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