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Thompson, Wailey, and Lummis (1983: 13) state that, of ‘today’s major fishing ports, only Lowestoft could claim that it has a longstanding fishing community of any significance’. Even in more sparsely populated regions, they add,...before the eighteenth century it was rare for fishing to provide the mainstay of a coastal village, because it was not easy to find – or supply – a regular fish market, and there were more direct ways for the community to meet its needs, through farming and artisan craftsmanship (ibid.).
Whilst I agree with these general arguments, Cornwall provides an interesting and important contrast, where fishing was a significant part of the economy and for some fishers a full-time occupation, since at least the early medieval period. The industry developed particularly from the sixteenth century when markets for fish were consolidated in the Mediterranean. Markets and capital investment in fishing derived from Cornwall’s unique geographic and political economic position, able to exploit trans-Atlantic and southern trade routes, and to some extent independent from the state. Given the longstanding place of fishing in Cornwall’s history, it is necessary to take a long view if we are to fully understand aspects of continuity and change in the region’s fishing communities. Furthermore given the deep influence exerted by the sea, it is also justifiable to consider such a view as a ‘long durée’ in Braudel’s sense of the deep structural constraints and opportunities afforded by environment.
The purpose of this chapter is therefore to explore the regional character and development of Cornish fisheries, with particular attention to west Cornwall, during the medieval and industrial eras. Drawing on authorities on Cornish history such as John Rowe (2006), John Rule (2006), Bernard Deacon (2007) and Tony Pawlyn (2000), it aims to show how distinctive fishing cultures, technologies and craft were developed in Cornwall, but also that these are not static or isolated traditions, and they evolved in relation to broader political economies. It is admittedly a potted history that takes the story of the Cornish fisheries up until the First World War, by which time the industry had entered a long era of relative decline and a shift towards a more nationalized and professionalised industry. This theme is developed in Chapter Four, which also explores in more detail the changing economic arrangements organising fishing. The two chapters form a pair that 1) examines the notion of Cornwall and fishing as peripheral; 2) considers fishing harbours and boats as places where land and sea meet, configured by changing institutional arrangements and technologies; 3) looks at the way topography and different uses of space reflect overlapping economic forms and historicities. My enquiry into history does not merely provide ‘context’ for material that could be otherwise be understood separately. Rather it proceeds from the inescapable presence of the past in Cornwall and of physical and symbolic markers of continuity and loss.
History and anthropology
Over the course of the twentieth century there have been several points of convergence between history and anthropology. From the historiographical view of Burrow (2009) movements within history reflecting the influence of anthropology (and arguably in turn influencing anthropology) have included the Annales School;
Marxist influenced social history, and micro-histories. All of these have in some way involved innovative methodologies including new approaches to archives and oral history; and have also expanded the scale and boundaries of historical study to a range that encompasses the small-scale (households, parishes, workshops, factories) to the broad scope of world-systems. A particularly fertile area of overlap between history and anthropology has been the study of the family. Through studies of mobility, demographics and property transmission anthropologists and historians have been able to challenge and debate previously taken for granted assumptions such as the thesis that industrialization overstretched or dissolved kinship relations (Segalen 1986), whilst Macfarlane (1978) and Laslett (1965) on the contrary argue against an emphasis on the centrality of extended kinship relations, even prior to the Industrial Revolution.
In terms of maritime history there is a strong correspondence between world history, social history and historical geography in offering a counter-trend to the prevailing narrative of the nation-state as the central protagonist of history (Lambert, Martins, and Ogborn 2006). Seas emerge not only as empty spaces for the projection of sovereign power (Steinberg 1999) but also as communal and cosmopolitan spaces.
