Strictly Facts: A Guide to Caribbean History and Culture

Turtle Soup, Maritime Boundaries, andTurtlemen in the Cayman Islands: An Environmental Odyssey with Dr. Sharika Crawford

October 18, 2023 Alexandria Miller Episode 69
Strictly Facts: A Guide to Caribbean History and Culture
Turtle Soup, Maritime Boundaries, andTurtlemen in the Cayman Islands: An Environmental Odyssey with Dr. Sharika Crawford
Strictly Facts: A Guide to Caribbean History and +
Become a supporter of the show!
Starting at $3/month
Support
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Our guest, award-winning author and U.S. Naval Academy professor, Dr. Sharika Crawford,  takes us on a historical journey to the heart of the Cayman Islands, unearthing the complex relationship between the environmental landscape and the Islands; inhabitants through turtle soup. Together, we traverse the Cayman's fascinating evolution, from the aftermath of slave emancipation to the rise and subsequent fall of the turtle hunting industry.

Venture with us as we uncover the dynamics between the Caymanian sea turtle hunters and the British government, the Islands' two-tier racial hierarchy and its lasting implications on labor even today, and the repercussions of the environmental movement in the 20th century, focusing on conservation policies and their significant impact on Caymanian communities. Join us as we illuminate the often-overlooked role of the Cayman Islands' turtle hunters in the broader Caribbean narrative and global food consumption.

Sharika Crawford is Professor of History at the United States naval Academy in Annapolis. In spring 2023, she was named the inaugural Speedwell Professor of International Studies, an honor she will hold until 2028. Crawford's primary research focuses on modern Latin America, specifically, Colombia and the interstitial places in the circum-Caribbean like the Archipelago of San Andrés and Providencia and the Cayman Islands. Her first monograph The Last Turtlemen of the Caribbean: Waterscapes of Labor, Conservation, and Boundary Making published by the University of North Carolina Press received an Honorable Mention from the Elsa Goveia Prize in Caribbean History Committee of the Association of Caribbean Historians in 2021. It has been widely reviewed in national and international venues. Additionally, Crawford has published articles and essays in the Global South, Historia Critica, International Journal of Maritime History, Latin American Research Review, and the New West Indian Guide/Nieuwe West-Indische Gids. Dr. Crawford has also received several prestigious grants and fellowships from the American Philosophical Society, the Fulbright U.S. Program, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and most recently, the Digital Library of the Caribbean (dLOC) OER in Caribbean Studies stipend. 

Support the show

Connect with Strictly Facts - Instagram | Facebook | Twitter | LinkedIn | Youtube

Looking to read more about the topics covered in this episode? Subscribe to the newsletter at www.strictlyfactspod.com to get the Strictly Facts Syllabus to your email!

Want to Support Strictly Facts?

  • Rate the Show
  • Leave a review on your favorite podcast platform
  • Share this episode with someone who loves Caribbean history and culture
  • Send us a DM or voice note to have your thoughts featured on an upcoming episode
  • Share the episode on social media and tag us
  • Donate to help us continue empowering listeners with Caribbean history and education

Produced by Breadfruit Media

Speaker 1:

Welcome to Strictly Facts, a guide to Caribbean history and culture, hosted by me, alexandra Miller. Strictly Facts teaches the history, politics and activism of the Caribbean and connects these themes to contemporary music and popular culture. Alrighty, strictly Facts family, thank you so much for tuning to another episode and journey across Caribbean history. With Strictly Facts, a guide to Caribbean history and culture, and me, of course, your host, alexandra Miller, we're returning to a part of the Caribbean that we've ventured to a little bit before, although very briefly, as I've discussed, as you might remember, the long history of connection to and, at one point, dependency of Jamaica in this place, and so in today's episode, if you've guessed, we are talking about the Cayman Islands and, different from the previous episode though, the indispensable role the Cayman Islands played in what some might consider, you know, luxury seafood consumption, particularly in the US and the UK, and, of course, the environmental ramifications that happened as a result. And so I have a great guest joining us for this very timely discussion on Cayman Islands environmental history Dr Shreika Crawford speedwell, professor of international studies and professor of history at the US Naval Academy, and the author of a award winning book, the Last Turtle Men of the Caribbean Waterscapes of Labor Conservation and Boundary Making. Dr Crawford, thank you so much for joining us. How are you doing today? I am great and thank you for having me. Alexandria, wonderful, wonderful to have you. Please tell us a bit about yourself. You know where in the Caribbean you may have connections to and how you got even interested in doing this work on environmental history in Latin America and the Caribbean?

Speaker 2:

