this time with minor bruises.

The cod fish brought great wealth to colonial New England. By 1770, eight per cent of adult male workers in Massachusetts were employed in the fishing industry. Fish alone brought in thirty five per cent of the area’s total annual export revenue, making it the single most lucrative trade good in the entire region.[3] This, in turn, had a spillover effect on maritime New England, stimulating growth in ship-building, ship-rigging, sail-making and waterfront business development. [4]

The cod, caught, dried and salted in New England, was exchanged for sugar with the West Indies. It was also exported to Bilbao in Spain, as well as exchanged for wool with Britain. The West Indian market was particularly attractive in that there was demand for cod fish refuse, which could be exchanged for molasses, sugar, spices, coffee and even slaves. And Adam Smith is cited as referring to the cod business as “an exciting example of how an economy could flourish if individuals were given an unrestricted commercial environment”.[5]

By the 18th century , cod had made New England colony an international commercial power. The members of the “codfish aristocracy”, those who traced their fortunes to the cod fisheries, were fully aware of their value. Coins issued from 1776-1778 had codfish on them. A two-penny stamp carried the image of a cod fish and the legend “ staple of Massachusetts” on it.[6]

The development of a faster fishing boat, the schooner, in 1713, increased the production capacity of the fishing companies. The Gloucester schooner revolutionized sailing and fishing in New England. The name comes from a New England word, scoon, which means “to skim lightly along the water”.[7]

acevedo cod 3

The French colonies in the West Indies (today´s Haiti, Martinique, Guadaloupe, and Cayenne), were among the best customers of New England’s fishing industry. From 1771-1773 New England fish merchants controlled 81.7 per cent of the West Indian market.[8]  In fact, trade links between the West Indies and Massachusetts were such that in the 1770s Boston’s Southwest became known as Jamaica Plain. At this time, colonists imported 65 million gallons of molasses from the West Indies. There were 140 rum distilleries in the North American colonies, 97 per cent of them in New England.[9] Lumber and dried cod were the primary commodities exchanged.[10]

New England’s maritime expansion and the cost of the Seven Year War between Britain and France led to retaliatory legislation against New England’s commercial practices. Britain tried to regulate the overseas commerce of its colonies, thus triggering the American Revolution. The latter began in New England.[11] Riots against rules emanating from the British Parliament in the 1760s and 1770s reached a boiling point. British soldiers were harassed –so much so that they ended up shooting into a crowd of unarmed colonists.[12] The laws passed by Parliament were simply not implemented by the merchants and workers of the New England cod fishing industry.

The fact was that the French had a comparative advantage over the British in the price of sugar. New Englanders would sell cod to the French on better exchange terms than to the British. The Sugar Act passed by the British Parliament denied access to the sugar from the French Caribbean territories to the North American colonies. This Act set prohibitive duties on foreign sugar, molasses and rum. New Englanders believed that raising revenues through taxes without the approval of and consultation with the colonies was the sign of a corrupt state. And it was for this reason that Adam Smith supported the colonists in their grievances against the British Empire.[13]

As British customs vessels were attacked and set on fire in New England, Parliament retaliated with the Fisheries Bill. In 1775, this bill essentially put the colonies’ fishing industry in moratorium, attempting to submit the colonists to the supreme authority of the Empire.

The combination of the Sugar Act and the Fisheries Bill convinced those involved in the New England cod fishing industry that the British no longer supported their interests. Thus, the commercial cod fishing industry was converted from the peace time production of dried cod into a military machine.[14] Fish supplied also part of the necessary provisions of the privateers during the Revolution. The schooners were armed for war, and leased to the Continental Congress. New England fishermen and fish merchants were key to the war effort.Trade routes and extant networks were turned into munitions supply lines.[15]Colonial fishing schooners were converted into warships armed for battle. Fishermen became fighting men in the revolutionary army. Fish remained a key staple.

The Massachusetts Provincial Congress created a number of subcommittees to help manage the revolutionary movement. Wealthy and powerful fish merchants were part of the Committee of Supplies, formed in 1774. With Spain, they negotiated the purchase of military supplies and played leading roles in the war endeavor. Muskets, pistols and gun powder were thus acquired. The same was done with the West Indies.

On 11 December 1781, Boston Merchants requested  from the Massachusetts General Court  that was negotiating a peace treaty with the British to guarantee American fishing rights in the  North Atlantic as part of the treaty.

“By the flexibility of using the fishing industry to the way of war, America was able to develop its own navy, guard its coast, win battles on land, supply the fighting men with military stores and provisions and achieve its independence of land and sea”. [16]

The cod industry was behind this remarkable achievement. And that is the reason for the “Sacred Cod”.






















Gardener, Robert, ed. Navies and the American Revolution 1775-1783. London : Chatham Publishing, 1996.

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

Kurlansky, Mark, Cod : A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World. New York : Walker and Company, 1997.

Magra, Christopher Paul, “The New England Cod Fishing Industry and Maritime Dimensions of the American Revolution”, PhD Dissertation, Department of History, University of Pittsburgh, 2007.

Smith, Adam. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. New York : Max Lender Editorial, 1937.

Vickers, Daniel, “Nantucket Whalemen in the Deep Sea Fishery : The Changing Anatomy of an Early American Labor Force”, The Journal of American History, vol. 72, no 2 ( September 1985).

Young , Alfred, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party : Memory and the American Revolution.Boston : Boston Press, 1999.

Photocredits : Provided by the Boston Public Library Archives

[1] Harold A. Innis, The Cod Fisheries : The History of an Institutional Economy. New Haven : Yale University Press, 1948, p. 1.

[2] Mark Kurlansky, Cod : A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World. New York : Walker and Company, 1997, p.77.

[3] Daniel Vickers, “Nantucket Whalemen in the Deep Sea Fishery : The Changing Anatomy of an Early American Labor Force”, The Journal of American History, vol . 72, No 2, ( September 1985).

[4] Ibid…pp. 290-292.

[5] Kurlansky, op.cit, p.75.

[6] Ibid…p.79.

[7] Ibid…p.83.

[8] Harold A. Innis, The Cod Fisheries : The History of an International Economy . New Haven : Yale University Press,p.138

[9] Christopher Paul Magra, “The New England Cod Fishing Industry, and Maritime Dimensions of the American Revolution”, PhD dissertation, Department of History, University of Pittsburgh, 2007, pp. 141-144.

[10] Ibid…p.144.

[11] Ibid… p.12

[12] Alfred Young, The Shoemaker and the Tea Party : Memory and the American Revolution. Boston : Boston Press, p.148.

[13] Adam Smith , An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. New York : Max Lender, 1937, p. 617

[14] Robert Gardener, ed., Navies and the American Revolution, 1775-1783. London : Chatham Publishing, 1996, p. 67.

[15] Magra, op.cit, p. 201.

[16] Ibid…p.286.