The Pirates of the Caribbean: From spoil to sea turtle

The turtle research has already taken many unexpected turns, but that we would end up looking into pirates has been most surprising. Who would have thought that their accounts from the 17th century show detailed information about nature, next to – or even in – passages about horrendous attacks? Plundering and scientific inquiry apparently could go hand in hand. Fortunately for us, the pirates were also interested in green sea turtles. 

The Buccaneers of America 

The history of the Buccaneers of America written by Alexandre Olivier Exquemelin (1645-1707), a surgeon on a pirate ship, is one of the most famous pirate diaries. The book was originally published in Dutch as De Americaensche Zee-Roovers in 1678. Buccaneers were privateers in the 17th and 18th centuries who initially robbed Spanish ships and colonies, and mainly sailed the Caribbean sea. 

The Dutch frontispiece of the 1700 edition of The History of the Buccaneers of America written by Alexandre Olivier Excquemelin

Buccaneers are named after their method of food preparation. When on shore, they preserved different types of meat by smoking and drying it on a raised platform (a boucan) over a slow fire. The dried and salted meat was sold as a commodity, widely used to feed slaves and workers. These were often Miskito Indian ‘strikers’ who joined the ships and whose primary duty was to spear fish, turtle or manatee. The meat was ranked according to how ‘sweet’ or ‘fat’ it was, with a general agreement that sea turtle was the greatest delicacy. The turtles were also favourites because they could stay alive, and thus fresh, for months in the hold of a ship. It was vital food not only to the Buccaneers, but to all coastal residents of the Caribbean. 

The Buccaneers grew out of a period of warfare between European powers in the Caribbean in the 16th century. They were often officially chartered, or at least tolerated, by the English, French and Dutch since they attacked the ships and cities of the Spanish enemy. By the late 17th century however, the European countries started to suppress using Buccaneers as a military force, because peace with Spain had been restored. Additionally, the pirate depredations became too severe, disrupting France and England’s merchant traffic with Spanish America. This led many privateers to turn to unsanctioned piracy for their own benefit. 

A typical pirate activity as we know it. Depicted is a naval combat in which the Buccaneers take some Spanish ships. This illustration appears in The History of the Buccaneers of America

When the pirates were not engaged in warfare or theft, they made their living hunting feral cattle, pigs, and wild game, next to gathering logwood on Caribbean islands and the Central American mainland. Exquemelin gives insight in such pirate activities and often describes the fauna in these areas in great detail. His statement that many people do not know what turtles are and how many different species are in existence, introduces the following description: 

In several parts of America are found four distinct pieces of sea turtle. The first are so great, that they weigh two of three thousand pounds. The scales are so soft, that they may be cut with a knife. But these are not good to eat. The second sort is of an indifferent bigness and of a green colour; their scales are harder than the first, and of a very pleasant taste. Their flesh is very sweet, the fat green and pleasant and so prominent that when one has not eaten turtle meat for three or four weeks, it will drench your clothes in sweat and make your body feel heavy. The third is a little different in size from the second, only the head something bigger. It is called by the French cavana, and is not good meat. The fourth is named caret, being very like those of Europe. This sort keeps commonly among the rocks, whence they crawl out for their food, which is generally sea-apples; those other above feed on grass, which grows in the water on the sandy banks; these banks or shelves, for their pleasant green, resemble the delightful meadows of the United Provinces. Their eggs are almost like those of the crocodile, but without any shell, being only covered with a thin film; they are found in such prodigious quantities along the shores, that were they not frequently destroyed by birds, the sea would abound with turtles. (Alexandre Olivier Exquemelin, 1678, 52-53).

In general, pirate accounts do have to be read with great care, because information was often exaggerated to heighten the status of the pirates. Take for example the following passage about the Galapagos Islands, in which the hunting skills of the pirates get rather glorified:  

We caught and salted at this island a good number of goats and turtles. One man standing here on a little bay, in one day turned seventeen turtles, besides which number, our mosquito strikers brought several more. Captain Sharp, our commander, showed himself very ingenious in striking them, he performing it as well as the turtle strikers themselves. For these creatures have such little sense of fear, that they offer not to sink from the fishermen, but lie still till they are struck. Of goats we have taken, killed, and salted above a hundred in a day, and that with ease. (Alexandre Olivier Exquemelin, 1678, 217-218)

Exquemelin mentions that the turtles were killed whenever they appeared above the water with a kind of dart fixed at the end of a long pole. These instruments were superfluous when the animals went ashore to lay their eggs. In that case it was sufficient if two men turned the turtle on its back. Ships anchoring at these islands would divide the beach between them, so that each crew had sufficient space for the catching. Exquemelin claims that it was possible to turn at least 100 turtles within 400 meters and that they could be kept alive for a month on their backs, but this caused the fat to turn into slime and the meat becoming tasteless. Eventually the pirates probably took off the shells, which is hinted at in a violent entry about the killing of Spaniards by the indigenous white Indians. 

But the white Indians that inhabit a part of Chili have been always their enemies; and these are the people of prodigious bulk and tallness, who almost infest them with continual war, and when they happen to take any of them, they take of the plate of their breasts, as we do by a turtle, and cut out their hearts. (Alexandre Olivier Exquemelin, 1678, 334)

It is unclear how many turtles were truly caught by the Buccaneers and what the purpose of the catch was. Most of them were probably eaten on the ships, but if the pirates turned as many as they say they did, some of the animals must have been used for different purposes. A question also remains as to what was done with the shells. Could they possibly have been taken back to Europe as an exotic rarity? Our upcoming blog about turtles in the Kunst und Wunderkammer, might give more clarity on this matter. 

