13 Views of the Sea

Katsushika Hokusai, Crustaceans, 1825-1830. Courtesy, Freer Gallery of Art, National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian Institution

Katsushika Hokusai, Crustaceans, Edo Period, 1825-1830. Ink and color on silk. Courtesy, Freer Gallery of Art, National Museum of Asian Art

When I was visiting my son in Washington, DC recently, I went to a breathtakingly beautiful exhibit of Katsushika Hokusai’s paintings that is currently at the National Museum of Asian Art’s Freer Gallery.

Hokusai is one of Japan’s best known painters. He lived from 1760 to 1849, in Japan’s Edo Period, but his work still seems incredibly fresh and vibrant. I’m sure many of you will recognize his work and perhaps most especially the series of woodblock prints that he called 36 Views of Mount Fuji.

At the Freer Gallery, one of the things that impressed me was how many of Hokusai’s paintings featured the sea.

I loved how Hokusai found such beauty in the sea and the people that live by the sea. I also liked that, though painting scenes from such a different place and time, he could still make me see and appreciate my own world, and the seas I know best, in a new light.

Detail from Hokusai, Breaking Waves, Edo Period, 1847. Ink and color on silk. Freer Gallery, National Museum of Asian Art

Detail from Hokusai, Breaking Waves, Edo Period, 1847. Ink and color on silk. Freer Gallery, National Museum of Asian Art

I even thought about Hokusai last night while I was cleaning fish and making stock with the heads and backbones.

As I went about it, I looked at that clutter of fish parts, which were many shades of red and blue and green. And because I thought Hokusai would see beauty in them, I saw beauty in them, too.

Katsushika Hokusai, Fish and Shrimp, Edo Period. Ink and color on paper. Courtesy, Freer Gallery of Art, National Museum of Asian Art

Katsushika Hokusai, Fish and Shrimp, Edo Period. Ink and color on paper. Courtesy, Freer Gallery of Art, National Museum of Asian Art

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When I was visiting my son in DC, I also did a little historical research in the Smithsonian Institution Archives, just a couple blocks from the Freer Gallery. There I discovered a small but interesting collection of photographs of a very different sea, far from Hokusai’s, but one that is close to my family’s home place on the North Carolina coast.

Hauling in a herring and shad seine at Avoca plantation's Sutton Beach, Albemarle Sound, N.C., ca. 1881. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-006, Box 007, Image No. MAH-3087

African American fishermen hauling in a herring and shad seine at Avoca plantation’s Sutton Beach, Albemarle Sound, N.C., 1881. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-006, Box 007, Image No. MAH-3087

Preserved on beautiful 8″ x 10″ glass negatives, the photographs were taken by a photographer who was part of a team of scientists that was surveying Albemarle Sound’s fisheries in 1881.

Avoca plantation's Sutton Beach, Bertie County, N.C., ca. 1881. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-006, Box 006, Image No. MAH-3036

Avoca plantation’s Sutton Beach, Bertie County, N.C., ca. 1881. In the background, we can see the cutting house and salting shed. The building in the distance, on the far right, is probably one of the two buildings that housed the steam-powered capstans that pulled the seine toward the shore. Once the seine was in the shallows, horses and men pulled the catch the rest of the way onto the beach. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-006, Box 006, Image No. MAH-3036

The scientists were working with a federal agency called the United States Fish Commission, which at that time was investigating the health of the shad fisheries on the East Coast of the United States.

Fishing boat, probably a pound or gill netter, coming into railroad wharf in Edenton, N. C., 1881. We can see a Norfolk & Elizabeth City RR freight train on wharf in background. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-006, Box 015, Image No. MAH-4920

Fishing boat, probably a pound or gill netter, coming into railroad wharf in Edenton, N. C., 1881. We can see a Norfolk & Elizabeth City Railroad freight train on the wharf in the background. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-006, Box 015, Image No. MAH-4920

Many of the scientists who worked with the U. S. Fish Commission also worked with the Smithsonian, which is how the photographs came to be in the Smithsonian Institution Archives.

In fact, at that time, the naturalist, ornithologist and ichthyologist Spencer Baird was head of both the Smithsonian Institution and the U.S. Fish Commission.

Herring and key of herring roe, Avoca plantation's fishery, Bertie County, N.C., 1881. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-007, Box 024, Image No. MNH-4924

Herring and a small keg of herring roe at M. F. Bond’s fish house, Edenton, N.C., 1881. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-007, Box 024, Image No. MNH-4924

As part of their research, the U. S. Fish Commission’s scientists visited at least two commercial herring and shad fisheries on the Albemarle Sound.

