The History of Bacalhau

Santa Maria Manuela going strong

Santa Maria Manuela - with its links to Bacalhau

Jaime notes that with all the emphasis on the large cruise ships and the number of passengers arriving in the port recently it was good to see the return of the Santa Maria Manuela a couple of weeks ago with its origins firmly rooted in the bacalhau trade. With a capacity for just 44 guests she was last week cruising around Madeira, Porto Santo and the Desertas before returning to Funchal on Thursday to disembark/embark passengers, departing on Friday for Tenerife – prices from €600 – €1000. Her current position can always be tracked on the VesselFinder app on the tab above.

At 85 years old she represents an iconic part of Portuguese Maritime history being one of the last remaining vessels of the Portuguese ‘ White Fleet ‘ which every summer would set sail from the ports of the Mainland to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland to catch the Bacalhau by hand in small dorys and salt the codfish to preserve them before returning in the late Autumn. Given the treacherous conditions of bad weather and dense fog on the fishing grounds, many didn’t return.

The “faithful friend”

Discovered by the Vikings, who captured it abundantly in the cold seas of the Nordic countries, codfish has been considered “the bread of tides” in Portugal, and is now known as its “faithful friend”.

The long and curious relationship of this seafaring nation with a dried fish that isn’t captured along its own coast starts in the 14th century, after commercial treaties with England which predicted the exchange of salt for bacalhau.

In the mid-1500s, during the Portuguese discoveries, an expedition headed to India discovered Newfoundland. And so began Portuguese cod fishing.

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A dory from Santa Maria Manuela

Portuguese fishermen were eventually driven out by English and French corsairs, who dominated fishing activities in the region.

For centuries bacalhau was a food exclusive to the royal house and aristocracy, only spreading to the interior of Portugal in the 19th century due to ease of conservation and transport.

On the 9th of July 1920, the Companhia Portuguesa de Pesca (Portuguese Fishing Company) is founded by four small shipowners from the trawling trade, each of them owning a single vessel. Setting up headquarters in the old facilities of the Fábrica de Algodão da Companhia Lisbonense (“Lisbon Company Cotton Factory”), former São Paulo Convent, in Olho de Boi, Almada, the company appeared in the context of an expanding canning and fishing industry. 

However, exponential growth of bacalhau consumption begins with the Estado Novo. Up to that point Portugal imported most of the codfish it consumed. Portuguese fishing companies didn’t work efficiently, and the sector was disorganized, irregular and lacked investment. All while the population went hungry.

To reduce foreign dependency and guarantee the country’s food supply, Salazar centralizes the organization of fishing activities in the State, encourages the creation of cooperatives and cartelizes supply. This is how the famous Codfish Campaign begins in 1934, aiming to turn this fish into Portugal´s staple food. 

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Sailing from Belém, Lisbon, the cod fishing ships were luggers, sailing ships and motor-ships, which towed dories, small wooden boats used for line fishing, and had the capacity to carry between 900 and 950 tons of cod.

This type of fishing was a hard and dangerous job. Fishermen had to face wind and swell, the risk of hitting an iceberg and frequent fog. Many didn´t make it back to the bacalhau fishing ships and died at sea. The transition to trawling with modern boats was tardy and slow, which eventually led to the sector’s demise.

During World War II, Portugal maintained its fishing activity. When crossing the Atlantic Ocean, two cod fishing ships, “Maria de Gloria” and “Delães” were sunk by Nazi submarines. An agreement with the Allies would determine that these Portuguese cod fishing ships be painted white to signal Portugal´s neutrality in the conflict and allow them to safely sail the Atlantic, thus becoming known as the “White Fleet”.

The “Creoula”, launched in the Tagus river on the 10th of May 1937, was used until 1973 in cod fishing campaigns off Newfoundland and Greenland, and set a sailing track record equivalent to more than 20 round-the-world trips. Currently used as an instruction ship by the Portuguese Navy, it is one of the fleet’s last survivors, alongside “Santa Maria Manuela”, “Argus” and “Gazela”.

After the conflict, cod fishing became an emblem for the corporate system. In 1957, Portugal is already the largest salt codfish producer in the world, and the import substitution level reaches nearly 80%. By this time, wheat and codfish were the commodities with the greatest impact on both the country’s diet and its trade balance.