Dampier’s voyages 

William Dampier and the Dutch frontispiece of his book A New Voyage Round the World

Alexandre Exquemelin was not the only buccaneer to describe nature. The English explorer and pirate William Dampier (1651-1715) is also known for his observations and analysis of natural history, which even helped Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) develop their scientific theories. Dampier was also the first Englishman to explore parts of Australia and circumnavigate the world three times. He joined the Buccaneer pirates on their journey to the Caribbean region in 1679. The books he wrote based on his observations brought him from obscurity to celebrity. His best-selling accounts of his voyages: A New Voyage Round the World (1697), Voyages and Descriptions (1699) and A Voyage to New Holland (1703, 1709), made travel writing the most popular form of secular literature, fueling the imagination of for example Daniël Defoe (1660-1731) when writing Robinson Crusoe. Dampier’s writings furthermore contain the first known example of many English words like ‘barbecue’, ‘avocado’, ‘chopsticks’ and ‘sub-spieces’, and record the first English language recipes for guacamole and mango chutney. 

Since Dampier visited all five continents, he was able to compare and contrast animals across the globe. His observations of sea turtles on the Galapagos Islands led him to state that they were ‘bastard’ green turtles compared to those in the Caribbean. He described how in different parts of the world different types of green sea turtles could be found as relating to their ‘flesh and bigness’. Elsewhere in the South seas lived green turtles resembling the size of the smallest Hawksbill turtle, but the ones he came across at the Galapagos Islands were the largest he had seen, some with bellies ‘five feet wide’. Their shell was thicker than any other green turtle in the West or East Indies. He seems to suggest location dependent differences between species and actually could have prefigured Darwin in this way.

The description of different fish that were encountered by Dampier on his journey. F.3 ‘a fish caught on the coast of New Holland.’ F. 8 ‘A Cuttle found close to New Holland.’  F.9 ‘A flying fish caught on open sea.’ F.1 ‘The chromis chromis.’  F.6  A remora found on the back of sharks.’ The illustration appears in A New Voyage Round the World

In A New Voyage Round the World Dampier inserted a detailed account of migratory patterns of the green sea turtle in the Caribbean, Atlantic and the Pacific. This further shows his advanced thinking, since in his time Daniel Defoe’s old schoolmaster for example claimed in a pamphlet that swallows migrated to the moon in winter. Dampier does not mention actually having seen the migration of turtles, but must have assumed they did based upon his observations. He saw  many turtles mating in Ecuador in December 1684, but did not encounter nesting females in the Galapagos when he arrived in June (and the egg-laying season had come to an end).

“In the South sea likewise, the Galapagos is the place where they live the biggest part of the year; yet they go from thence at their Season over to the Main, to lay their eggs, which is 100 leagues the nearest place.” (William Dampier 1697, 107) 

Dampier enjoyed eating turtle meat and remarked that the best time to catch the animals was when they were mating in the water. The strikers speared the female, hauling aboard the males at the same, which ‘while engendering, do not easily forsake their female’. Interestingly, while shipwrecked in 1701 at Ascension, an Island in the Atlantic Ocean, Dampier ordered his men to capture extra turtles to welcome two ships that were spotted making their way towards the beach. Unfortunately for them, they disappeared out of sight and the turtles were released. This again shows that the animals were often not killed immediately, but could also be held captive on shore. 

Tortuga Island

The island Tortuga as depicted in an unknown 17th century source. It can be imagined that the outlines of the island reminded visitors of a turtle

Pirates not only wrote about turtles, their most important place of refuge was also called after them: Tortuga – meaning ‘turtle’ in English. The Buccaneers were in fact the true Pirates of the Caribbean, as seen from their presence in the Caribbean seas. Anyone who has seen the films, knows Tortuga as the major centre and haven of piracy. It was named that by Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), because the form of the Island resembled the animal. It generally appeared to be a lawless place and was therefore pirate heaven. From 1630 onwards Tortuga was divided into French and English colonies, which allowed the Buccaneers to use it as their main base of operations.

It has turned out that pirate accounts are a valuable source when looking into the behaviour of sea turtles and the role they played in 17th century society. We will never know if the Buccaneers brought the Rijksmuseum shell back to Europe, but we can’t help but let our imagination run wild. It either way seems that a turtle shield with a depiction of Blackbeard, captain Jack Sparrow, or any other famous pirate, would have been just as fitting – if not more – as our shield with the image of Frederick Henry. 

Benjamin Cole, Blackbeard the Pirate, 1724, engraving in A General History of Pyrates by Charles Johnson (which could be a pseudonym of Daniël Defoe). Edward Teach (c. 1680 – 1718), better known as Blackbeard, was an English pirate who operated around the West-Indies as well. Little is known about his early life, but he may have been a privateer before turning to illegal piracy. Teach has been the inspiration for many books and films. Much of what is known about him can be sourced to Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates, published in Britain in 1724. This book has been influential in shaping conceptions about pirates. It contains bibliographies of contemporary pirates, next to the pirate flag the Jolly Roger and the skull and bones design.

Until our next blog.

The Turtle Team


Dampier, William. A New Voyage Round the World, Volume 1. London: J. Knapton, 1699  

Exquemelin, Alexandre Olivier. The History of the Buccaneers of America. Boston: B.B Mussey & Company, 1853

Green, Derek. ‘Long-Distance Movements of Galapagos Green Turtles.’ Journal of Herpetology 18, no. (1984): 121-30. 

Little, Benerson. The Buccaneer’s Realm: Pirate Life on the Spanish Main, 1674-1688. Washington D.C.: Potomac Books, Inc., 2007 

Preston, Diana, Michael Preston. Pirate Of Exquisite Mind: The Life Of William Dampier. Explorer, Naturalist, Buccaneer. London: Corgi books, 2004 

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