Crossing and Turning: the sea turtle trade in the 17th-century

The portrait of Prince Frederick Henry on horseback painted on a green sea turtle carapace, which became part of the Rijksmuseum collection in 1876, is to say the least, a curiosity. But how did this large turtle shell and the two others in the Rijksmuseum, end up in the Netherlands. Large sea turtles are not indigenous to European waters, even though now and then one ends up on the North Sea beaches as sightings recorded from 1707-2015 show. But it is more likely that the curious journey of the green sea turtle concerns an interesting aspect from 17th-century trade.

Turtle Trade Intro

Universal trade map with the navigation routes to the Eastern and Western Indies, Pierre du Val, 1686, coloured engraving, 42 x 58.5 cm, (London, National Maritime Museum, G201:1/32).

When we want to buy something nowadays, we can easily order it online and get fast delivery. How different was this in the 17th-century, when it could take months or longer before goods from the other side of the world arrived. The duration of the journey depended highly on the weather conditions, as without wind, making progress was not possible. There were also a lot of other problems one could face on the way. Currently, COVID-19 might make your wait a little longer, but at least you can trace the package. Imagine it never arriving, because the ship sank, was raided by pirates or decided to do a detour along the South-American coast…. Luckily we are not living in the 17th-century. In this blog we paint a vivid picture of a specific aspect of the trade back then: the turtle trade.

Turning Turtles

International trade in green sea turtles has existed since the European discovery of abundant Caribbean populations in the 16th century. Turtles were mainly reported by ship crews, which included explorers, settlers, traders and pirates. Their accounts often contain detailed observations of nature, next to information about their expeditions. Take for example the following description about turtles from the French pirate Alexandre Exquemelin (1645-1707):

Their eggs […] are found in such prodigious quantities along the sandy shores of those countries that, were they not frequently destroyed by birds, the sea would infinitely abound with tortoises. […] Certain it is that many times the ships, having lost their altitude through the darkness of the weather, have steered their course only by the noise of the tortoises swimming that way, and have arrived at these isles. (Alexandre Olivier Exquemelin, 1678).
Source: Alexandre Olivier Excquemelin. The History of the Buccaneers of America. (Boston: B.B Mussey & Company, 1853), 53. 

This report has a high fairytale character and it probably was exaggerated a bit. Still, it is definitely the case that sea turtles were plenty. They were a wanted product that supported the opening up of the Caribbean, as many activities in the New World tropics, such as exploration, colonization and buccaneering, were in some way dependent on the turtle. Mainly because it was an important food source for everyone.

Map of the Caribbean in the seventeenth century, Cornelis Danckerts II, 1680-1696, etching and engraving coloured with the hand, 502 x 580 mm, (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, NG-501-90). Turtles were mainly reported by ships that sailed in this area.

Since the animals are big, they could feed many mouths on the ships. Various reports mention their large proportions. Andrés Bernáldez (1450-1513), a Spanish priest aboard the ship of the colonizer Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), noted for example in 1494 about Cuba’s sea turtles: The sea was all thick with them, and they were of the very largest, so numerous that it seemed that the ships would run aground on them and were as if bathing in them. (Andrés Bernáldez 1494)
Callum Roberts. The Unnatural History of the Sea. (Washington D.C: Island Press, 2010), 63.

In 1680, Cornelius van Dykwrites in his Osteologia that a sea turtle was captured at Mompelier[1], which could carry three persons on its back. He also describes a case about a sea turtle that could carry a dozen of individuals, but this does not seem that likely. The early 17th-century print by the Italian painter and engraver Antonio Tempesta (1555-1630), represents an unrealistically big sea turtle, its size similar to that of the ship. These examples show however,that sea turtles left a clear impression on the beholder, and how anecdotal evidence could lead to stories far beyond accurate observation.

Sea Turtle, Antonio Tempesta, before 1650, etching, 95 x 137 mm, (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, RP-P-H-H-416).