Yeah, so I'll begin by saying that I don't have familial connections to the Caribbean. I am from Southwestern Michigan, as far as I understand. You know my parents and grandparents with their southern roots in Tennessee and Mississippi, as far as I know. But I have had a love for first Latin America and later the Caribbean since I was a child, because I happened to participate in a bilingual program when I was in first grade, so I kind of learned Spanish very early, had some encounters with teachers and others who sort of situated me in part of Latin American and Caribbean communities. People would think are you Panamanian, are you Dominican? They're trying to situate me in that space and so I think for me it raised the awareness that there are obviously communities of people of African descent, something that wasn't necessarily explicitly taught in my classes whether I was in K through 12, and a little bit more so when I was in college. So I ended up becoming more interested in the Caribbean, particularly the Circum Caribbean, because I had a strong interest in the experiences of people of African, latin American background and I had an opportunity in 1999, which was a very long time ago, the summer before I graduated college to do an internship in Washington DC, and part of that internship allowed me to spend a few weeks in Venezuela, and when I was there I happened to meet people from all over the region, including neighboring Columbia, and with the Colombian participants of this event that I was participating in, I met some people from a small set of islands called San Andres and Provencia, which are on the western side of the Caribbean. I had never heard of these islands, couldn't know where they were located on a map, and it struck me as kind of odd because I had a pretty good familiarity with the region. I started to learn that they don't want to be spoken to in Spanish, though many of them did speak Spanish. They wanted to be spoken to in English. They had a Protestant background and eventually it piqued my interest enough to get a full, bright About two years later to study in Columbia and study these communities and which I learned that they were not just a group of people from all over the world, but also from all over the world. And I learned that they were not just a group of people from all over the world, but they were also from all over the world. I was a PhD at the University of Pittsburgh. I still was very much a kind of a Latin Americanist, but I was a Latin Americanist who intersected with the Anglophone Caribbean communities and I pursued a PhD project simply about those islands, trying to expand their cultural makeup and, more importantly, the conflicts that they appeared to be having with mainland Spanish speaking Catholic Columbians, which raises a lot of questions. Ironically, I wasn't trained to do environmental history and so my early graduate education wasn't really particularly focused on the environment. I had no previous interest in animal studies or working on sea turtles and I had cursory knowledge about the Cayman Islands and I started my first tenure track position at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, maryland, and I had to do what tenure track professors need to do, which is to publish, and I wasn't able to spend some additional time turning my dissertation into a book. I had to look for alternative projects and I realized that in the material I was gathering, these small island communities kept talking about sea turtles and there were, like these, conflicts sort of about turtle fishing, and I just kind of pulled a thread and that thread led me to the Cayman Islands and so my first book project for listeners who are studying maybe in graduate school, it's not always your dissertation that becomes your first book. My project really came out of a different trajectory and we'll have an opportunity to talk about that research related to sea turtles and in the history of the Cayman Islands. But up until you know, maybe nine years ago, I didn't have any previous connections to the Cayman Islands or really the Eastern Caribbean. I came out of a very different trajectory, looking at Latin America and English speaking communities that are kind of housed in Latin American states.

Speaker 1:

I have quite a few listeners and peers, of course, who are grad students, so I think that advice is, you know, one that even for me was really helpful in thinking of. It's not always you know, the dissertation. That is your first book and it's a place for us to just enter and intersect with varying other maybe, what we might think are peripheral you know, ideas or interest, but you know it doesn't have to be the first book. So thank you for saying that, just for all the grad students, including myself, who are, you know, listening, etc. But I do want us, of course, to jump into our discussion on sea turtles and on Cayman Islands, and so, as you were briefly alluding to, this story takes, you know, sort of culminates towards the end of the 20th century, but it is one that has started long before that, and so, before we get into the more recent parts of that, could you take us a bit through the background of the Cayman Islands, through turtles, through sea turtles, through turtle soup, of course, as we will continue to talk about and just sharing a little bit about, you know, maybe even, how indigenous populations and other communities throughout the Cayman Islands saw to, you know, these sea turtles and how it eventually becomes, and a sign of the elite, in a sense.

Speaker 2:

Absolutely so. If I may, let me ask your listeners to imagine a kind of a scenario where you have a group of wealthy likely mostly just male diners. Maybe they are living in Manhattan, in New York or Chelsea in London's you know some very posh neighborhood. They're in an upscale restaurant, you know, like the ones where you have like the white tablecloths and there's even servers who show up with white gloves and they're all waiting to have a sumptuous bowl of turtle soup which is essentially sort of a stew turtle with decadent flavors, sometimes sherry and Madera wine, these very expensive sort of European liquors, and, as you just mentioned Alexandria, it's a high class dish in the Western world. There's alternate forms of turtle soup in places like Asia, east Asia in particular, and in the Middle East, but I'm pretty much talking about places like Europe and the Americas and this sort of description that I just kind of opened up with was very common from the latter part of the 17 or mid 1700s all the way until the end of the 20th century. And, to be quite honest, I am absolutely certain that if you went on the internet right now and typed up turtle soup, you'll quickly find recipes and you might find a few restaurants and places like New Orleans, maybe in Philadelphia or New York, where you still could grab something akin to a turtle soup. But the thing is, sea turtles are one of these animals, these maritime or marine animals, where no part of it was wasted, and that has been the case for a very long time in the Caribbean. And so one of the things that I learned in my research and ultimately talked about in my work is how we see this early on with pre-Columbian indigenous populations. Right, they really could appreciate sea turtles for food sources, for decoration. Sometimes they have like religious or spiritual symbolic importance. Sometimes. I know that many Americans, maybe even some of our listeners here, may have traveled to Mexico and increasingly, cancun is a really popular place to visit. Well, cancun is located in Mexico, in the Yucatan Peninsula. This is also an area where there was an abundance amount of sea turtles. So the Maya, the pre-Columbian classical Maya, in their communities that still exist there today, you can see remnants all over their buildings, in Tulum or in Chichen Itza, of sea turtles, on their administrative buildings and their religious buildings. Right, even they have depictions of their deities, one of which is named Pachatun or God-en. Essentially, that comes out of like a turtle shell. That represents longevity. So you're seeing this from the indigenous standpoint. Closer into the kind of Caribbean sea, you have the Turks and Caicos example, where there's this amazing archeological site on Grand Turk in which they found I don't know like they estimated that all the turtle bones that they had kind of excavated out of the site that perhaps in the past these airwalk speaking peoples called the Lukaian, perhaps I don't know like, consumed or processed like 5,000 pounds of sea turtles. So we're talking about, even before the arrival of Europeans and people from the African continent to the Americas, there's already this utility, this engagement with sea turtles for all kinds of reasons. And so it makes a lot of sense that when we do see the arrival of Europeans who start to pursue their early kind of quest before colonization, what they're observing is sea turtles all over the place, to the point where when they're entering into these natural harbors of islands, they can almost step on the sea turtles. And then they're observing the peoples whom they're engaging with for the first time, these various indigenous communities, and they're watching them hunt for sea turtles or consume them for food. And so over time, as these communities become intertwined, as Europeans come to settle in different parts of the Caribbean. What you're finding is that they too appreciate sea turtles largely for food, and you see this really early on when we think about the back and forth movement of European settlers. Right, they have to travel from Europe across the Atlantic into the Caribbean Sea. Well, what are they eating on those ships? Yeah, they got some, I don't know, really hard, not very appealing biscuits. Their animal proteins are often pickled or smoked for preservation and they soon start adding sea turtles to their provisions, in part because sea turtles are these enormous animals, upwards of 600 pounds, which you can keep alive on the decks of these ships that can feed the crew, give them fresh meat right, and so over time these populations sort of learn how to create different dishes, and one of the dishes that comes out of that is turtle soup. So early on, you see, in the 1700s, 1730s and 40s. And then it increases because we see the proliferation of menus and cookbooks that talks about how you can prepare sea turtles. People waited like for the newspaper or announcements that we're gonna dress up this sea turtle on Saturday morning so you can come and get your dish turtle steak or turtle soup or whatever the item was. So what you're seeing is kind of a continuity, whether from the pre-Columbian indigenous communities to the new arrivals, europeans and even those who are Africans, both free and enslaved, are also consuming sea turtles as a form of meat right, and it just sort of continues into the commodification like just selling these products right. And that's perhaps one of the best known but not the only turtle product that becomes quite popular over the course of the 17 and 18 and early 1900s.

