Herring Busses – The Dutch Pre-Industrial Fishing Fleet

The herring buss (haring buis, if you feel authentic) is an example of fishing a monumental scale before the invention of machinery. The busses, although somewhat small (probably about 20m) and well proportioned, being designed as both nippy and spacious. Unfortunately all there remains of the herring buss are drawings and descriptions – not a single example survives. At least, none that are known or have been identified – a shame, when history tells us that the Dutch herring fleet was several hundred vessels strong.

Herring busses utilised drift nets (gill nets) and moved with the herring – they started in Shetland and moved their way down to Yarmouth and Lowestoft over the course of the year. This was a pattern that continue largely uninterrupted for several centuries, from the 1600’s right up to the mid 19th century. This fleet developed and evolved over the centuries, with both ships and trade changing with the times. At its peak, this fleet was so large and well organised that no one else had a chance to operate on the same scale.

The buss itself became a kind of factory ship – herring caught, salted and packed on each vessel, with the final product then handed off to other, smaller ships which would journey to and from the mainland while the busses remained at sea for the season. The British tried to get in the herring action but never had the capital to make any impact on Dutch activities. Plenty of  diatribes and fist-shaking was to be had, right up until the issue of money and resources was mentioned. As a naval nation, Britain preferred warships to busses. Still, this leaves us with the wonderfully titled The Herring-Busses Trade: Expressed in Sundry Particulars, both for the building of Buses, making of deepe Sea-Nets, and other appurttenances, also the right curing of the Herring for Forreine Vent. Written by Simon Smith, ‘Agent for the Royall-Fishing’, and published in 1641, we can see how early on the Dutch dominated this fishery. there is one example of a English herring buss here: English Herring Buss c.1750 although it a century later and made according to the specifications laid down be a Swedish shipwright, Fredrick af Chapman.

But why Dutch herring? One word: quality. The salted herring provided by the Dutch was considered the best, and in early modern Europe this was an important consideration when purchasing your salted herring. and why was this? Another singe word: Christianity. Meat was an expensive resource at any times, but even the richest had to abstain on fridays, during Lent and feast days. In that time, that was a hefty chuck of the year that there was no meat. Fish, one the other had, was acceptable – but did not keep well on the long journey from the coast to inland towns, so had to be preserved. The sheer volume produced by the Dutch and its good quality led to the Dutch dominating and relying on the herring for a huge part of their economy for several centuries – so its true what they say – Amsterdam is built on herring bones!

Haring Buis - Wikipedia Commons

Haring Buis – Wikipedia Commons

Amsterdam ISBSA

Since last monday I have been in Amsterdam, the city built on herring bones and reclaimed land. I was attending the week-long ISBSA conference – The International Symposium on Boat and Ship Archaeology. One of the great things about maritime archaeology is the sheer variety and scope of this field, with topics varying from an in-depth study of a single Roman barge from 60AD, found in France, to an annual project scanning to seabed of the Zuiderzee to understand the dangerous and swiftly changing tidal channels.

Although I didn’t get much work done PhD wise, succeeding only in catching a cold, I did get a few ideas for future projects and presentations of my own. One interesting project – a student’s master thesis – was about the Dutch watership, a wooden vessel that was in use from around 1600 to about 1800. It was a trawler of sorts then, with a well inside to keep a live catch. It was a popular vessel and got bigger as Amsterdam expanded and the population needed a larger food supply. Later on it was also used as a tug, before being abandoned in favour of other vessel types. Later on in the week I saw a lecture on the seabed survey that was/is being conducted in the Baltic, along where the new pipe line will run. It was interesting to note the number of shipwrecks that were discovered, as well as the suspected shipwrecks and the dis-articulated timbers that litter the seabed.

