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From Turtle Soup to Turtle Disputes: Maritime Boundaries and Commodity Networks in Caribbean Nicaragua, 1904-1916.

In early 1905, an Australian newspaper reported alarming news. London had "not a single live turtle at market." The reporter wondered whether the Lord Mayor of London or British countrywide aldermen could sponsor their lavish banquets for prominent officials and affluent constituents without the decadent dish of turtle soup (see Figure 1). Without an immediate shipment of green turtles harvested in the Caribbean waters around Nicaragua or the Gulf of Mexico later transported to West Indian ports in Jamaica, St. Kitts, or St. Vincent bound for England, many fretted about the prospects of diners left with no option but to eat "mock turtle soup." (1)

The shortage in green turtles, however, had a clear explanation. The year before in spring of 1904, Nicaraguan authorities accused British turtle hunters from the Cayman Islands with unlawfully fishing turtle in territorial waters. They detained captains and crew of five turtle hunting schooners and seized their catches. The result: no turtle steak or soup for English epicures.

Using the 1904 case of the detention of the Caymanian vessels involved in the Nicaraguan turtle fishery, I tell a story that links Latin America, the Caribbean, the United States, and the British Empire through the luxury commodity chain of green turtles (Chelonia mydas). The recent "transnational turn" has amplified global entanglements through an examination of the circulation of goods, ideas, and people across spatial configurations. (2) By adopting a microhistorical approach, this study situates the maritime world at the center of the narratives of territorial struggles in the region. In doing so, the essay argues that in the years 1904 to 1916 Nicaraguan authorities robustly defended British challenges of their efforts to counter nationalization of the seascape. This is particularly revealing as historians continually emphasize the rising dominance of the United States and decline of British interest in this same period. The history of "Nicaraguan" sea turtles hunted by West Indian fishermen and consumed by English diners throughout the British Empire allows us to extend our view of the role of Latin American marine commodities in the world economy. (3) Moreover, by focusing on turtle hunting disputes, we learn how important Spanish American nation-builders viewed the management of these ecologically mobile commodities in constructing maritime territorial boundaries and deploying the use of state power. (4)

The Incident

During the month of March in 1904, armed Nicaraguan authorities from Cape Gracias port set out to find and detain suspected turtle poachers at the offshore Miskitos Cays in the Caribbean Sea (see Figure 2). (5) Initially, it was only the Commandant at Cape Gracias Casimiro Gonzalez and an armed agent. Later, the patrol grew to the governor of Cape Gracias and twenty-four armed soldiers who boarded British schooners demanding that captains and crew give them the ship's papers as well as remove turtles from the water pens or crawls and place them onto the schooners. When the turtlemen scoffed at their demands or simply refused to do it, Nicaraguan authorities threatened them. John George Merrin, a native of Grand Cayman, served as an interpreter on the schooner "Franklin" that brought the Cape Gracias commandant. He recounted the brutal treatment the turtle fishermen received at the hands of Nicaraguan authorities. When one of the crew refused to put the turtle on board the vessel, Gonzalez reportedly shouted in Spanish, "I will give them lead." (6) Several other crew members accused the Nicaraguan authorities of pointing pistols and manhandling them. (7)

The worst allegation came from Joseph T. Mason, the master of the sloop "Martel Mason." He claimed that a group of armed Nicaraguan soldiers with rifles and pistols came aboard his schooner, brutally attacked and later imprisoned him. In addition to shoving a rifle through his pants, they also threw him in their canoe and dragged him aboard their sloop. Mason then described his treatment. "They put me on deck tied both my arms and feet with rope, tied on the rudder head and laid me on the deck." Mason claimed he was left in that position for three hours. Then, these armed soldiers placed him "in a sitting posture putting my arms over my knees placing a gun between my arms and legs forming a toggle and placed me face to the sun where they kept me for about three hours." The soldiers reportedly refused to give him water to drink. The interpreter informed Mason that the governor "said I must drink my piss and if I wanted anything to eat to eat my shit." He received neither food nor water for the next twenty-four hours. (8)

