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The Publisher, The Cayman Times

Community Voice 21 Mar, 2024 Follow News

The Publisher, The Cayman Times

The Publisher,

 The Cayman Times.


I write to correct the error in the Ministry of Youth, Sports and Heritage’s announcement declaring turtle as the national dish of the Cayman Islands. Turtle although a popular dish, was not as widely available as we are led to believe, and therefore could not have been “national”.

By the time the modern Cayman Islands came into existence turtle had long been extinct in the waters surrounding the Cayman Islands. As a matter of fact, turtles were even extinct in the waters between Cayman and the south coast of Cuba, where Caymanians fished after depleting supplies in our own waters. During its peak the turtle trade brought wealth to several, Caymanian entrepreneurs and for years there was a brisk trade in turtle between Grand Cayman, Key West and Tampa, Florida.

Caymanian turtle fishermen, having ‘fished out’ the surrounding waters then resorted to poaching turtle from waters surrounding the Miskito Cays. These Cays were territory claimed by Nicaragua. For most of the time Caymanian turtle fishermen successfully poached turtle in these waters but there were numerous occasions where Caymanian vessels were seized, and the crew imprisoned by the Nicaraguan authorities. Such incidents often necessitated the diplomatic intervention of the United Kingdom acting in the interests of the Caymanian fishermen. As Nicaragua complained of these incidents, pressure to discontinue the trade weighed upon the Caymanian fishermen and this pressure as well as a growing call for a ban of the trade brought a clamour for some alternate supply.

Some years before the eventual CITIES ban in the 1970’s Cayman fishermen were able to procure limited licences from the Nicaraguan authorities to fish for turtle at certain intervals. Then after the Falklands War at the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITIES) was held in Argentina, The Convention declared turtles an endangered species and imposed a worldwide ban on the trade.

To their credit, the Caymanian authorities had some years prior encouraged a group of foreign investors to pursue the experiment of rearing turtles in artificial conditions. This venture enjoyed modest success and although it demonstrated modest success, the worldwide ban stunted its growth, and we know well its current challenges. The experiment has never been able to meet the demand of the Caymanian market.

Turtle as a staple food, even before the ban was not widely available on Grand Cayman during all times. And even when it was available, it was most easily procured in George Town or West Bay. In West Bay because that district produced the majority of persons involved in all aspects of the trade from mariners to ship owners and financiers.

George Town as well, had its share of those who, participated in the turtle trade, from entrepreneurs like the late Dr. Roy McTaggart, owner of a number of turtle schooners, including the now infamous Majestic. George Town also produced legendary turtle butchers like the late Lorraine Russell. Older generations of Caymanians will no doubt be able to recall the nights at the ‘Old Market’ where the turtles were butchered and sold. At such times, that venue was a veritable temple for the “Who was Who” among Caymanian men. It was a conclave rich with Caymanian culture and tradition as men like the late Ashley Godfrey, Neville Ebanks and their contemporaries would ‘hold court’ for hours on end.

For a brief time during the heyday of turtling the Cayman Islands Government operated a canning factory specialising in the production of turtle soup. This venture, for all its promise did not reach its full potential ... the result... a lack of a steady supply of turtle.

Of significance also, is the fact that history suggests that the turtle trade was not significant in the lives of the people of Cayman Brac and Little Cayman as it appears to have been for those on Grand Cayman. 

The popular dish throughout the Cayman Islands was and still is the” Cayman stew” or what folks nowadays call “run down”. This dish, the ingredients of which was widely popular, even to the Seventh Day Adventists who did not eat turtle. This stew or “run down” was made with coconut milk, the ‘breadkind’ being cassava, sweet potatoes, bottlers, yam breadfruit all in one pot with fish or salt beef providing the protein.

It was a dish available and popular among folk from all walks of life. It was not dependent upon the turtle schooner’s arrival from the Miskiti Cays, nor was it hampered by bad weather.

The Ministry of Culture is correct in naming swanky as the national drink, accompanying the (run down) fish or salt beef stew.


J. A. Roy Bodden

 Cultural Historian

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