Speaker 1:

As you've taken us through obviously pre-Columbian time to thinking of, obviously as you ended on the 1900s, I couldn't help but really think of the fact that oftentimes when we think of the colonies, particularly the British colonies, most of the region is associated with sugar. Right, we've had several conversations on Jamaica and Tigua I could go on and on and sugar is always that staple product in terms of industry in the colonies. Cayman Islands, as I know from reading your book, points to a much different history, particularly in terms of just how they've evolved in their industry. So could you talk to us a bit about the fact that Cayman Islands obviously didn't have a sustaining sugar economy, but the sea was in large part a place for them to draw money from. So how did the sea fare in their economic development and how did that affect the natural ecosystems of the surrounding waters?

Speaker 2:

So you're hitting on a point or a set of questions that really kind of propelled me forward when becoming excited about this project. I too thought it was particularly strange when I thought back about, like what I studied in school, how everything that I did know about the Caribbean, and particularly about big places in the Eastern Caribbean like Cuba or Jamaica or even Trinidad, was always about agricultural production, these agricultural exports. But I'm like they're islands, like aren't there like maritime and marine kind of activities or cultural forms that are occurring besides pirates? Because there's all this pirates of the Caribbean, which is important but perhaps is not the only thing. So the Cayman Islands becomes really an interesting avenue for me to try to make sense out of your set of questions and what I guess I would explain. Their unique divergence from other patterns in the region might be two-folded. On the one hand, the Cayman Islands, which include the larger island of Grand Cayman, cayman Brock, the next large in size, and then finally the smallest little bracket. These are pretty much low lying, mostly sandy beach islands. A few of them, particularly Grand Cayman, they're really encircled by coral reefs, so there's kind of this like rocky kind of perimeter around portions of the islands. They did have really beautiful mahogany and some timber in the interior of these small islands, but the soil essentially is not very rich. They also have like a mountainous terrain and so on the one hand, the people who will come to live and make the Cayman Islands their homes, whether they're on Little Cayman or Cayman Brock or Grand Cayman they really do not view opportunities in terms of economic development by implanting kind of a plantation system. I should state that they experiment with it but they ultimately don't really succeed. And it's not that you can't get sugarcane and they're not having access to like sugarcane being produced on some of the islands, or coconuts they do. But they don't develop an economic blueprint for having plantations as the kind of premier or kind of the primary mode of economic activity. And part of it has to do with kind of your cost effectiveness, like the effort that you would need to develop the islands in that way may not really seem to work because of the kind of physical landscape of these islands. You do have moments where early on they do extract mahogany kind of. Similarly, for your listeners or people who live in the region like Belize so there is some felling of timber they do try cotton, sea island cotton, and they do all right for a while. But these are really tiny islands and so their production is never really all that high. And so what they're going to figure out is that they're gonna use the land that's available mostly for provision grounds, and then they're gonna turn their attention toward the sea increasingly after slave emancipation in 1830s and when they're looking at the sea it's not necessarily that immediately. Turtle fishing is the primary economic activity. Actually it's wrecking, like waiting for like shipwreck and then having people like swim out there and like grab their goods and maybe we'll say negotiate, as opposed to like hold on ransom, like do you want these things back? How much are you gonna pay us for it? That's kind of like one of their maritime activities, and they are also kind of hunting sea turtles and selling them to ships, as I explained before, who are increasingly interested in having them as part of their provisions. But prior to emancipation what they are largely growing in food is local and to some extent they're selling what they're producing at a local level onward to Jamaica. So they're kind of like a small storehouse to Jamaica, and a historian by the name of Mary Draper has been doing some really interesting work about that. But the other issue, and I think it's equally important to kind of point it out. So it's not just kind of the physical landscape, the scale of the island, kind of what possibilities may exist there. It's also like the development of who arrived. The Cayman Islands were first kind of visited, if you will, or I hate to say discovered, but kind of visited by the Spanish. They found nothing interesting there. There was no established indigenous communities of people living there already, so there wasn't any labor they can extract from. So they sort of passed it by and eventually you will get English speaking individual settlers who will start to come initially from Bermuda, kind of expanding outward into the Caribbean, and they just don't seem to have the same support from the government in terms of like establishing the type of societal and commercial links back with England to really pursue some of these kind of plantation style development projects that you see in larger islands or in even smaller islands further down in the lesser Antilles. And so I think it's kind of a two-folded problem. It's the physical landscape of the islands and kind of what it can offer in terms of its soil and the possibilities of really scaling it to a profitable level, of producing any type of plantation project or product. And then I think the other issue is that the people who arrive there are sort of like stragglers, like the people who are not able to get a buy-in to maybe more established colonies, and so they kind of try their luck on these islands and they don't have the same commitment and or interest in trying to jumpstart or launch plantations as you're going to see elsewhere.