Setting a gill-net out to dry apparently in Edenton, N.C., ca. 1881. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-006, Box 015, Image No. MAH-4927

Setting a gill-net out to dry apparently in Edenton, N.C., 1881. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-006, Box 015, Image No. MAH-4927

One was that of Millard Fillmore “M. F. ” Bond and was located in Edenton, a town on the north side of the Albemarle Sound.

Warps and seine drying at Avoca plantation's fishery, 1881. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-006, Box 015, Image No. MAH-4918

Warps– the shad and herring seine’s lines for hauling in the fish–  hung up to dry at Avoca plantation’s fishery, 1881. Specially made at the country’s largest rope and net-making factory in Massachusetts, the largest were a mile in length. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-006, Box 015, Image No. MAH-4918

The U. S. Fish Commission’s photographer made the other images at the Capehart family’s fishery at Avoca, in Bertie County, just across the mouth of the Chowan River from Edenton.

One of the two steam-powered capstans used to haul in the shad and herring seines at Avoca, near Merry Hill, in Bertie County, N.C. The Capehart fishery there used both the capstans and horses to haul in the seines. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-006, Box 015, Image No. MAH-4912

One of the two steam-powered capstans used to haul in the shad and herring seines at Avoca, near Merry Hill, in Bertie County, N.C. The Capehart fishery there used both the capstans and horses to haul in the seines. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-006, Box 015, Image No. MAH-4912

There were dozens of commercial shad and herring fisheries in the Edenton vicinity at that time. M. F. Bond’s was one of the smallest; the Capehart’s was one of if not the largest.

In its heyday, just before the Civil War, thousands of African Americans worked in the shad and herring fisheries on that part of the Albemarle Sound. (At that time, many were free men and women, but many others were slave laborers.) They hauled giant seines, some of them large enough to reach across the entire width of a river, and they often caught tens of thousands of fish in a single haul.

The largest haul of shad and herring that I’ve seen recorded on Albemarle Sound was half a million fish– though of course that was a haul that probably lasted eight or ten hours and required horses and mules and dozens of men to pull the seine into shore.

Net boat in shallows next to pier, possibly in Edenton, N.C., possibly adjacent to Avoca fishing beach in Bertie County. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-006, Box 015, Image No. MAH-4923

Boy with a fishing pole on a pier probably by M. F. Bond’s fishery in Edenton, N.C. A barge for carrying a haul seine is in the shallows in foreground. Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-006, Box 015, Image No. MAH-4923

On a previous visit to the Smithsonian Archives, I found perhaps a dozen other U.S. Fish Commission photographs of the Capehart fishery.

I have included two of those photographs here: the one of the African American fishermen finishing a haul and the one of the steam-powered capstan. You can find the other photographs in a 13-part “Herring Week” series that I published here back in March and April of 2018.

The seven other photographs that I am featuring here today were new to me, and I am not sure how I missed them last time.

Loading boxes of herring onto railway cars at the railroad station, Edenton, N.C., 1881 (from 8 x 10" glass negative). Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-006, Box 015, Image No. MAH-4913

Loading boxes of salted herring onto railway cars at the railroad station, Edenton, N.C., 1881. Herring and shad from much of Albemarle Sound and its tributaries ended up in Edenton because of the rail line to Norfolk and from there to the rest of the Eastern Seaboard. From Smithsonian Institution Archives, Acc. 11-006, Box 015, Image No. MAH-4913

Taken together, the U. S. Fish Commission’s photographs remind us of a lost world of fishing people, most of them African American, and of the days when life on the Albemarle Sound revolved around the coming of the shad and herring.

Katsushika Hokusai, Fisherman, 1849. Courtesy, Freer Gallery of Art, National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian Institution

Katsushika Hokusai, Fisherman, Edo Period, 1849. Ink and color on silk. Courtesy, Freer Gallery of Art, National Museum of Asian Art

4 thoughts on “13 Views of the Sea

  1. This reminds me of the herring fishery that once existed in Bayfield, Wisconsin, a small town on Chequamegon Bay of Lake Superior near my home town of Ashland. For several years when I was a child in the ‘30s my parents would take us on an annual pilgrimage to watch the herring run at Bayfield when boats would offload tons of herring at the factory where visitors could watch workers, mostly women from the nearby Red Cliff Indian reservation prepare the fish for icing and salting. They had perfected a technique of slicing off the head with one motion and scraping out the innards with another at blinding speed. They must have been paid by the barrel because they worked liked demons, never looking up and never wasting a motion. It was fascinating for a child to watch and after more than 80 years I still have a vivid memory of that scene.

    Liked by 2 people

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