“We must have both turtle and vegetable soups.”
“… and turtle served in the shell…”
Thus said fictional character, Caroline Mortimer, mistress of fictional sugar plantation, Amity, in Andrea Levy’s historical fiction “The Long Song” (2010). Although a fictional conversation, it does reveal what many historians have found in their research about the gastronomic extent of Jamaica’s plantation days: turtle meat was once greatly indulged in by the colonialists, as well as exported.
The Trade in Turtles
According to a 1906 Scientific American article on the turtle trade, Kingston was the headquarters of this unique trade. The article provided the following description on how fishers went about catching the turtles:
These fishers of strange “fish” (the turtle’s technical name) stretch nets of twine from rock to rock, and the moment the turtle feels itself entangled, it clings tenaciously to the meshes. The schooners in due time return to Kingston with from eighty to a hundred and fifty of these queer “fish,” which are promptly deposited in pallisaded inclosures flooded by the sea, and here they are fed upon a certain kind of herbage known as turtle grass, and taken as required.
The turtles were shipped live, laid on their backs and lashed to the ship’s deck during sea transport so they could not move, and starved during the whole journey.
These “pallisaded inclosures” were called turtle crawles, which were common around Jamaica’s coastline during the country’s colonial days. Places such as Turtle Crawle River in Portland (referred to as Turtle Crawle Harbour by Cundall ) attests to this once rampant and accepted practice (Senior 2003). Port Royal also had a large number of turtle crawles during the early years of English settlement when turtling was big business.
Turtle Flesh vs Turtle Fat (or Does it Even Matter?)
The European colonisers did not introduce eating turtles in Jamaica. In fact they were introduced to eating turtle meat by the Tainos. The Tainos maintained huge turtle crawles along the seashore in which they kept turtles they’d previously caught until they were needed. While they ate turtle flesh, it was turtle fat they highly valued; a taste that the Europeans also developed.
Overall, the colonialists did not discriminate which parts of the turtle to eat. According to Charles Rampini (1873, pg. 167), a 19th century visitor to Jamaica:
As an article of diet turtle is in high repute all over the West Indies. Turtle steak, turtle fins stewed, turtle liver, turtle tripe, and above all turtle eggs, are delicacies which it is almost worth while taking a voyage to Jamaica to procure.
The different turtle populations in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean have been decimated over the centuries, especially between 1600 and 1800, due to rampant hunting practices both for local consumption and international export. In fact the numbers of Green turtles, the type of turtle that were eaten, have declined significantly because of over-harvesting for its meat and eggs. The Loggerhead turtle’s flesh is inedible and so was not eaten; so too the Hawksbill turtle, although its shell was used to make tortoise shell carvings. Several of such from 17th century Port Royal are on display at the Institute of Jamaica (IOJ) (Senior 2003).
Turtles are on the list of protected animals in Jamaica; however, both the Green and Hawksbill species are ecologically and functionally extinct (Wilson 2011).
Until next time…
Cundall, Frank (1909). Jamaica Place-Names. Kingston: The Institute of Jamaica.
Rampini, Charles (1873). Letters from Jamaica: the Land of Streams and Woods. Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas.
Scientific American, Vol. 95, November 17, 1906, pp. 365-366.
Senior, Olive (2003). Encyclopedia of Jamaican Heritage. St. Andrew: Twin Guinep Publishers Ltd.
University of Florida Digital Collections. Photographic Print: Green turtle on board a schooner.
Wilson, Byron (2011). Sea turtles, ‘strong back’ and extinction. Jamaica Observer, Sunday, January 16, 2011.