Speaker 1:

I think that's just, you know, for me a novel perspective and understanding Caribbean history on a whole. Right, there are different ways that our, for some of us, of course, countries or nations, but our lands developed and you know, so often times we're sort of fed this one-track story. As you've mentioned, right, it's always sugar, particularly for the Caribbean. I think even for the US South it's oftentimes cotton, but there are so often times, just you know, variety in the way that our lands develop and it changes when you really consider these individual islands and nations. Of course I do want to shift a little bit particularly to that sort of like post-emancipation moment, right, Because this is a time in the 1830s and in the aftermath of, particularly those of African descent, newly emancipated individuals in a sense, because of, obviously, slavery ending, not that there weren't obviously other ways of people self-emancipating, as we have talked about with maroons, etc. But this is a moment when people are actually really having to contend with survival in a sense. And, as you've been pointing to, sea exploration for those in Cayman Islands is a part of that, and so, as you talked about the different ways people use the sea to sort of generate wealth and survival through wrecking, through hunting the sea turtles. There's also a point when, stepping back from Cayman Islands in particular at this moment, big picture-wise, there are like national development is big at the time right, there are obviously nations throughout Central and South America that are no longer colonies as well, and so this then adds to sort of the at least in my mind charting the some of the challenges maybe these sea adventurers had, as they, you know, are venturing out into the sea based off international borders. So how did this sea exploration sort of factor into that and especially, you know, as a British colony at the time and you know Cayman Islands continues to be in its case, particularly how did the UK fare in sort of its responses? So this is a great question.

Speaker 2:

It actually gives me an opportunity to kind of step back just a moment to the second part of your previous pair of questions. I think you asked about kind of the way in which the sea fared in its economic development and how it kind of impacted the surrounding waters and the ecosystem, and those two things are kind of linked up together. So it gives me an opportunity to go back to that part of your question. So I should clarify that for the listeners in the case of the Cayman Islands after slave emancipation in 1834. So one thing you're not going to see, you're not going to see an apprenticeship. So there's not this kind of period really, that kind of sort of extensive trial in course of labor, but sort of freedom in which you know they're trying to figure out what they're going to do with them. What you're going to see happen in the case of the Cayman Islands is that there's not a lot of land that can really be shared or kind of repartition to the newly emancipated population. Let's say, for an example I can think of, like Jamaica, where you have sort of this, what they call reconstituted peasantry, where people kind of go back into the interior and they take land and they make it communal or they create these free villages. You don't really see a turn towards the land. A lot of emancipated individuals are going to kind of turn toward the sea, and that means that they're going to either migrate outward to places that they have become familiar with because of previous familial migrations decades earlier, or because of their involvement in the turtle hunting, which I'll talk about more extensively as part of your question about the international borders. So it's important for us to think about like emancipation as this turning point where land is not really an option. You're not going to like let me settle on my own land and have enough food to eat and I'm going to create this community. In the same way, people really have to think about how the sea can be used and leveraged for their newfound freedom. So you're going to see some of these emancipated individuals turn to places like the Bay Islands, a set of islands off the coast of what Spanish Honduras was, kind of how it was thought of in the 19th century. In Spanish they call them the Rootan Islands and some of these places are going to be new homes for people who are from the Cayman Islands, many of whom are individuals who had been recently emancipated and who are kind of trying to look for access to land Others are going to increasingly find maritime work is going to offer them the greatest opportunity for autonomy and not being in a position where they have to kind of go to former slaveholders to seek some type of job. So it's important for me to kind of use this opportunity to talk about the moment of emancipation and sort of the way it plays out for Caymanians and that also parallels with a process that had been taking place, let's say, 30 years to 50 years prior. So 1834 is, you know, emancipation, but about three to four decades earlier. What has already happened around the Cayman Islands is that their ability to continue to easily acquire sea turtles easily being sea turtles had been nesting, basically going to the beaches of Grand Cayman or little Cayman or Cayman Brock in order to kind of have their egg chambers where they're going to deliver their little eggs and then create little new sea turtles. That made it really easy for Caymanians to essentially be like these great sea turtle hunters. They didn't really have to go so far, right, they? They knew enough about the cycles by which sea turtles and how they would come there to be nested. They knew that it was very easy for you to kind of grab a impregnated sea turtle because they're huge and they're slow on the sea. But over time they become so effective at that that they have to go increasingly out into the sea. So they were sure taking these sea turtles and then eventually they have to go further out and follow essentially where they are. And where are these sea turtles moving to? Well, the waters of today, what we might think of Cuba, which at that time was a Spanish colony. So they're going around the perimeters of the larger island of Cuba. That becomes sort of problematic in the, you know, middle of the 1800s because of changes on that island as they're engaging increasingly by the 1860s in an anti colonial movement against Spain. So you find that Caymanian sea turtle hunters right have to continue to find where they can access these turtles. They move further out to sea. They're now going to places like islands off the coast of Honduras and in Nicaragua and they're they're finding less government kind of regulation. There's not really like a Honduran or Nicaraguan coast guard out there like early on in the 1800s or the middle of the 1800s, preventing them from acquiring sea turtles without getting a license or paying a custom attacks. But that starts to change as we get to the latter part of the 19th century and it's really to the point that you raised in with your last question about the international borders and the and the rise of nation states. You know, latin American countries, the Spanish speaking countries, most of them, with the exception of places like Puerto Rico and Cuba, had already engaged in wars of independence, so they kind of had their anti colonial movements. They're kind of ended by the 1820s and definitely by the 1850s, and what any nation state wants is to kind of have stability, political stability, and it needs to have a means of making money. And what increasingly starts to happen is that they are feeling threatened that these Canadian sea turtle hunters are effectively entering into what they perceive to be as kind of their sovereign space, extracting a marine resource, and they're not getting paid for right, and so this marine resource, the sea turtles right, will be ultimately sold, you know, to markets internationally, whether to Europe or the United States. And so you start to see increasingly Spanish speaking governments in Central America and Columbia as well, which are trying to figure out how they can regulate a kind of an industry that they hadn't really formally paid attention to or been attuned to and because you have the Caymanians, who are really not a very I don't know significant, you know, colonial territory for the British but nevertheless they're really effective at getting the British government to intercede on their behalf because they're able to kind of push the British government to understanding that if they don't protect Caymanian sea turtle hunters right to fish in open waters, well then how can the British effectively have an overseas maritime empire? Increasingly, they too will face backlash and pushback. So these, you know few hundred, you know men who are roaming around on these waters and sloops, you know, spending three to four to five months, sometimes away from their island homes. So they can, you know hundreds of sea turtles and are causing all of these sort of diplomatic challenges to kind of international boundaries and they become really really important in how all of these governments are effectively trying to assert some type of national sovereignty and claim. And the British, you know, are working kind of hard on behalf of these Caymanians who they don't, you know, to be honest, with the Cayman islands at this time they're not like a dependency to Jamaica, so they're not like politically a very important component of the colonial system. They're doing their best to try to stake a claim or continue to have the same political presence in a region that is rapidly changing. And ironically these, like sea turtle hunters, are causing all of these different problems for these governments. But they also reflect the larger kind of geopolitical changes that are happening literally on the sea as opposed to on the ground.

