The Historical Cooking Project is proud to announce the start of a three part guest series about the significance of the eel to the history of New France. This is part 3. Click here for Part 1 and Part 2.
Starting in the early eighteenth century, a few hints, both contemporaneous and historiographical, seem to indicate that the eel fisheries of the St. Lawrence River were on the decline. The outcomes of that decline are still very visible today. Outside of a few communities around Kamouraska, eel fishing and eel consumption has been essentially dead throughout the province of Québec in the 20th century.[i] In an age before anthropogenic climate change and mass extinctions, it is impossible to know for sure why this decline happened. For scientific reasons, I doubt that the decline of the eel fisheries originated from decreasing quantities of eels in the entire St. Lawrence. The species is panmictic, and all the eels of the Atlantic spawn together in the Sargasso Sea. This implies that for the species to decrease in one river, it must decrease globally too. Eighteenth century eel fisheries could not have had that kind of global impact. Few contemporary authors theorized the decline they witnessed, and their ideas are interesting but speculative at best. Rather, either the fisheries fell out of favour as an economic activity (and within diet, both as possible cause and consequence), or either the eels simply happened to relocate somewhere else along the river given other environmental factors.
Some Jesuits were indeed aware of the scientific “Eel Question” by the eighteenth century and attempted to theorize the eel’s behaviour. In his Codex Canadensis, written and drawn between 1664 and 1675, Louis Nicolas cites Aristotle and other Italian scientists, and provides his own original and highly detailed theory of where the eel spawns, of its reproductive cycle, and of where it goes to die:
In the New World the eel is born, lives and is caught in freshwater lakes, ponds and rivers and never anywhere else. […] The eel is born from rotting material as worms are in earth. […] Aristotle maintained that the eel is born neither from the male nor from the female, like ordinary animals; and to tell the truth, I have never seen, in the countless eels that I have opened up or seen opened, that there were any eggs or any trace of semen in their entrails. […] In my own opinion, I would suggest that the eel has on the outside a secret regenerative power that we do not understand. […] When this external seed, which is attached to the outside of the skin, falls off, it is converted into silt, from which eventually come the prodigious quantity of eels that we see on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River. […] All learned people acknowledge that many animals are engendered in rotting material, such as the scorpion, the snake and even the mouse. Why can the same not be said of the eel? Whatever the truth may be, it is more important for us to know that countless eels are caught and eaten than to know where they come from or whether they go to die in the salt water of the river. [ii]
Nicholas had even decided to put the eel at the very end of his section on fish, disregarding his book’s size-based organization entirely, for the sole purpose of dramatically inciting “curious people” to come and see just how many eels there were in the St. Lawrence River.[iii] As the Jesuits represented the intelligentsia of the Catholic world, Nicholas’ fascination with the science of the eel probably did not spring out of a vacuum. Paul Lejeune, for example, had also marginally commented on the “Eel Question” and had speculated that the eels overflowed from “some lakes in the country farther north” into the river.[iv] That the eel was the object of so much speculation and of so much awe from naturalists is particularly telling; it is often the only fish species so considered. Nicolas’ endeavours stand out as by far the most complete contemporaneous theories and analyses of the eel in New France, and it includes several economic, scientific, geographic, and ethnographic details. However, the most interesting account of the eel for my purposes in this section might very well be yet another Jesuit’s.
Writing in 1721 from Baie Saint-Paul and Kamouraska, Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix could see the beluga whale fisheries that had only recently been granted to some rich settlers in the area.[v] As Charlevoix says however, these fisheries for “white porpoises” were “inconvenient.” They had enriched only a few individuals and jealousy was boiling up. But there was still another twist. The eels, which used to be afraid of the beluga whales past the narrow strait of Québec, had always held up in the shallower waters between the city and Trois-Rivières. Now, since the beluga whales were being killed (and they were dying fast), the Jesuit theorized that the eels were free to swim around safely in the deeper and wider areas of the river. “Where we used to take a prodigious quantity [of eels], we catch hardly any now.”[vi] The “poor people were screaming,” says Charlevoix, and the historian gets hints of colonial class divide and environmental mismanagement to investigate further.