Caymanian fishermen along with their turtle catches departed the hunting ground on one of the five schooners. Some Nicaraguan soldiers remained at Mosquito Cay to guard the other four vessels. At the port of Cape Gracias, authorities accused and then convicted them "of clandestine fishing." Authorities charged them with not procuring in advance permits to hunt sea turtles in Nicaraguan waters, which violated The Fishery Law of 1903. More importantly, Nicaraguan officials argued that the Caymanian turtlemen had defrauded the government of revenue generated from them hunting marine resources in national waters. As a result, the court exacted payment for fishing permits and tariffs on caught turtle as well as prison terms for the captains; the government only demanded the crew pay fees for the fishing permits. (9)

News of the incident quickly reached Grand Cayman. Commissioner Fred Sanguinetti managed to alert the colonial secretary of the seizure and treatment of Caymanian turtle hunters by Nicaraguan authorities. The detention of the men and loss of their income occurred at a terrible time. "I feel constrained to add that matters were bad enough with the people of this Island as a consequence of the cyclones of August last, but the seizure of the vessels and consequent loss of the larger portion of the season's turtle catch, has brought very many families face to face with actual want," admitted the commissioner. (10) The concerns regarding "brutal treatment" of British subjects at the hands of foreign authorities sufficiently alarmed British officials to trigger the colonial secretary to send out a gunboat to investigate. (11)

The Dispute

Accompanied by his Spanish interpreter Mr. T.P Thompson, Captain Herbert Lyon of the HMS Retribution, a part of the West Indies squadron, arrived to Cape Gracias. There, he reviewed evidence collected against the captains and crew of the five Caymanian schooners as well as met with Commandant Gonzalez. He even studied the chart where Nicaraguan authorities indicated the seizure of the British vessels. Afterwards Lyon concluded that "the Nicaraguans had been guilty of a gross act of piracy." (12) He examined the chart that indicated the location where Caymanians hunted turtle. It was three miles beyond the Mosquito Cay. Thus, Lyon reasoned that they had not violated Nicaraguan territorial sovereignty. The British naval captain argued that Caymanian turtlemen respected the three mile territorial limit whereby territorial sovereignty only extended three miles from terrestrial possessions. It was an international policy widely accepted as part of the freedom of the seas principle. In his assessment, Nicaraguans had grossly overstepped and violated this policy. Lyon passed along this position to Minister Edward Thornton who then demanded the turtle hunters' immediate release and revocation of all penalties and fees. (13)

Violation of freedom of the seas concerned British officials who had long subscribed to this principle. Since the 1609 publication Mare Liberum or The Free Seas, several European nations followed Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius' argument that the sea was free and open to all. Coastal empires or nations, he conceded, had only limited jurisdiction over the littoral and nearby maritime space as a means of defense. While this line was used to defend Dutch interest in the Indian Ocean, his position gained a following. (14) By the nineteenth century, the principle was widely adopted and the British were its largest champions. The de facto policy had helped them to justify British expansion and domination over maritime trade. With this incident, Nicaraguan authorities challenged this common principle--the freedom of the seas--and threatened to ruin "an honest, respectable, sober, hardworking class of men and British Subjects." (15) They were also challenging the entire British maritime enterprise in the Caribbean.

Nicaraguan authorities refused to retract their position with regards to maritime territorial limits in the Caribbean. In a letter to British Consul Edward Thornton, Minister of Foreign Affairs Adolfo Altamirano explained to him how Article 593 of the Civil Code permitted the Nicaraguan state to extend jurisdiction not one but four marine leagues (or three to twelve nautical miles) from the country's shores. The objective was clear. It allowed the government of Nicaragua to "watch over the coasts, insure her fiscal income, and guarantee the integrity of her territory." Moreover, Altamirano insisted that the state had a right to regulate fisheries and navigation of those waters. "The Authorities charged with the vigilance of the coast are invested with the necessary powers to capture and punish those who infringe [upon] the laws." (16) In no uncertain terms, Nicaraguans had demanded that the British subjects not only respect their territorial claims over this maritime space as well as their right to earn an income from it. Caymanian turtle hunters, however, rebuked Nicaraguan claims of territorial sovereignty over the Caribbean waters surrounding the Miskitos Cays.

