Rev. Jaques Fontaine was a Huguenot minister based in Cork. At the turn of the eighteenth century he moved to Berehaven to establish a fishing business. This decision followed a visit to West Cork where he met Colonel Beecher, who had extensive fisheries at Baltimore, and Colonel Townsend at Castlehaven.
Jaques Fontaine’s account provides an insight into the requirements of establishing a private fishery at this time. It also shows how precarious an undertaking it was.
Establishing the Fishery
Jaques Fontaine observed that ‘it was impossible to carry on fishing with success unless you had a large farm, with many tenants upon it, bound only to fish for you’. It is not surprising, then, that first thing he did on arriving at Berehaven was rent two farms. Next he purchased second-hand tackle and boats from Colonels Beecher and Townsend.
Jaques Fontaine’s fishery was established as a partnership with some London merchants. Together they bought two 50-ton vessels, the Goodwill and the Judith, along with nets and cordage. Fontaine also contributed his own vessel the Robert, a 40-ton ketch, to the venture and organised for some additional boats to be built.
In addition, the venture required salting-houses (also referred to as fish palaces). Jaques Fontaine wrote:
As we intended to salt the fish ourselves, I built a house for the purpose, with stone walls and a slated roof, and shelves suitable for the purpose required, cellars to store the salt in, and presses in which to press the fish.
A large amount of salt was required. Some was purchased in Cork. One of Fontaine’s vessels was engaged to sail to Spain to collect additional salt, as well as oranges and lemons.
Jaques Fontaine’s First Season
By 1700 everything was in place. Jaques Fontaine looked forward to his first season of fishing. He remarked ‘we were only waiting for God to send us the fish’.
That May, Fontaine and his men started fishing for cod off Dursey Island but, due to inclement weather, few fish were caught. They then attempted to fish for salmon, but again met with little success.
Normally, herrings would have been abundant in July, bringing great profits to fishermen, and so Jaques Fontaine risked the expense of engaging three tackles, six boats and 45 men to fish for herrings. Unfortunately, herrings were also few that year, so Fontaine was not able to recoup his expenses as he had wished.
Jaques Fontaine’s Second Season
The following year, 1701, proved much more successful for Jaques Fontaine, when an abundance of herrings was caught. At the time, he and his wife (who was heavily pregnant) were in the process of building a new slated house for the family. Because of this, he wrote,
we were living in one end of the herring house, which was so full with the immense quantity taken, that every place was piled up with them, even to the very door of the chamber in which my wife was confined.
Fontaine’s account of the catch for this season gives us an idea of some of the activities of an early eighteenth century West Cork fishery. The image below shows its output in 1701.
Issues with the Fishery Business
Jaques Fontaine hoped to export the fish to Leghorn (as the Italian port city of Levorno was then known). If he could transport the fish there early in the season he knew he could charge a high price and therefore make a greater profit on the cargo.
However, Fontaine’s partners in London were using the Goodwill to transport their wine from Spain. Because of a threat of war, they would not spare the vessel for Fontaine’s fish. The result was that Fontaine was only able to secure an alternative ship to arrive in Berehaven in February 1702.
The normal export season ran up to Lent (when dried fish were eaten) but according to Jacques Fontaine ‘Lent was over before the vessel reached Leghorn’ and as a result he did not make any money on the cargo.
The Conclusion of Jaques Fontaine’s Fishery
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