To support this early eighteenth-century timeline of decline further, we can look at the works of historian Jacques Saint-Pierre who in Les Chercheurs de la Mer notices the decline of eel fisheries as well. Saint-Pierre bases his analysis on the works of surveyor Gédéon de Catalogne, who in 1712 and 1715 produced two surveys of the seigneuries of New France.[vii] In the 1712 report, eels seem to be one of the baseline references on which to assess or not the wealth and potential of a seigneurie. The seigneuries where eel fishing was abundant were clearly marked as such.[viii] More interesting however, some other seigneuries where eel fishing was bad were also described accordingly. Few other resources follow the same methodical pattern. Clearly, there must have been interest on the part of De Catalogne to understand the magnitude of the fisheries beyond their mere anecdotal existence. Saint-Pierre, however, who has had access to the unpublished 1715 report in the archives, notices a clear discrepancy in the eel fisheries over only three years. The exact nature of that discrepancy is unknown to me, but its underlying symptoms seem to match those which Charlevoix would later see. Indeed, in 1712, De Catalogne had not yet surveyed the seigneuries of Rivière-Ouelle and of Kamouraska, but was aware of the area’s burgeoning beluga whale industry and of its “well-off citizens.”[ix] In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the vast majority of what little eel fishing was left could be found in these communities. Could it really be that he decline of eel fishing in the seigneuries between Québec and Trois-Rivières, and its later upsurge in the brackish areas of the St. Lawrence was caused by the death of the belugas? Louis Nicholas, for example, had said that “this fish [sic: the beluga] avidly attacks eels, and swallows so many that five or six hundred can be found in its stomach.[x]
Food historian Yvon Desloges has also noticed a clear downwards trend in eel consumption in the beginning of the 18th century.[xi] By looking at notary records of food pensions – the records of what is being asked for and what is no longer being asked for in those food pensions – Desloges is able to raise the same question I am raising now: where did the eel go? Desloges’ answer lies in a possible uptake of butter consumption over eel fats in the first half of the century as the colony grew increasingly self-sufficient.
Indeed, where did the eel go? Lacerated by hydroelectric turbines, captured as larva and shipped to China, obscured by cod and salmon fisheries in historiography, the eel has slipped out of public consciousness. If it ever completely disappeared from our rivers, it is not simply biodiversity that would slip through our grasp, but fragments of our very own history.
Appendix – Louis Nicholas’ Answer to the “Eel Question”:
In the New World the eel is born, lives and is caught in freshwater lakes, ponds and rivers and never anywhere else. […] The eel is born from rotting material as worms are in earth. An experiment was done with a dead horse that was dragged into the pond at Maguelone near Montpellier. When it was rotten, an infinity of little eels was found under it and all around it. Someone said that eels are formed from old dead eels, and that is more likely. Aristotle maintained that the eel is born neither from the male nor from the female, like ordinary animals; and to tell the truth, I have never seen, in the countless eels that I have opened up or seen opened, that there were any eggs or any trace of semen in their entrails.
In my own opinion, I would suggest that the eel has on the outside a secret regenerative power that we do not understand. It deposits this in the silt or sand when an infinity of them intertwine themselves in great mounds. When this external seed, which is attached to the outside of the skin, falls off, it is converted into silt, from which eventually come the prodigious quantity of eels that we see on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River.
[…] This opinion should not be rejected, I think, since all learned people acknowledge that many animals are engendered in rotting material, such as the scorpion, the snake and even the mouse. Why can the same not be said of the eel? Whatever the truth may be, it is more important for us to know that countless eels are caught and eaten than to know where they come from, how they are formed or whether they go to die in the salt water of the river. I defer judgment on this, but I have never seen it, and it must not be so, for a convincing reason: for if it were, then our river, which does not suffer any filth within it, would have expelled them onto its banks in the first storm, or even with the first wind that blows there continually from either the south, the north, the west or the east across its great breadth.[xii]
Samuel Mongeau is a Master's student in the Department of History at McGill University. His research interests meet at the intersection of Early (North) American History, Environmental History, and Indigenous History. He spends his spare time pulling hooks out of his thumb at the river's edge or twisting his ankle in the trailhead parking lot.
[i] Martin, L’Anguille.
[ii] François-Marc Gagnon, ed., The Codex Canadensis and the Writings of Louis Nicholas, 390-391. This rather long block quote has been significantly shortened here, but I have reproduced it in full in Appendix 1.
[iii] François-Marc Gagnon, ed., The Codex Canadensis and the Writings of Louis Nicholas, 389-391.
[iv] “Relation of 1634,” in JR 6: 309.
[v] Charlevoix, Histoire et Description Générale de la Nouvelle-France, 3:148. Translation mine.
[vi] Charlevoix, Histoire et Description Générale de la Nouvelle-France, 3: 148.
[vii] Jacques Saint-Pierre, Les Chercheurs de la Mer, 39 n29.
[viii] Gédéon de Catalogne, “Report on the Seigniories and Settlements in the Districts of Quebec, Three Rivers, and Montreal, by Gédéon de Catalogne, Engineer, November 7, 1712,” in William Bennett Munro, Documents Relating to the Seigniorial Tenure in Canada, 1598-1854 (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1908), 125-140.
[ix] De Catalogne, “Report on the Seigniories,” in Munro, Seigniorial Tenure, 145.
[x] François-Marc Gagnon, ed., The Codex Canadensis and the Writings of Louis Nicholas, 385.
[xi] Desloges, À Table, 59.
[xii] François-Marc Gagnon, ed., The Codex Canadensis and the Writings of Louis Nicholas, 390-391.