To preserve access to the rich turtle grounds, Caymanian turtlemen insisted that these banks and cays had not belonged to Nicaragua. In fact, they had informally claimed these spots of land as British territories since they alone claimed to have occupied, developed, and harvested resources from and near them. Veteran turtle hunters claimed decades-long experiences out at the Miskitos Cays. Octogenarian "master mariner" Daniel Feurtado had hunted turtle in the area since 1855. Sexagenarian John Jennett recalled how he had traveled out there since he was "a waiting child." He regularly visited Morrison Cay to "split wood at local water and to fry up oil. It is a sandy split in the ground and a wash at high water." A few other turtle hunters in their fifties like Robert W. Bodden, John Aaron Conolly, and William A. Bodden claimed to have neither seen a Nicaraguan flag nor people with the exception of Miskitu Indians out at the cays. On this latter point, it is unclear whether Caymanians understood that the Mosquito Kingdom had lost its autonomy and formed a part of Nicaragua since 1860. (17) Despite their insistence that Nicaraguan authorities neither held nor enforced territorial sovereignty over the Miskitos Cays, evidence suggests that Caymanian turtlemen simply refused to recognize it. By the 1880s, Nicaraguan officials made their presence known at the Miskitos Cays demanding payment for hunting and harvesting sea turtles in national waters; a policy that Caymanians reluctantly and sporadically obeyed. (18)

While some British officials like the governor of Jamaica proved receptive toward Caymanian claims, British counterparts in Central America lacked the political will to boldly question Nicaraguan claims. "A misunderstanding has arisen in consequence of a confusion in terms & the Gov't appear to think that we dispute their jurisdiction over all the islands of the Atlantic coast," reported the British minister in Central America. Thornton had other concerns and appeared unwilling to allow the turtle dispute to jeopardize relations with Nicaragua. The British Colonial Office worked to negotiate an agreement with the Nicaraguan government over easing or increasing Caymanian access to turtle grounds in jurisdictional waters with limited success. (19) Without it, British authorities in Central America simply urged West Indian subjects to avoid arrest and seizure of their catches and to obey national regulations of the turtle fishery until they brokered a treaty with the Nicaraguan government. In its wake, the turtle trade faltered and remained in a precarious state to the detriment of Caymanian turtlemen and their families.


Twelve long years of protracted negotiations coupled with consistent demands by Caymanian turtle hunters and others involved in the trade led to the British and Nicaraguan governments signing a treaty on May 16, 1916 in Guatemala. It specifically regulated the turtle fishery between Nicaragua and Caymanian vessels. The treaty required captains to register vessels and obtain permits at the custom house before proceeding to catch and crawl sea turtles. Nicaraguan authorities required payment of a fishing and crawling permit at $2.50 gold each as well as duty of 50 cents per turtle. If neither party extended or renegotiated this treaty, it expired in 1936. (20) Despite this formal agreement, American bankers doubted that the treaty would resolve the turtle dispute. Irving Lindberg warned British authorities to advise Caymanians to obey the regulation and expect full enforcement of the law. "In the future, however, it is the intention of the Custom Service to proceed vigorously against all who do not comply with the laws, and a vessel engaged in contraband or considered as such on account of non-registration in accordance to the foregoing treaty will be seized and crew punished." (21) With the United States occupation of Nicaragua underway since 1912, American financial agents insisted on developing an efficient revenue system to collect debt payments for foreign creditors. They were unwilling to lose revenue to Caymanian turtlemen who refused to pay license fees or duties on hunted Nicaraguan turtles. As was the case in the past, Caymanians failed to heed his warning and disputes over the Nicaraguan turtle fishery continued well into the twentieth century.

An examination of the first node of the turtle commodity chain reveals two important processes difficult to see elsewhere. First, turtle fishery disputes were central in shaping the maritime territorial boundaries for modernizing states. Nicaraguan officials prioritized a desire to profit from the potential revenue source seemingly usurped and enjoyed by a neighboring empire. To regulate the turtle fishery meant to reclaim lost profits and to assert authority over a contested maritime space. Second, culinary specialties like turtle soup became synonymous with British cuisine, though few remembered its Nicaraguan or better yet, transnational origins. And thus, turtle soup is an unusual example of the ongoing entanglements between Latin America and the world.

(1) "Dearth of Turtles--Banqueters in Deep Alarm," West Gippsland Gazette (Warrangul, Victoria), January 10, 1905, 6.

(2) For scholarly discussions on transnational history, see Mae M. Ngai, "Perils and Promises of Transnational History," Perspectives on History (December 2012), https://www. december-2012/the-future-of-the-discipline/ promises-and-perils-of-transnational-history; Bayly, C. A., Sven Beckert, Matthew Connelly, Isabel Hofmeyr, Wendy Kozol, and Patricia Seed. "AHR Conversation: On Transnational History." The American Historical Review 111, no. 5 (2006): 1441-464.