Seafarers also sought after sea turtles as it was relatively easy to keep them fresh for long and capture them without much effort. During the breeding season the turtles were easy prey for a harpoon, as they drifted on the surface of the sea. On this print we see the hunt on sea turtles. The Latin inscription mentions that they were captured for ‘own use’. Whenever they went ashore, they got “turned turtle”. This term was introduced in the 18th century, and is based on the helpless state of the animal when it was turned on its back.

Hunt on sea turtles. Philips Galle (attributed to..), after Hans Bol, 1582-1633, engraving, 215 x 81 mm. (Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, RP-P-OB-6647).

If the captured green sea turtles were not eaten fresh on the ships, they were kept for the trade. Only the larger, robust and profitable turtles arrived in the home port. Upon arriving, the prestige attributed to the animal ensured that nothing went to waste. The flesh was eaten by the rich and royalty, while the shell was used in or for objects, as can be seen from the painted shells in the Rijksmuseum. Unpainted turtle shells could also be collected and exhibited. We know for instance that they were hanging on the wall of the Oost-Indisch Huis in Amsterdam in 1663, which was the headquarters of the Amsterdam chamber of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). In the ‘sael daer de Bewinthebbers vergaderen en van hunnen handel raatslagen…’[in the room were the commanders meet to discuss their trade], amongst Japanese and Chinese paintings depicting the main trading places, and many samples of spices and dyestuffs and other trading goods displayed in cabinets, there were exotic ‘uitheemsche wapenen’, exotic weapons such as lances, axes and turtle shields (O. Dapper, Historische beschryving der Stadt Amsterdam, 1663, p. 449).

The endangered turtle

The Western Caribbean was the epicenter for the trade in turtles. Columbus first observed the massing of turtles at the Islands that later were called the Caymans in 1503. His son Ferdinand (1488-1539) wrote: On Wednesday May 10 we were in sight of two very small and low islands, full of tortoises, as was all the sea about, in so much that they looked like little rocks; whence these Islands were called Las Tortugas (the turtles).
Source: James Parsons. Green Turtle and Man. (Gainesville, University of Florida Press,1962),  27-28.

Although this is the first known report that speaks of an encounter with turtles, the history of the commercial turtle trade probably began at the Bermudas, an important nesting and feeding area for the green sea turtle located on the sailing route between the West-Indies and Europe. As early as 1594 there is an account of a shipwrecked crew there, using the turtle’s oil for caulking a leaky vessel and later taking thirteen turtles for provision on board. A report from 1609 mentions many turtles at the Bermudas as well, producing an oil “as sweet as any butter … one of them sufficing 50 men a meal.”

The Bermudas were not the only Island group with an abundance of  turtles. They could also frequently be captured on Islands like The Bahamas, Yucatan and the Caymans, as can be seen from logbook entries. For example, a certain Captain James was recorded as delivering 50,603 pounds of salted turtle at Jamaica in 1657, valued at 3d. (pennies) a pound (Parsons 1962, p. 28)). Based on the average weight of a grown individual, this would indicate around 500 of them. Since this is only the amount recorded for one vessel, on one island, in one year, the total amount of killed turtles must have been enormous. This explains the rapid decline of the sea turtle population over the last centuries and the species now faces a measurable risk of extinction. The causes are many and vary by region. Nowadays climate change and the use of plastic are their biggest threat, but the principal reason for decline used to be the international demand for green turtle meat.

A turtle swims toward a plastic bag
A sea turtle eating plastic which they often mistake for a jelly fish (Image WWF see link)

An important question remains: If this many turtles have been killed for food, what happened to the shells after they got eaten? Maybe our next blogs can give some clarity on these matters. Next week we will focus on the use of turtle shell in all kinds of objects. We hope you will check in and don’t forget to follow us @TheTurtleTale for more updates about the project.

The Turtle Team


[1] It is not clear to which of the many Montpeliers is referred here.

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