However the maritime worlds of frequently non-literate mariners and coastal dwellers remains elusive, except for what we can discern from archives and also pictorial representations and literary accounts from people from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds (e.g. Melville’s Moby Dick  and Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast , cited by Mack 2011). We cannot really know about their experiences, outlooks, and perspectives – their ‘mentalities’ (a concern which pre-occupied the original Annales historians Febvre and Bloch). For one reason, as Mack argues (2011:10), we are ‘hampered by assumptions derived from the experience of steam ships and modern developments in cartography and marine survey’, (as well as the legacy of earlier dominant colonial constructions of the sea).
In adopting this perspective I echo the arguments put forth by Lowenthal (1996). In an Association of Social Anthropologists debate on the motion ‘The past is a foreign country 11’, Lowenthal and the other participants were forced into adopting an opposition between historical and memorial approaches to the past. My approach is not to attempt the reconstruction of past lives but to explore the origins, context, significances, of forms of the past in the present or ‘historicities’ 12 (Hirsch and Stewart 2005) and the various ways different kinds of historical knowledge are transmitted. This approach entails adopting a ‘historical’ and a ‘memorial’ approach.
I see both as being important to the anthropological project and not opposed.
Both Braudel in Memory and the Mediterranean (2002) and Cunliffe in Facing the Ocean (2001) acknowledge that even the visual-physical contemplation of the sea resonates with an experience of history. Braudel says, The best witness to the Mediterranean’s age old past is the sea itself. This has to be said and said again; and the sea has to be seen and seen again. Simply looking at the sea cannot of course explain everything about a complicated past created by human agents, with varying doses of calculation, caprice and misadventure. But this is a sea that patiently recreates scenes from the past, breathing new life into them, locating them under a sky and in a landscape that we can see with our own eyes, a landscape and sky like those of long ago. A moment’s concentration or daydreaming, and that past comes back to life (2002).
In Cornwall there is an immediacy of historical presence, which may be shaped by the presence of an absence – the sea as ‘revelatory’ and ‘concealing’ of history (Mack 2011), and there is considerable, and very knowledgeable local dialogue and activity involving the researching, writing and narrating of history. It therefore would not make sense to engage only with ‘memory’ and not with ‘history’ in the more conventional sense of the term.
A quotation from LP. Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between (Hartley 2011).
Hirsch and Stewart (2005) consider that ‘“historicity” describes a human situation in flow, where versions of the past and future (of persons, collectives, or things assume present form in relation to events, political needs, available cultural forms and emotional dispositions... Historicity in this sense is the manner in which persons operating under the constraints of social ideologies make sense of the past, while anticipating the future’ (p.262).
The presence of the past The distinctiveness of present-day Newlyn lies in the juxtaposition of a partly industrialised and capitalised fleet harbouring within a small fishing village of medieval origins. The experience of walking around the village as a visitor is therefore not an impression of seamless continuity, but rather a disruption of the senses as one attempts to register material forms associated with different timeperiods and ways of life jostling up against one another. My encounters with the past were not only via inert material traces but through the combination of local architecture and topography and the evocations of folk stories, local historians, archives, museum and gallery exhibitions, and the presence of Ripple and narratives of her owner/restorer John Lambourn.
Over the course of my research, I visited five excellent exhibitions 13 at Penlee House and Gallery that featured the history of fishing and art at Newlyn and the neighbouring village of Mousehole and drew heavily on the paintings of the Newlyn School (c.1880 - c.1940). The central theme of the most recent exhibition, Another Cornwall / Gens de Cornouaille(s): Art and Life in Finistère and Cornwall 1880was the strong links between West Cornwall and Cornouaille in the Finistère district of Brittany. Penlee describes this relationship as one that ‘dates back to the prehistoric past and really came to the fore when art colonies developed in each area.