It got me to thinking less about ships and more about ship gear, as I now wonder how much gear is lying on the bottom, not just the ships themselves. Trawling is almost invisible in archaeology because the gear does not survive – or at least, that is the assumption. But how many of the random, loose timbers that are picked up, dismissed and disposed of are actually a key part of our maritime heritage? I’m sure the maritime historians – and archaeologists – would be very happy to find a 17th century beam from a beam trawl, or a pair of wooden doors from the 1880’s. The net might not survive, but it’s not impossible – rope and organic matter like fabric, leather, hemp and plant material can be found on shipwrecks of all ages, it’s just a matter of their environment and recognising what has been found…

Archaeology – Bagenkop, Continued

I am still in Bagenkop, a lovely little town in the south of Langeland, an island in Denmark. Although I am attached to the University of Southern Denmark’s archaeology fieldschool, I have had a chance to walk around the harbour and look at the local area. From Bagenkop harbour it is pretty clear that fishing may be small scale but is very much a long-standing tradition in this area.

Trawl doors in Bagenkop – one of many piled up

Bagenkop is a few kilometers from a village called Magleby. It is in Magleby that I am currently working with my trusty fellow students on what we hope will be a Viking Age settlement. What’s interesting is that up until about 150 years ago Magleby was connected to the sea by a nor (or inlet). They began to reclaim the land in 1853 – although the process never seemed quite successful, as demonstrated by numerous storms that flooded the new land, as well as the need for pumping stations to manage the water table.

A gent fixing his nets in Bagenkop harbour

After the land was reclaimed, the fishermen of the area filed a suit against the government for compensation. Their case was not simply practical; they stated that not only did they lose revenue and access to Magleby’s church (leading to a new one being built in Bagenkop), but also that the reclamation had made the area less attractive than before. they lost their case, a blow followed by another in the 20th century when a bridge was built to connect Langeland to the rest of Denmark with a efficient road system. As a result, Magleby, and then Bagenkop, lost most of it’s fishing trade. Currently the fishing fleet numbers in the few dozen.

A fishing vessel in Bagenkop harbour

In Bagenkop harbour the fishing boats are moored alongside yachts and other small vessels, while the areas directly around the harbour is full of fishing paraphernalia. Given Bagenkop’s tiny size, it is clear that the small fishing fleet one of the only industries here, along with farming and tourism.

The entrance to one of the many small work huts/houses that crowd around Bagenkop harbour

For those interested in archeology, a subject that ties in pretty well in this area, the underwater site is going well, while myself and the land team are still conducting resistivity test and land surveys. History tells us that this area is rich in farmers, fishing and fishermen-farmers, and as such we hope that we can find out where the Viking house that would have been among the earliest of that era in Magleby would have stood. Tomorrow we head to the priest’s garden, the gentleman himself having been kind in allowing a bunch of scruffy students to wander around and talk shop about all this old stuff.

Me, resistivity meter and the same bit of field I’ve been standing in all week

Well, I’ve been pacing up and down the same field for the last week, endured rain, wind, gravel, maths, sunburn and a distinct lack of cake. I’m heading out for a beer, and shall be posting again at the end of the week.

Archaeology – Bagenkop, Denmark

A week ago I said I would be posting again, which given the silence that has reigned since is a bit of a fib, I’m afraid. Well, I meant to post, but as soon as I returned to sunny Esbjerg I got immediately packing to go to Bagenkop. Bagenkop is a lovely little own in Langelend, Denamrk. Langeland is described as the Caribbean of Denmark, which I thought was a bit of a fib myself. After two days and some not too debilitating sunburn, I am prepared to admit that sunshine is not in short supply down here.

I am here not on fishy stuff, but on an archaeological fieldschool, looking firstly for a boat barely a 100 meters of Bagenkop and an area called Ågebet. The second focus is on the land immediately adjacent to this area, currently the village of Magleby. And the sunburn? Courtesy of two days standing on a lawn with a resistivity meter. And only three weeks to go!

We  – or rather, I and the Maritime Archaeology Programme of the University of Southern Denmark (and home to this PhD) are looking at the whole area for some good archaeology. What I can’t help but notice is all the small fishing boats, and of course some trawl doors in the harbour – all of five minutes walk from our accommodation.

More posting soon – that’s a promise this time!


It’s How Old!?

