There’s a saying that goes “Everything is ____ .” The blank is often filled in with “politics,” “economics” or “art.” This hydrographic chart, which Jacques-Nicolas Bellin published in Paris in 1754, is a classic example of cartography’s ability to bring three such concepts together to tell a larger, complex story simply and beautifully.
The chart shows a small portion of the Grand Banks, the fishing grounds off the southeast coast of Newfoundland where cod once thrived. When the map was published, the fish had already been a key resource for Europeans for more than 200 years. Indeed, the fishery’s economic importance made it a serious political issue — so much so, in fact, that cod had a hand in shaping geopolitical boundaries in the region from the early 1700s to the early 1900s.
Following the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, Britain gained control of Newfoundland, forcing the French to abandon the fishing colony of Plaisance (today’s Placentia, on the province’s southeast coast). France retained seasonal fishing rights on the French Shore, an area along Newfoundland’s north and west coast, until 1904. Cod is also the reason why France wanted to retain possession of the islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon after the Treaty of Paris in 1763, territory it still holds.
The bountiful catches would not last, however. By 1992, with cod stocks dangerously low, the federal government imposed a moratorium on the fishery. Tens of thousands were put out of work, and to this day the Atlantic cod is considered a species at risk.
With files from Isabelle Charron, early cartographic archivist, Library and Archives Canada