Sharika D. Crawford. The Last Turtlemen of the Caribbean: Waterscapes of Labor, Conservation, and Boundary Making. University of North Carolina Press, 2020.
By Jack Bouchard
Standing on the deck of a Caymanian schooner, listening to the captain explain how to catch sea turtles, can feel wonderfully intimate and quotidian. Certainly Sharika D. Crawford’s new book, The Last Turtlemen of the Caribbean: Waterscapes of Labor, Conservation, and Boundary Making, is filled with moments that allow individual mariners and their crew to speak, illuminating their lives in the twentieth-century Caribbean. But what she shows, in this brilliant study, is how these moments are connected to much bigger and complex worlds which undermine basic contemporary assumptions of historians, environmentalists, state actors and consumers. For our boat from the Cayman Islands is bobbing off the coast of Nicaragua, catching turtles to be sold in New York or London, using techniques adapted from indigenous Miskitu peoples, avoiding state regulations and patrol boats from Managua or Bogota and newfound conservationist pressures from North America. In such stories we can see how “Beyond the tragically intertwined fates of turtlemen and sea turtles lie poignant and larger stories of the turtle fishery’s role in the peopling, laboring, and drawing of boundaries in the maritime Caribbean.” (150)
Crawford’s The Last Turtlemen of the Caribbean is a wonderfully written and important contribution to maritime history. Crawford aims at two important assumptions: that sea turtles are primarily a subject of conservation, not consumption; and that the Caribbean is a world of nation-states, plantations and empires. In her ambitious, concise and deftly argued work, she is able to uncover both the long history of the turtle industry as a major economic and social force in the Caribbean, and to redefine how the Caribbean was experienced as a maritime, political, and economic space.
On the surface it is a story of the interplay between two animals, the sea turtles of the Caribbean Sea and “the human predator – a turtler.” (16 ) The history of fishing and consuming turtles is, as Crawford makes clear, an essential part of the economic, environmental and social history of the Caribbean. Turtles were a key part of the diet for indigenous Caribbean communities, enslaved Africans and European interlopers in the early modern period. In the 19th-20th centuries, turtle meat and shells were a major export to North America and Europe, and a basis for the Cayman Islands economy. And yet “it is striking how often historians have overlooked the ubiquitous presence of the animal in the lives of Caribbean communities.” (144) Crawford rescues turtles, and those who hunted and consumed them, from the margins of history. The turtle fishing industry of the Cayman Islands is the central focus, and we spend much of the book on board the decks of various schooners, listening to their captains and crewmembers, learning their stories and understanding their struggles. Crawford pays close attention to the intersection of indigenous Caribbean and European approaches to turtle fishing and consumption. The Last Turtlemen highlights the work and knowledge practices of turtle fishers, making this an insightful labour history of maritime work. Crawford’s book at last gives turtle fishing the monograph study it deserves.
But Crawford is intent on a much more ambitious role for these turtlers, and this is where the book shines. As she makes clear in the Introduction, “This book tells the story of the circum-Caribbean as a waterscape where imperial and national governments vied to control maritime frontiers, while harvesters like turtlemen plied the sea for profitable marine commodities.” (2) The book centers the Caribbean on the Cayman Islands, an oft-overlooked archipelago at the periphery of larger islands and colonies. The Last Turtlement makes the case that “An extended view toward the small islands of the maritime Caribbean challenges the overly monolithic portrait of the region as rural and plantation based.” (4) Rather, in tracing the movement and behavior of Caymanian turtlemen, Crawford presents an alternative view of the Caribbean. The Caymanian Caribbean stretches from the coast of Columbia up to Nicaragua and Belize, then across to the Florida Keys and as far as Bermuda. In many ways, Crawford is contributing to Ernesto Bassi’s reframing of the Caribbean is a transimperial ‘aqueous territory.’ But The Last Turtlemen shows that it is nature and marine life, not just commerce and migration, which underly this bottom-up conceptualization of space. This is an essential intervention which deserved to be considered by premodern historians of the Caribbean as much as those who study the twentieth century.
Recovering the turtleman’s Caribbean is all the more important in light of what ultimately befalls this worldview. In Chapters Four and Five, Crawford explains how assertive nation-states in the circum-Caribbean fought to circumscribe the movement of turtlemen, and ultimately to dismantle their transnational and transimperial world. “From the decks of turtling schooners rote hulls of catboats, it is clear how protection of waterscapes and marine animal resources allowed states – both imperial and national – to integrate peripheral spaces in order to draw them into fiscal and strategic goals.” (3) This was followed by the rise of an international conservation movement in the mid-twentieth century, which fatally undermined the demand for turtle products and recast turtlers as illegitimate actors. Together, these pressures encouraged a turn away from turtling as a way of life, and with it a turn away from the sea. The vast Caymanian Caribbean ended in 1971 with the last voyage of the turtler A. M. Adams, leaving its history to be largely forgotten until now. Now, thanks to Crawford, it is once again part of our story about the maritime world of the early modern and modern Caribbean.
Jack Bouchard is an Assistant Professor of History at Rutgers University- New Brunswick, where he teaches environmental history. He studies maritime environments and fisheries in the pre-modern Atlantic world.