(3) A recent example is the Spanish Caribbean pearl fishery, see Molly A. Warsh, "A Political Ecology in the Spanish Caribbean," The William and Mary Quarterly 71:4 (October 2014): 517-548

(4) There is an extensive scholarly literature on fishing disputes in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and construction of national boundaries, see Lissa Wadewitz, The Nature of Borders: Salmon, Boundaries, and Bandits on the Salish Sea (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012); David F. Arnold, The Fishermen's Frontier: People and Salmon in Southeast Alaska (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008); Micah Muscalino, "The Yellow Croaker War: Fishery Disputes between China and Japan, 1925-1935," Environmental History 13 (April 2008):305-324; Joseph E. Taylor, Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001).

(5) Miskitos Cays is an archipelago to include over seventy small banks, bars, and cays. Caymanian turtlemen called the entire area Miskitos but they also identified one specific sandy isle as Mosquito Cay.

(6) Declaration of John George Merrin, April 4, 1904, United Kingdom National Archive (thereafter UKNA), FO 56/67, Folios 225-226.

(7) Declarations of Fendley Parsons, Samuel M. Ebanks, James Z. Farrell, Samuel Jonathan Ebanks, Simeon Ebanks, Anthonly McField Conolly, and Thomas Thompson, April 4, 1904, UKNA, FO 56/67 Folios 230-244.

(8) Declaration of Joseph T. Martel, April 4, 1904, UKNA, FO 56/67, Folios 228-229.

(9) J.A Lopez and S. Espinoza, Sub-Treasurer and Collector of Customs Sentence, April 6, 1904, UKNA, Folios 492-496.

(10) Commissioner of the Cayman Islands to the Colonial Secretary, April 12, 1904, UKNA, FO 56/67 Folio 227.

(11) Newspaper accounts widely reported on the British cruiser, see "Great Britain and Nicaragua: Heavy Damages Demanded," The Press, Canterbury, New Zealand, April 22, 1904, 5; "British Cruiser May Bombard Bluefields," Hawaiian Gazette, Honolulu, Oahu, April 22, 1904; Limon Weekly News, Puerto Limon, Costa Rica, May 7, 1904.

(12) Capt. Herbert Lyon to Governor of Jamaica, Despatch No. 196, April 27, 1904, UKNA, FO 56/67, Folio280.

(13) Edward Thornton, June 1904, UKN FO 56/67, Folio 424.

(14) Helen Thornton, "Hugo Grotius and Freedom of the Seas," International Journal of Maritime History 16:2 (Dec. 2004), 20-24

(15) Capt. Herbert Lyon to Admiral Archibald L. Douglas, May 29, 1904, UKNA, FO 56/67, Folio 490.

(16) Minister Adolfo Altamirano to Minister Edward Thornton, June 27, 1904, UKNA, FO 56/67, Folios 520-523.

(17) Robert A. Naylor, Penny Ante Imperialism: The Mosquito Shore and the Bay of Honduras, 1600-1914. A Case Study in British Informal Empire (London: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989), 204-205.

(18) Clerk Vestry Cayman Islands, Letter to Colonial Secretary Office, May 7, 1883, UKNA, FO 56/68, Folios 184-185.

(19) Alfred Lyttelton (Secretary of State for the Colonies) to Sir J.A Swettenham (Governor of Jamaica), December 1, 1905, Cayman Islands National Archive (thereafter CINA), Confidential Papers Relating to Nicaraguan Turtle Fishery Volume II.

(20) Treaty for the Regulation of the Turtle Fishing Industry in the Territorial Waters of Nicaragua as Regards Fishing Vessels Belonging to the Cayman Islands, May 16, 1916, Guatemala, CINA, Confidential Papers Relating to Nicaraguan Turtle Fishery Volume II.

(21) Irving Lindberg to A.C Robinson, July 8, 1917, CINA, Confidential Papers Relating to Nicaraguan Turtle Fishery Volume II.

Sharika Crawford, United States Naval Academy

Caption: Figure 1. Courtesy of [C] John Leech,

Caption: Figure 2. Map of Western Caribbean (Courtesy of Christian Medina)
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Title Annotation:Special Section: The World from Latin America
Author:Crawford, Sharika
Publication:World History Bulletin
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:50CAR
Date:Sep 22, 2017
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