Speaker 1:

And that for me was one of, just like sort of the most interesting points in reading your book. Right, the fact that this group of a few hundred explorer sea turtle or, as you refer to them in your book, turtle men right, have such a great impact in terms of not just you know, maybe it would be one thing if it was just solely because, obviously, cayman Islands is a colony, but they were literally just impacting international relations across the entire region and venturing out towards, as you noted, you know, nicaragua and other parts of central and south America. For me is just, you know, one of those moments where it flips the power relations and agency story that we typically hear on its head. Right, it's usually how all of these powers, the nation state, etc. Or the colonial body, are impacting those who have less power, systemically or systematically. But this was a point where, you know, those who are usually underrepresented and lack the power quote unquote voice or powerful voice, really had a point of, you know, making change in terms of, to an extent, through turtles and sea turtles, which I just found it was just like a great read in terms of understanding this history. So another you know plug for those interested beyond the story to definitely check out Dr Crawford's book. I do really, even in that vein, want to take us to the 20th century and, as some of my listeners might remember from an episode we did on the Virgin Islands, the US Virgin Islands in particular, the 20th century, and not just, you know, across the US Virgin Islands but you know, in the region and the Americas in itself, the 20th century really becomes that moment of thinking about environmental conservation and, as we're noting, with sea turtles. Of course, this is a part of the story, primarily because, as you mentioned, the turtle men have to go further out because they have less access to them that they once had for hundreds of years. And so, as you were studying the area and the history of this area and thinking about resources and access, and you know how we've moved on to and from land, et cetera, what were the sort of ramifications of conservation in terms of the Cayman Islands and the turtle men, and what policies were even directed at the Cayman Islands in particular in order to help conserve the turtles?

Speaker 2:

