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The Fishing Admiral

Rough justice in Newfoundland

The codfish camps on the coast of Newfoundland

The Cod Ships

The waters off the Newfoundland coast were a valuable source of codfish, which could be dried and salted and shipped back to sell in Europe.

Every year hundreds of boats were fitted out for the cod trade, carrying thousands of fishermen, barrels of salt, and supplies for half a year. The fleet left England’s western ports in the spring, and didn’t return until the autumn.

Keeping so many men out of trouble so far from home was a major problem. The cod fishing fleet had an interesting solution.

The first captain to arrive on the Newfoundland coast appointed himself ‘Fishing Admiral’ and was the acknowledged authority for that year’s fishing fleet.

The ‘Admiral’ sorted out any disputes between rival crews, punished petty crimes, and decided which ships could use which bits of the shore for that season.

The ‘Fishing Admirals’ were ordinary sea captains who had no formal legal training, and were mainly focused on their business. Their solution to most complaints was a quick inquiry followed by a flogging. Serious crimes such as murder , which would have required a return to England and a disastrous loss of income, were seldom reported.

This ‘wild west’ form of justice continued until the 1730s, when a formal Governor of Newfoundland was appointed and paid by the Government, with formal courts and legal processes.