The End of Turtle Soup

How food fashion changed the economy of the Cayman Islands. 

Turtleman with a boat load of turtles, c.1900. Courtesy of Monroe County Public Libraries and the Key West Art & Historical Society.

Imagine an affluent group of men who paid to spend a day at their club feasting on a decadent array of dishes. Yet, while the ordinary menu would satisfy most, these were not typical diners. They came for one reason: green turtles. Turtle soup. Turtle steak. Turtle salad. Founded in 1796, the Hoboken Turtle Club lured members, from politicians to literary figures, well into the 20th century. While membership was somewhat exclusive, the club routinely announced the arrival of ‘fine green turtles’ and invited all who could afford a ticket to dine on turtle for breakfast and dinner. So delicious was its turtle soup that the recipe was shared in newspapers across the country.  

The fatty and lean parts of the green turtle had long fed an array of people, including slaves, sailors, settlers and indigenous populations. By the 18th century, increasingly affluent consumers from London to Miami enjoyed turtle soup and, by the mid-20th century, a rising American middle class, eager to mimic the tastes of the well-to-do, consumed ever more green turtle. Rather than sitting in high-end restaurants with white tablecloths, shoppers bought canned real and mock turtle soup for the family dining table. Canning companies, such as Campbell’s, Heinz or Worthmore, sought to meet the demand. The 1930s can of A. Granday Clear Turtle Soup manufactured in Key West, Florida claimed that its turtle meat came from the waters around the Florida Keys: ‘Caught in the neighborhood, the turtles are taken from the sea directly to our kettles.’ Despite the local branding, this was far from the truth. The turtles came from much further south, from the tropical and semi-tropical waters of the Caribbean. 

Weighing as much as 600 pounds, green turtles spend the bulk of their lives foraging alone. Due to their size and abundance, early European settlers easily caught them on the beaches where they came to nest, or in the shallow water as they searched for food. Over time, however, they were increasingly caught in the nets of turtle hunters, the most successful of whom came from the Cayman Islands. 

Unlike many other Caribbean islands, the Caymanian economy was built on neither sugar nor bananas. Except for mahogany logging and cotton production, both of which proved to be shortlived industries, early settlers tended to look to the sea for a livelihood. Caymanians salvaged wrecks and hunted sea turtles until, by the 19th century, overhunting had extirpated them. 

Unwilling and unable to stimulate an alternative industry, Caymanian men developed special equipment and techniques to engage in long-distance hunting of green turtles across the Caribbean. Following their prey, from the 1840s these turtlemen travelled to the waters around Cuba, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Colombia, hitting a crescendo at the turn of the 20th century. They often triggered the ire of foreign governments seeking to assert control of their waters. In 1904, for example, a Nicaraguan armed patrol vessel seized and arrested the crews of five turtle-fishing vessels for unlawfully hunting in national waters. International observers were concerned that the incident almost caused a direct conflict after the Royal Navy sent the HMS Retribution to investigate. Turtle-fishing conflicts exposed maritime boundary disputes and difficulties in nationalising ecological marine resources. Despite such conflicts, Caymanian turtlemen continued to capture and ship live green turtles to markets in England and, after 1914, directly to buyers in the US. 

Yet the sustainability of the turtle industry was not dependent on labour and technology alone. Turtlemen also relied on the availability and accessibility of their prey, which became more challenging due to overfishing and restrictions on hunting in foreign waters. By the middle of the 20th century, only a handful of schooners continued to make the lengthy voyages, as Caymanians instead sought work on merchant or cruise ships, as diggers on oil fields, or in Grand Cayman’s fledgling tourism sector. 

The turtle industry might have survived a few decades more had environmentalists such as Archie Carr Jr, a Floridian herpetologist, not directed people’s attention toward the species. While he empathised with the local communities, Carr was committed to conserving and, if possible, regenerating the dwindling turtle populations. Based in Costa Rica, Carr developed a conservation programme at one of the largest green turtle nesting sites in the Caribbean. Working with the turtlemen, Carr tracked green turtles to learn more about their migratory patterns and tally their numbers. Thanks to his efforts and partnerships with scientists, foreign governments and local populations, Carr successfully called attention to the crisis facing sea turtles. 

With the passing in 1973 of the Endangered Species Act, the US joined international conservation efforts to stop the trade in endangered species. Thus, the most important turtle market was closed. In doing so, the core Caymanian industry of the past century ended. Tourism and finance have since become the principal sectors of the Caymanian economy, but turtle fishing is still commemorated and sea turtles remain an official symbol of Caymanian heritage and identity.

 

Sharika D. Crawford is the author of The Last Turtlemen of the Caribbean: Waterscapes of Labor, Conservation, and Boundary Making (University of North Carolina Press, 2020).