Yeah, this is a wonderful question and, to be honest again to the listeners, remember my opening remarks about my training and my interest. I was pretty much interested in people who are of African descent and those who lived in Latin America and the Caribbean. I didn't really have classes about the environment or really thinking about conservation or sea turtles, but it became increasingly clear that I couldn't tell this history without thinking about what happened to these few hundred men, some of whom had been doing it all their lives, and they were the third or fourth generation of sea turtle hunters and their families, starting as young as eight years of age. What happened to them? What happened to the turtle fishing industry, as you point out, by the middle of the 20th century? We're really looking at an international kind of environmental movement that is emerging, that there's a voice, there are advocacy, that's happening and the best way for me to start to understand and kind of pull that apart a little bit actually drew me away from the Cayman Islands for a moment and it drew me away from Caymanians and other turtle hunting communities that I focus on a little bit. You know, briefly in the book, towards a scientist by the name of Archie Carr. Archie Carr essentially is like a person who studies reptiles. He was a professor at the University of Florida and it may not seem apparent to most people because it wasn't to me until I had to study this. Sea turtles are an example of a reptile. They're a marine reptile and he happened to have his interest in Central America and he came across a student in his time teaching in Central America who was from Costa Rica, who told him you need to come to my country, you need to come to this area in the Caribbean where we have all these sea turtles. They come there every year. You know, people from all over go there to hunt them, including Caymanians, and so Archie Carr decides to do some research in the area. And one of the things that's so striking about Archie Carr is that, unlike maybe other scientists at the time or even today, he really had his pulse on real people and communities. So, while he may have been interested in some questions about what happens to sea turtles and where do they go and how do we, you know, eventually, how can we conserve them, he was very mindful that there are real people throughout the Caribbean, throughout the Caribbean coastal regions of Central America, who have been for generations, you know, consuming these animals as part of their diet. This is something that sustains them and it's not so easy to just simply, you know, remove that component of their lifestyle. And he traveled extensively in the region, studying various turtle communities. And of course, everywhere he went, he hears about the Caymanians. He goes to Trinidad, hears about the Caymanians. He goes to Panama, he hears about the Caymanians, and so eventually he goes to the Cayman Islands. And who does he meet, you know, in the 1950s? A lot of these sort of veteran sea captains of these turtle fishing vessels who have all these stories to tell him, stories that he takes seriously. He actually takes sort of the experiences, the lived experiences of these Caymanian hunters for true kind of knowledge in terms of understanding the cycles and the movements of things that they had observed for years. And he found himself, as I think some of us can imagine, in sort of a quandary. So as he collected, and he spent summers and, you know, years, coming back to Costa Rica to study this one area in the northern strip of the coast where the sea turtles would come to nest their eggs, and he was really trying to figure out how can he salvage, you know, how can we even this, you know like, conserve what we have, let alone how might we bring populate the sea turtle populations elsewhere? He also knew that they had to do so very delicately because there's actual real people who would be harmed, who would be impacted essentially, if the laws were too harsh. And eventually it took a while for him he realized that other modes of conservation policies that try to limit periods of time when you can hunt sea turtles, or his efforts to work with other international scientists through the region in terms of repopulating, bringing little baby sea turtles you know little turtling essentially to the beaches throughout the Caribbean, perhaps is not enough action to kind of save the turtles that he ultimately will agree that the best efforts is to just basically put a ban, you know kind of a moratorium, on sea turtle hunting and that has a direct impact on the Cayman Islands. To your question Now, the impact on the Cayman Islands by the latter part of the 50s, early 60s is not as devastating as it would have been had this happened maybe five or six decades earlier. So his efforts to work internationally to stop the importation of any type of sea turtle product into a place like the United States, which was the primary market for Caymanian hunted sea turtles is a blow to the islands, and that means that they're going to have to figure out are we going to completely shut down this industry or we're going to have an alternative? You know economic policy and let me kind of be clear and, mentioning this to the listeners, I don't think I've said it clearly enough for all of up until, let's say, from the middle of the 1800s until the 1960s for sure, the primary economy of the Cayman Islands is sea turtle hunting. It's not banking, it's not tourism, it's not sugar, it's not bananas or cacao, it's literally hunting sea turtles. And so any policy that limits their ability to bring in their you know, their product for sale, it's going to be devastating. Except for there's some things that had happened right before these international laws were established by the 1970s, that sort of make the impact on the Cayman Islands not as devastating, and part of it has to do with the fact that the post-war period, the post Second World War period, the World War II period, really disrupted the turtle fishing industry in terms of, you know, safely being able to transport sea turtles to the markets that they needed elsewhere in the US and in Europe. So that had already kind of shifted the demand. In response to the United States had already, you know, kind of created alternate forms of turtle fishing, alternate forms of turtle meat. In fact there's recipes called mock turtle that kind of give you the sense of sea turtle, but it's not, and so there was already some reduction in that market. We also started to see that introduction of Caymanians to volunteer for the war effort on behalf of the British Empire as sailors offers them an opportunity to have work elsewhere and then after the war, by the 50s they're like in demand. People realize these Caymanian sailors are like really, really good, and so they start to find work on merchant marine ships, sometimes work outside of you know the kind of maritime landscape. Sometimes they're in oil rigs in Venezuela or they're finding work in the Gulf Coast of the United States. And so you start to see that the few hundred sea turtle hunters become smaller and smaller because of larger geopolitical factors. So by the time you're getting to the 60s and 70s with the international conservation efforts, you really are talking about a much smaller group of individuals who are dedicated to this very niche luxury market. That being said, there are still interest in preserving sea turtle hunting and so you get international people who decide well, maybe we need to create kind of an opportunity for us to kind of raise sea turtles. We're not going to capture them wild, but maybe we can create the conditions by which we can kind of have a farmed sort of sea turtle industry. And it existed for a while into the latter part of the 80s, into the 90s, but it never could really essentially overcome the challenges of a reduced market. If you can't legally bring in sea turtle products to your main source of purchasers, it's very hard to sustain it. All these changes, right, the postwar period providing different opportunities, the band and how it reduced access to the market, forced those who were in power on the islands that make up the Cayman Islands to look to something else, and they started to look to tourism. Right, people didn't go to the Cayman Islands prior to like the 1960s and 70s. There was no infrastructure, there's barely roads, there was no electrification. All that starts to happen, like other parts of the Caribbean. We're seeing similar parallels in places like Jamaica and elsewhere right During the 50s and 60s, where it becomes an opportunity to shift the economy. And so the first major shift obviously is towards tourism, and it's not that all people who were in the turtling industry are working in tourism. It just means that the attention towards sea turtling no longer is sustainable and they have to figure out something that replaces it. So you see, it's sort of this dual system, these larger international pressures because of conservation efforts made by environmentalists like Archie Carr, who's really sensitive actually to the local condition, maybe even more so than the average environmentalists. He doesn't really want to harm these local communities. And yet, because of the post-war period that had preceded this moment, about 15 to 20 years earlier, there are already some changes under foot on the local economy scale. In the Cayman Islands. That kind of help, that transition towards a new economic activity like tourism launch itself by the 1960s into the 70s.

