Facts and Fallacies: A Columbus/Indigenous Day Fish Story

Guest Author: Nick Kramer
Editor: Patrick Cooney

This is not meant to be a celebration or endorsement of Mr. Columbus and the acts he allowed while Governor of Hispaniola.  Rather, we dive in to take a look at a very particular occurrence on one of his return trips to the Western Hemisphere where he encountered indigenous people using, perhaps, one of the most interesting methods ever employed to catch fish.

Have you heard the poem about Columbus?

In fourteen hundred ninety two,
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
He had three ships and left from Spain;
he sailed through sunshine, wind, and rain.
He sailed by night; he sailed by day;
he used the stars to find his way.
Columbus sailed on to find some gold;
To bring back home, as he’d been told.
He returned again in fourteen hundred ninety four;
what does this have to do with fish?

The fishy encounter of interest occurred during Columbus’ second voyage to the West Indies during 1494.  It is believed that Columbus’ original journals from this time are no longer on this planet in a legible form but there remain several abridgments.  Below is an excerpt of Ferdinand Columbus’ “The Life of The Admiral Christopher Columbus by His Son Ferdinand” translated to English in Awnsham and John Churchill’s Collection of Voyages and Travels, Volume II:

In one of those channels they spy’d a canoe of Indian fishermen, who very quietly, without the least concern, expected the boat which was making towards them, and being come near, made a sign to them in it to attend till they had done fishing.

Their manner of fishing was so strange and new to our men, that they were willing to comply with them. It was thus: they had ty’d some small fishes they call Reverso by the tail, which run themselves against other fish, and with a certain roughness they have from the head to the middle of the back they stick fast to the next fish they meet; and when the Indians perceive it drawing their line, they hand them both in together. And it was a tortoise our men saw so taken by those fishermen, that fish clinging to the neck of it, where they generally fasten, being by that means safe from the other fish biting them; and we have seen them fasten upon vast sharks.”

Even a fish scientists may ask themselves: What is a Reverso?  It is a Remora, of course.

This passage from Columbus’ journals is a fascinating insight into the early indigenous people that lived somewhere between Jamaica and Cuba and perhaps is the first account of “fishing” in the Americas.  This method of fishing was also observed by other explorers in other parts of the world, namely Mozambique and the Cape of Good Hope.

But is it really a “certain roughness” that helps these fish cling to their targets?  Other descriptions describe it as “a certain very tender skin which appears like a large purse,” that is then thrown over their prey such as in the illustration above which depicts this fishing method near Zanzibar.  So which is it?  Neither; the part that helps the fish cling is actually a highly modified dorsal fin!  The fin is essentially “butterflied” right down the middle so that it lays along the back of the fish.  The movement of this fin is what generates the suction.

The above discussed uses of remora for catching fish are not the first mentions of these fishes in history.  Nearly a millennium and a half prior to these observations, the European’s distant relatives actually believed that the Remora could slow down or even stop a ship.  Don’t believe me?  The ancient greek translation of the genus for the White and Live Sharksuckers, Echeneis, is “to hold a ship:” Echein meaning “to hold” and naus meaning “a ship.”  The Common Remora, Remora remora, is another example.  In Latin, remora means “delay or hindrance.”

Pliny the Elder, a Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher, wrote this of the remora in his book Naturalis Historia (77-79 AD):

The echeneis is a small fish that is often found on rocks. It has the ability to slow the passage of ships by clinging to their hulls. It is also the source of a love-charm and a spell to slow the litigation in courts, and can be used to stop fluxes of the womb in pregnant women and to hold back the birth until the proper time…”

We laugh when reading such antiquated beliefs that a roughly 36 inch fish could hold back a ship, but somebody thought that and it was accepted to a point that two different species were named after that belief.  And then how about the whole love-charm and stopping a pregnancy part?  Supposedly, the fish were ground up and used in portions with the belief that if it could stop a ship in the roughest of waves it could also prevent premature ejaculation and/or slow the development of a child in the womb!  But it wasn’t just the Europeans who were naive, natives from Madagascar placed dried remora around the necks of unfaithful spouses to get them to “stick” with their spouse.  Maybe it was the “sticking around” or maybe it was just no one wanted to be around a person with dead fish draped around their neck.

On this day that historically has celebrated the “discovery of America” this is a nice story of the ingenuity of the indigenous Americans and the naivety of the early Europeans when they both encountered the “Reversus.”  We have made many leaps and bounds in understanding our fishes, their populations and how to manage them, but we still have a way to go: I mean, there are still people out there that think a catfish’s barbels will sting you.  If you know of any other fish fallacies or fish facts share them with us on Twitter (@FisheriesBlog or @FisheriesPod) or Facebook using the hashtags #fishfacts or #fishfallacies.

To hear more about Remoras, including commentary from Dr. Chris Kenaley, check out the latest episode of The Fisheries Podcast at www.thefisheriespodcast.com or on most of your favorite podcatcher apps.

About the Author:

Nick Kramer grew up fishing farm ponds in southwest Iowa.  Eventually his curiosity led him to Iowa State University where he majored in Animal Ecology with the emphasis on Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences.  After graduating he worked for a year sampling for Pallid Sturgeon on the Mississippi River near Cape Girardeau before beginning his master’s work on Paddlefish exploitation on the Mississippi River.  He now is employed by the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, and Tourism as a District Fisheries Biologist managing public waters in six counties of northeast Kansas.  In his spare time he created and hosts The Fisheries Podcast, a weekly podcast that shares the stories of the amazing people and projects that make up fisheries science.


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