Green Turtle and other delicacies

Chelonia Mydas – The Green Turtle

In July 1772 Robert Cooper Lee wrote to his wife, who was on holiday with their children in Margate  ‘Captain Hepburn sent me the Turtle yesterday.  What was I to do with it?  I thought it would die before it got to Margate, or you should have had a Turtle Feast’.

There are numerous references in these family letters to turtles arriving from Jamaica for the family to feast on. Presumably once caught in the Caribbean they were kept alive in barrels of sea water until the ship arrived in England, once out of the water their survival time would have been limited.

On one occasion the Lees sent a present of a turtle to their sons’ headmaster, which caused no little stir in the school!

That such a present could be sent on the assumption that the headmaster’s cook would know what to do with the creature shows how widespread was the delicacy, even if it was still something of a luxury item.

To cook the turtle it would be killed and the head removed, then the whole animal plunged into boiling water for about ten minutes to make further preparation easier, once removed from its shell, gutted and skinned, the flesh could be cut up and treated much as you would chicken – perhaps coated in flour and seasoning, fried and then slowly stewed.

The fat of Chelonia mydas has a greenish tinge, which is how this species came to be called the green turtle, and it was much valued in the creation of turtle soup.

Needless to say overfishing and environmental challenges due to pollution, noise, light disturbance of nesting sights and the dangers posed by fine filament fishing net fragments have all contributed to a huge decline in turtle numbers since the eighteenth century. Most species are now protected and hopefully their numbers will recover.

Jamaica offered a large number of other delicacies not obtainable in Europe, and there are references in correspondence to candied ginger, pimentoes (allspice), yams, cashews and chocolate in addition to the sugar, coffee and rum that formed the greater part of the island’s exports.


 The wonderful photograph is courtesy of Brocken Inaglory

(Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

3 thoughts on “Green Turtle and other delicacies”

  1. Robert Hew

    Turtles could be easily immobilized and kept alive out of the water by being turned on their backs with their flippers pierced and tied together, sometimes with a support for their necks, and even kept in the bilge. If placed “right side up” they suffocated because the weight on their lungs prevented them from breathing after a while. If being kept for very long periods they would require some food (including “turtle grass”, a type of seaweed growing in shallow water, or mangrove leaves). They were routinely used as a meat source on long voyages, and supposedly prevented scurvy. See The Origin, Evolution, and Demise of the U.S. Sea Turtle Fisheries They breathe air, and in fact would die from drowning if caught in underwater nets and not removed promptly. In the commercial operations in Key West, Florida, in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, large “turtle kraals” were used to hold and fatten the turtles before live shipment or processing in the canning factories. On an individual basis they could be tethered in the shallows using a rope tied through a hole made in the rear edge of their shell or tied around a flipper, and allowed to eat turtle grass. For additional photographs of the trussed turtles, see

  2. Wendy Lee

    Anne, thanks for this interesting snippet of history, and Robert for the additional information. Sad to think of their suffering, though.

    Robert, I am overdue for a visit to a very cool place!


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