Speaker 1:

You made a great point, just one that was sort of like mind-blowing to me in terms of the Cayman Islands being really central to this luxury food Market beyond even the Caribbean but also into the US, into Europe, is the fact that you know Campbell soup right, like the renowned Campbell soup that everybody not everybody, but most people know right was a parent company of a company who was also Selling canned turtle soup. The turtles were coming from the Cayman Islands. Right, just to give you all an idea of not only the fact that you know the Cayman Islands main industry was sea turtles, but also the global market of Turtle soup consumption would not be what it was without really understanding the pivotal role of the Cayman Islands and of these very small number of Turtle men. So I really wanted to add that, in addition to you talking about just the industry and the destruction that you know was caused through conservation, there are Several sort of actors in a sense, in your book, right? Obviously we are adhering to the turtle men and the turtles themselves, but one might not even fully think about it in the explicit way, in how I'm going to phrase it in this question, that your book is also a story on race and race dynamics. Right, we've talked on the histories of enslavement and obviously into emancipation etc. But the turtle men who we've been discussing were predominantly black or of African descent and Despite the fact that you know the turtle industry turtle soup becomes widely expensive in the global north and things to that nature it's not like you know it was equitable in terms of what they were receiving for, you know, not only putting their lives out in Endanger, getting turtles or exploring in the sea, etc. So I just definitely wanted to raise that point in a sense about the Equity factor in it, that you know those who are doing this turtle fishing compared to the major corporations and businesses you know, like Campbell's and etc. Many of them didn't get that same wealth generation, and so could you talk to us just a bit about how race even just played into the understanding of the industry in the Cayman Islands?

Speaker 2:

No, thank you so much. And you know I have to be honest, it was very difficult. Ironically, for all my interest in studying people of African descent, I mean in questions of race, in the case of the Cayman Islands it's a little bit difficult to Parse out and let me offer some context as to why I think that's the case. So I mentioned, you know, several minutes ago when thinking about Emancipation on the Cayman Islands and how many emancipated people look to the sea, some of whom migrated off the island. The Cayman Islands Remained a place that had, essentially, maybe we might think of them as sort of a two-tier, color, racial, kind of hierarchy. Individuals who would call themselves or think of themselves as clear skin. And for those of you who grew up in the Caribbean, I think it's it's easier for you to understand that kind of terminology. For someone like myself who grew up in the States, it's like saying you're kind of fair skin, light skinned, right. These are people who perhaps we would see or think of as presenting as white, and they may even think of themselves as white, but it's probably not exactly the case. They're probably people of racially mixed backgrounds. And then you had individuals whom the community Even and in themselves understood, being more linked to slavery and people of African ancestry. And what happens with that two-tier system is that two things happen. On the one hand, you have the people who are actually performing the labor of going out on the ships. They're the members. You know the crew members. They're the ones who are hunting these sea turtles, going away for three to four months. They are often crew members who you know are on these vessels, with a sea captain who may or may not be Black, or you know someone who's viewed and known as being Afro-Chamanian, but for certain, the people who fund the vessel, the people who have to raise the capital To outfit the vessel, who make sure that there's enough food there and that they have enough equipment and that the ship or, sorry, the sloop or the schooner that's the names of these particular types of sailing vessels that they are prepared to go launch these hunts. Those are individuals who are viewed in the community, who see themselves as the community, as White or adjacent white, and that's where the colorism, racial system comes in, even in addition to the larger kind of global capital system. So you have it at the micro level of the Chamanian society. You also have it, you know, in terms of the larger kind of global capitalist system. What makes this complicated is the second point. Within the British Empire it's it's apparent from you know the material that I was able to get my hands on whether that was Formal diplomatic records from the British government. And for those of you who are not Like scholars of you know history, let me tell you the British write about everything. There's so much Material that they produce. But even outsiders who are like Journalists, who do articles and newspaper accounts, it's very clear that they view the Cayman Islands as sort of a non-black Place in the Caribbean. So Caymanians themselves are kind of bifurcated. There's two groups, you know, those who are the descendants of enslaved people, who are kind of understood and viewed as black. And then there's a second group right who Probably views themselves as white, even if they don't use that terminology, and they present as white and because they slightly are the majority, slightly the majority, the British government and even some outsiders all Some outsiders often, but not all the time Talk about them as sort of Like the whites of the Caribbean, if that makes sense. So I found it very challenging at times to Tease out the multiple levels of race and labor In this particular set of islands, but it did play out. I can give a really clear example. One of the main locations that Caymanian sea turtle hunters travel to, a set of islands that are referred to as the mosquito islands, which are sort of a part of Nicaragua. There's always intense diplomatic wranglings over Chimainian access to the turtle fishing grounds and at one point the Nicaraguan officials write to the British government and they essentially say if you are able to successfully renegotiate this treaty to access the turtle fishing grounds, tell the Chimainians not to bring any more blacks with them. And I thought, huh, so I'm having this sort of interesting dynamic. On the one hand, in the English language sources that are coming from the British government or American visitors writing newspaper accounts, they're not excluding the fact that there are people of African descent on the island, but they highlight more the lack of black people actually on the island. And then here I'm seeing a Spanish language source where the Nicaraguan government essentially explicitly says don't bring any more negros, like very specific right, don't bring any more of those from Cayman Islands. And so I'm not sure if anyone ever picks up this book. I'm not sure I actually was able to settle in my own mind questions around race and labor within the Chimainian society. But what I do point out, that the Cayman Islands is just one of many of these communities which often are indigenous, you know, and Native American communities in Central America, along with Afro-descended populations in some of these communities and, it's for sure, a very black kind of labor system. But for the Chimainians it's also a kind of odd positionality that's not really easily tussled out and it could explain just to connect it to some other threads I know your listeners may have been following from other episodes it may help to explain why the Cayman Islands today still are British overseas territories and chose not to first go with the West Indian Federation or subsequently find their own independence. And if you visit the Cayman Islands today, it would be apparent to you that oftentimes the very kind of presented Afro-descended people you see working in the hotel industry or walking down the street, they're not the Caymanians, they're the neighboring Jamaicans or Barbadians or Trinidadians or you know other people from different Caribbean islands and there's sort of a weird sort of replication of this bifurcated color racial hierarchy that has maintained itself despite these changes in the economy over the last 170 or so, 90 years or so. So I hope I kind of got to your. It's a thoughtful question.