Historically, the codfish curing process started on board the cod fishing ships, where it was salted immediately. After reaching land, the fish was washed to remove all the salt and dried until dehydrated. The bacalhau drying process took place outdoors in the Algarve, on the South Bank of the Tagus, in Setúbal, Figueira da Foz, Aveiro and Viana do Castelo. It was generally a job performed by women.

With an area of 360 hectares, the Samouco Salt Pans in Alcochete were the main saline farming centre in the Lisbon region between the 1930s and 1970s. The salt left there in boats destined for cod salting in distant Newfoundland or warehouses in Cais do Sodré, which supplied the capital city.

The Sociedade Nacional de Armadores de Bacalhau (National Society of Codfish Shipowners) was one of the three factories in Alcochete where bacalhau was dried and prepared. Today only the building remains, right at the entrance of the complex. 

1974 was the last year a Portuguese cod fishing fleet set sail for Newfoundland, coinciding with the fall of the dictatorship in Portugal. 

Nevertheless, the Portuguese still love bacalhau today and it is said we have 1001 ways of cooking it. Presently, 70% of codfish comes from Norway and the Portuguese are responsible for consuming 20% of the global catch, always taking sustainable consumption, climatic change and gastronomic versatility into consideration.

The Santa Maria Manuela in detail

The description of the boat is taken from sections of the operator’s own website

The Santa Maria Manuela offers environmentally conscious hands-on sailing and island-hopping voyages, diving expeditions and sail training experiences.  No previous sailing experience is necessary, and guests are invited to get involved in all aspects of sailing under the careful guidance of the professional crew.

In 2022 the Santa Maria Manuela received a complete comfort renovation which, below deck, makes the ship one of the most modern and comfortable tall ships in the world, whilst complementing the ship’s unique heritage.


The wheel is astern of the bridge, the nerve centre of the Santa Maria Manuela, allowing the captain to give directional instructions to the helm (driver). From here the helm also gets a clear view of the whole deck and the sails and can keep an eye on the sailors as they trim for the best speed. 

Guests are invited to take the helm by day or night.  Its an incredible feeling to be in command of this 1930s 4-masted schooner as she ploughs through the waves. This is also a popular place for guests to socialise with a glass of wine in hand as the sun sets.

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The bridge is the nerve centre of the Santa Maria Manuela, and is located next to the wheel allowing the captain to give directional instructions to the helm (driver). From here the captain also gets a clear view of the whole deck and the sails.  The SMM is equipped with modern navigation and communication systems, but we are obliged to also carry paper charts on which the officers of the watch plot our course.  Guests are always welcome on the bridge, and there is nothing our offices like more than to give instruction in navigation, weather forecasting or how to use a sextant.

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It was in these wooden boats that the fishermen spent twelve hours in the cold, often lost in the fog that covered the chilly waters of Newfoundland and Greenland. The dorys were numbered with lots drawn by the fishermen at the beginning of each campaign. The most superstitious refused some numbers as bad luck. The sailors fished several miles away from the Ship, carrying only a piece of cod and bread to eat. Fishing was done by handline hundreds of meters long loaded with hooks and bait. The more cod they caught, the higher the profit for the fisherman.  The competition was rife, but it wasn’t without risk.  It was not uncommon for overladen dorys to sink taking their catch and their master to a frozen and watery grave.   


The deck once housed 50 dories loaded one on top of the other, with space still for gutting and cleaning the day’s catch before it was salted and racked for the long journey back to Portugal. Today the Santa Maria Manuela’s deck is known as one of the widest open decks in the tall ship world. The recent addition of some comfortable bench seating, some of which convert into buffet tables, and a bar allows the ship to be easily converted into a natural event venue for festivals, and an ideal host ship for environmental expeditions, film locations and business events. The bench seating around the aft skylight offers the helm some welcome company creating a convivial atmosphere. The bench on the poop deck, hidden from the wind by the steering house, offers shelter for those looking for some privacy. The deck is 62 meters long and is easily adapted for all event solutions. Her capacity alongside the quay is 70 seated for dinner under the awning and 200 on foot.

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Much more details and gallons of photos on the Santa Maria Manuelawebsite

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