Turtles (and tortoises) all the way

At Mon Repos, near Bundaberg, the giant turtles returned again to lay their eggs during the past summer.  The turtles have swum hundreds, perhaps thousands of kilometres across the South Pacific to get to their rookery – and I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never made the journey of less than 5 hours it takes from Brisbane to Bundaberg.  So I’m grateful for Robert Ashdown’s terrific photos of the event instead.  And also for a splendid shot of a woman riding a turtle some time during the 1930s.

Humans have been doing dreadful things to giant turtles for hundreds of years.  And also to giant tortoises.

Mostly, they ate them.  Both tortoises and turtles were an important food source for sailors.  They were relatively slow and easy to catch, and because they breathed air, unlike fish, they could be kept alive until needed for food.  Penned on board ship, they were a living, breathing, and no doubt very miserable source of meat.  With a slow metabolism, they could live without food and sometimes without water for a long time, so they have been unwilling travellers across the globe.

This was particularly true of giant tortoises.  The Galapagos Islands get their name from the Spanish word for tortoise, galápagos, but there were also other species found in the Indian Ocean, including the Seychelles.  Both areas were raided for supplies by visiting ships.  In 1925, the director of the New York Aquarium went through surviving American whaling records and estimated that American whalers between 1830 and the 1920s took perhaps 100,000 tortoises from the Galapagos, mostly female, since they were nearer the coast.

One of the oldest animals ever recorded was Tu’i Malila, a Seychelles tortoise who was allegedly given to a Tongan chief by Captain Cook in 1777.  He (or possibly she – nobody seems to mention this) died in 1965.  Another long-lived individual was Harriet (long known as Harry), a Galapagos specimen who was certainly living in the Brisbane Botanical Gardens by the 1870s, and died at Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo in 2006.

Charles Darwin spent 5 weeks at the Galapagos in 1835, on the Beagle.  The Beagle was there to collect fresh water and food for the crew, and left with more than 30 tortoises.  Their principal purpose was to supply meat for the crew, but several juveniles made it back to England.  Was one of these Harriet?  It’s a long shot, but John Wickham, who served on the Beagle until 1841, became Police Magistrate of Brisbane in 1842, and there’s a theory that Harry/Harriet came back to Australia with him.

Like tortoises, turtles were also an important source of food on long voyages – with the added advantage that the shells, confusingly known as ‘tortoiseshell’, was a valuable item of trade.  When the Endeavour was holed in the Great Barrier Reef, Cook had to beach the crippled ship on what is now the Endeavour River, in far north Queensland.  During the 6 weeks it took to repair the ship, the crew gathered water and vegetables, but also a number of turtles.  On 15 July 1770, Joseph Banks wrote in his diary:

In the evening the Boat return’d from the reef bringing 4 Turtles, so we may now be said to swim in Plenty. Our Turtles are certainly far preferable to any I have eat in England, which must proceed from their being eat fresh from the sea before they have either wasted away their fat, or by unnatural food which is given them in the tubs where they are kept given themselves a fat of not so delicious a flavour as it is in their wild state. Most of those we have caught have been green turtle from 2 to 300 lb weight: these when kill’d were always found to be full of Turtle Grass…; two only were Loggerheads which were but indifferent meat; in their stomachs were nothing but shells.

Four days later,

Ten Indians visited us today and brought with them a larger quantity of Lances than they had ever done before, these they laid up in a tree leaving a man and a boy to take care of them and came on board the ship. They soon let us know their errand which was by some means or other to get one of our Turtle of which we had 8 or 9 laying upon the decks.

In other words, the local Guugu Yimithirr people insisted on their right to a portion of the catch.  They were, after all, their turtles.

Banks was struck by how much better turtle tasted when fresh.  Nevertheless roast turtle meat and soup were highly regarded in Britain, where a ‘turtle dinner’ was a prestigious event. Like many expensive foods, the costliness of the dish was a large part of its appeal.

Eventually, however, the cost of buying a live turtle became prohibitive, and mock turtle soup replaced green turtle soup, using a calf’s head and feet.  Alice in Wonderland’s mock turtle, with his calf’s head and feet, describes a soup ‘so rich and green’ not because of its colour, but because it comes from the green turtle.


Charles Haskins Townsend, The Galapagos Tortoises in their Relation to the Whaling Industry (1925)

Wikipedia article on Galapagos Tortoise (which is excellent)

Paul Chambers, ‘The origin of Harriet’, in New Scientist, 11 September 2004.


One response to “Turtles (and tortoises) all the way

  1. Pingback: Australian history: kicking butt or the bottom line? | Historians are Past Caring

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