Speaker 1:

It's one that I'm still wrestling with, trying to fully flesh out myself, definitely, but I think one that you know needed to be said. Just not only to explicitly understand the racial dynamics in the Cayman Islands and of this fishing industry, but to really hone in on the fact that you know the way that these stories are told, based off who's telling them, is really critical to helping shape even contemporary legacies of this fishing village. Right? I'm really struck by your point of considering, you know, how that might contend with the fact that Cayman Islands didn't ultimately seek independence, because that's always a question for me, as I'm, you know, whether it's recording podcasts or in my own work, understanding that post-colonial moment, or, you know, or the moments when everybody is considering potentially going independent, and so I think that helps to really contextualize potentially why. I'm sure there might be other factors, but thank you for sharing that as well. Alrighty, final question, because I know we got to wrap up, but if you would like to read more and learn more, I definitely again recommend Dr Crawford's work. I would love to hear from you some of the ways that this longer history of turtle soup and the fishing industry in the Cayman Islands shows up in popular culture in the region. Yes, so.

Speaker 2:

I have three examples, very different examples, and I don't know how popular. Yeah, they're popular, maybe not to a certain generation, perhaps. So the first example, two of which are books. So my first book example is a beautiful book written by a Caymanian cultural historian. His name is J A Roy Bowden and it's titled the Gathering of Old Men, and it's sort of like a collection of stories that you know, perhaps you know are kind of. They were told to him or he heard them when he was a young child and he's sort of retelling it to us things he might have picked up on, you know, being at the side of one of the elders in his community, and it really gives you a window into sort of the interior workings of 20th century Caymanian society and culture. There are a number of really interesting stories about turtle men, stories that I can verify occurred, you know, through other sources, and even if he's, you know, perhaps not providing the most like historically factual or accurate version, you get to hear it from the Caymanian side, and so I recommend those of you who just want to hearing it from the voice of Caymanians, j Roy Bowden's the Gathering of Old Men. A second book that I highly recommend is actually from an American novelist. I didn't know this, but he was really well known. His name was Peter Matheson. He was known as sort of like an environmental writer, wrote several, several books, but one of which was often considered an experimental novel called Far Tortuga. And really what it was. It was his fictional sort of account of his time in the 1960s when the New Yorker magazine contracted him to go out on one of the last turtle hunts with these Caymanian sea turtle hunters and he sort of depicts what I imagine is both his own experience on these you know this voyage from Florida to the Cayman Islands, to Nicaragua, his own personal experience. But likely he was able to infuse the stories that the crew and the sea captain told him and he tried to replicate the actual Caymanian speech. So it's actually written, oftentimes the dialogue, as how he understood Caymanian speaking their English, which makes it experimental in the US kind of parlance. I don't know if it's that experimental, but it's really a great book if you wanted to get a kind of a textured experience of what it was like for these turtle men. And then, finally, another set of paintings is my third kind of recommendation, by an American painter. His name was Winslow Homer, like he's kind of maybe well-known, he kind of was known for these beautiful landscape paintings from the late 19th, early 20th century and he too was like contracted by some well-known magazine in the 1880s to go to the Bahamas and he was really interested in ordinary people working. So he has all these beautiful kind of watercolor paintings of Bahamians in their everyday life doing their thing, including those who were turtle hunters, because the Bahamas is one of these sea turtle communities that I do highlight and address in a smaller section of my book, and so you can kind of really visualize kind of what that work looked like essentially. So those would be my three sort of examples of things that can enlighten us, and in a beautiful way, about the life of either the Cayman Islands or particularly Caymanian and other Caribbean turtlemans.

Speaker 1:

Perfect. I will definitely be adding those for our listeners to check out. So, in closing, thank you so much, dr Crawford, again, for just joining us for this episode and sharing your wisdom and expertise on the area with us. I hope our listeners really enjoyed this episode. It was one that I learned a lot from, and I hope you did too. So keep supporting Strictly Facts, whether that is across all social media platforms. I'll be sure to tag Dr Crawford in the show notes so you can follow her as well, and, of course, the book, so there will be a link to Dr Crawford's book in the show notes if you'd like to check it out as well. But thank you again so much, dr Crawford, for just joining, and be sure to continue supporting Strictly Facts everyone. Till next time, little more. Thanks for tuning in to Strictly Facts. Visit StrictlyFactsPodcastcom for more information from each episode. Follow us at Strictly Facts pod on Instagram and Facebook and at Strictly Facts PD on Twitter.

Exploring Cayman Islands' Environmental History
Cayman Islands Maritime and Economic Development
Sea Turtle Hunting and Geopolitical Changes
Sea Turtle Hunting to Tourism Transition
Cayman Islands Race and Labor
Turtle Soup and Fishing in Cayman

Podcasts we love