The influx of some of the greatest painters of their age into Brittany and West Cornwall meant that the lives of the indigenous communities in both places were captured for posterity’ 14. The exhibition therefore highlights the long history of interaction and exchange along the seaboard of Western Europe (Bowen 1972). It also highlights the fact that pictorial representations inform our knowledge and perceptions of these regions shared histories. However, similarly to the artworks that feature depictions of local dress, fishing technology, and gender and family relations A Village in Focus: Mousehole, 29 November 2008-14 March 2009; A Village in Focus: Newlyn, 17 January – 14 March 2009; The Brotherhood of the Palette: Newlyn School Paintings 1880-1900, 20 June-12 September 2009; Walter Langley and the Birmingham Boys, 11 June-10 September 2011;
Another Cornwall / Gens de Cornouaille(s): Art and Life in Finistère and Cornwall 1880-1930, 24 March-9 June 2012 http://www.penleehouse.org.uk/whats-on.html (accessed 29 July 2012).
modelled through the lens of late Victorian values, the exhibition is reproducing a narrative of indigeneity and tradition. In fact, as Segalen (1991) explains, some regions in Brittany had almost entirely turned their backs on the sea for two centuries when the maritime economy declined in contrast to agriculture. With the arrival of the railway at Quimper in Finistère in the late nineteenth century, rural workers flocked from the land to the coast to work in the fishing industry and its new canning factories. At the same time the railway facilitated the arrival of artists who would ‘capture’ this moment of transition recast as primitive tradition. As we shall see later in this chapter, this is the real parallel with West Cornwall.
The invention of camera photography in the nineteenth century facilitated the work of the so-called en plein air Victorian artists who worked in Brittany and then in Cornwall. Whilst some paintings were produced outdoors, photography was often employed to capture a scene which would then be painted in the studios converted from fisher cottages and sail-lofts (Cross 2008). Photographic depiction of fishing villages and coastal scenes was also produced by the early tourist industry, again stimulated by the railway. Less embellished and dramatised than the genre paintings, photographs remain a powerful evocation of this era. My guide through the extensive photo archive at Morab Library in Penzance was retired fisheries patrol officer Glyn Richards (Fig.9). In addition to volunteering as an archivist at Morab, he was also writing a book on local fishing history and his grandfather who was the last sailmaker in Newlyn. A fountain of knowledge about local history as well as the technicalities of the modern fishing industry, he explained the social history behind the early photographs of Newlyn. In particular he drew my attention to the significance of the medieval pier (Figs. 10-12), suggesting I should go down and soak up its atmosphere. When the artists began arriving to Newlyn from 1880, this was the only harbour protection for a substantial fleet that had undergone considerable recent growth 15. It is to the origins of this pier and the historic development of the settlements it supported that I now turn.
Newlyn had 130 ‘drift’ boats in 1870 (Rowe 2006). This is the number of vessels permanently based at Newlyn but a much greater number would have been using the port to land fish and take shelter etc.
Fishing and Cornwall’s medieval maritime economy Origins and early development of Newlyn and Mousehole Newlyn and Mousehole are typical of the fishing villages of Devon and Cornwall;
mazes of cobbled streets and small cottages tightly packed and climbing the hillsides of steep coastal valleys. Fox (2001) endeavoured to show that the appearance of chaotic arrangement in the geography of fishing villages on the south coast of Devon could be explained in terms of their origins,...First, collections of cellars on the shore, growing slowly, the buildings being added one by one: then evolution, also usually slow and unplanned in most cases, into inhabited places. High density of buildings has been explained by the cramped sites on which these settlements stood and by the fact that cellars, later to be replaced by cottages, had no gardens, almost by definition, and were placed close together – although later in the evolution of these places, small plots might be enclosed, if there were some space, to grow hemp for making nets and for vegetables. The winding, narrow streets today are simply the interstices between these structures and enclosures (186).
Seasonal coastal settlements colonised from inland by peasant farmers were initially cellars and stores for the preservation and storage of fish and fishing gear, sited on the marginal edge of manorial land. Eventually some of these sites evolved into fishing villages. Their inhabitants tended to be landless as a condition of their relative autonomy from the manor and situation at the edge of cultivatable land.