I  was preparing a time line of modern – that is to say, 20th century – commercial fishing developments when I realised that my education to date puts my frame of reference back by a few millenia or so. By next week I will have finished a rough pelagic time line to share here, but until then here is a roughly chronological description of some of man’s fish-related achievements from the beginning

First, I also have to give my thanks to Vónin of the lovely Faroe Islands  for their generous donation to this PhD endeavor! It is much appreciated and I look forward to being able to pop over and give my thanks in person when the PhD is complete!


1.  There are indications that Neanderthal man, about 100,000 years ago, had a preference for waters where trout could be easily caught, by hand and with the aid of fish traps.

2.  By 50,000 years ago humans, homo sapiens, had developed tools that were specific for fishing; these include barbs for spears or arrows and fishing hooks. These were made from bone, ivory and horn. Fish traps and dams in rivers were also used.

3.  Cave paintings (30,000 to 10,000 years old) in France and Spain which show animals such as horses and bison also have images of fish and dolphins. Contemporary rock carvings from northern Europe and Scandinavia show whales and horses. There are also models made from clay and carvings on personal objects made from reindeer horn. Remains in caves dwellings associated with the people who made these objects and paintings show that they ate salmon, trout, pike, breem, eel and more.

4.  One of the earliest settled, as opposed to hunter-gatherer, maritime cultures is in Denmark. It is the Ertebölle culture. They made hooks and harpoons from horn and bone, ate large quantities of mussels and oysters as well as flounder, herring, eel, cod and haddock.

5. Skara Brae, a Neolithic settlement from 3000BC, had numerous artefacts including pins, knives, beads and needles made from killer whale teeth. Other artefacts were made from whalebone and walrus ivory. Other sites in Scotland from this time and older show that they must also have fished from boats close to shore, as bones from rays, sharks and cetaceans have been found.

6. Examples of fishing are not just from the coast – Alpine lakes show evidence like those found from the coast, as well as some of the earliest examples of logboats. There are a lot of logboats that can be found in inland Ireland – they appear to have been used for traveling throughout the country via the network of rivers and loughs, as well as for fishing.

7.  The first written references to trawl gear are from Europe. The earliest is in England in 1376, and refers to a ‘wondyrchoun’. This appears to have been a beam trawl of some variety and used primarily in the Thames. At the time, several complaints and petitions were made to ban it. The worry at the time was that it caused damage to the seabed, killed too many juvenile fish and that it would not be sustainable. In the Netherlands a ‘wonderkuil’ is referenced in 1341 – when it was banned. It was a two-boat trawl designed to catch small fish om the coast.

8.  Fishing isn’t by any means restricted to Europe. Rock carvings from Africa show that Neolithic Africans used to spear fish from boats and that they were aware of whales and dolphins. Native Americans and the Inuit have very old traditions of whale hunting and seal fishing, as well as fishing in general from boats and fish traps. Inuit and Eskimo cultures made skin boats such as canoes, kayaks and umiaqs, While Native American cultures made logboats and bark boats.

9.  It was from the 18th century or so that fishing (and fishermen) became denigrated, as it was associated with the poor. When naturalists and explorers discovered new, “primitive” cultures, they often remarked in their need to subside on fishing and hunting – which was seen as being uncivilised and lacking in material wealth or culture. As parts of Europe (like England and Germany) had become separated from the Catholic Church in the 16th and 17th centuries, the tradition of meat free days and other rituals meant that fish was not the commodity it had once been, becoming a more coastal foodstuff and for the poor.

10.  The industrialisation from the 19th century made fishing an important and crucial part of the British diet. Railways, freezing and marketing put fish back on the list of affordable and fresh foodstuffs. This was similar for most European countries.

Well, one thing that is very clear, man and the sea has had a long and fruitful relationship for which the the commercial fishing industry of the 20th and 21st centuries are just the latest chapters. And don’t be fooled by terms like logboat or skin boat – these beauties could easily be up to 15 meters long (and more) and designed to carry up to 30 people at a time!