Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


The Last Fish Tale: The Fate of the Atlantic and Survival in Gloucester, America's Oldest Fishing Port and Most Original Town by Mark Kurlansky








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There’s a lot to like on the pages of Mark Kurlansky’s new book, The Last Fish Tale: The Fate of the Atlantic and Survival in Gloucester, America's Oldest Fishing Port and Most Original Town. He sets Gloucester in its historical context, and in its unusual place in the world today. His own drawings and recipes add to the intimacy of this picture. The fisherman he presents and their adversaries are well described and the issues are explored with care. Here’s an excerpt, pp. 66-68:


The constant appearance of newcomers, like the constant disappearance of family and friends, shaped Gloucester's character. The people of Gloucester were not always kind to newcomers, but their arrival was always expected. An old Gloucester joke is: What do you call someone who moved to Gloucester when he was a one-year-old and lived there to the age of ninety-nine? The answer: A newcomer.

Greeted with distrust and sometimes outright bigotry, the newcomers built their own churches, worked their own boats, huddled in their own neighborhoods, made their own foods, and changed the life of the town. One of the groups that per­manently reshaped Gloucester culture was the people known along the New England coast as the "Portagee."

The fundamental thing that New Englanders do not under­stand about the Portuguese who settled there is that they did not come from Portugal. They came from the Azores, an island chain in a part of the mid-Atlantic known as the Saragosa Sea. The Azores are about a thousand miles closer to Gloucester than Portugal is, which makes them the closest piece of Euro­pean land to Gloucester. They are culturally and politically part of Europe, but not on the European continental shelf. In fact, the sea around the islands is so deep that some of the mountains of the Azores, such as the snow-capped volcano that dominates the island of Pico, are the world's tallest mountains, if measured from the ocean floor where they begin.

When both the Flemish and the Portuguese visited these islands in the early fifteenth century, they did not find a single human, or mammal, or even reptile inhabiting them. The Flemish and the Portuguese settled there, joined after 1492 by defeated Moors from Spain. This mixture, along with other European nationalities blended in later, have made Azoreans look different from the Portuguese, often considerably darker, and they speak different dialects of Portuguese, which vary from island to island.

The people of the Azores were largely agricultural. Many were wine producers, but a fair number were fishermen. They were also whalers and continued hunting whales until the 1980s. In the nineteenth century, whaling became a tremendously profitable enterprise in New England as well, and Gloucester got in on the craze, forming its first two whaling companies in 1832. Whaling was important to Gloucester because of sper­maceti, a white, odorless, nonoily, waxy substance derived from whale oil. It is completely insoluble in water and was used to waterproof fishermen's clothes, which is why they came to be known as oilskins. In keeping with the self-sufficient tradition of the island of Gloucester, oilskins for the fishermen were made in town, as was the spermaceti, in a plant on Porter Street. It was owned by William Pearce, a merchant who sus­tained himself through periodic declines in the fishery with im­porting spices and sugar from Suriname and other nonfishing operations. In 1833 he financed a whaler out of Gloucester, but it did not have a particularly successful voyage. In fact, in New England even in the years when whaling profits were at their peak, ground fishing, especially cod fishing, brought in more money. And so Gloucester stuck to its traditional fishery, although by the mid-nineteenth century there were already profitable businesses taking tourists whale watching on the nearest banks, Middle and Stellwagen, between Cape Ann and Cape Cod, where slick, black giants—humpbacks and finback whales—squawked, grunted, puffed, hissed, leapt, and cavorted in plain view.

Whalers from the Azores would run across whaling ships from Nantucket, New Bedford, and Mystic, and they would sign on for better earnings. Once in New England, they would jump ship in towns such as Provincetown, New Bedford, and Gloucester to find better paying work. There was always room for new fishermen in Gloucester. From 1850 on, a steady flow of Azoreans came to Gloucester. Soon not just whalers jump­ing ship but whole fishing families, especially from the volcanic island of Pico, center of the Azorean whaling industry, and its neighbor, tiny Faial, having heard of Gloucester and its ground fishing, came.


Beyond the history from the excerpt, Kurlansky explores what is to become of this unusual place. The Last Fish Tale is finely written and packed with insights. It caught my interest, and is likely to catch yours if you give it a chance.


Steve Hopkins, August 15, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the Seeptember 2008 issue of Executive Times


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