Turtle Fishing, Seasonal Migration, and State Restrictions in the Greater Caribbean, 1890–1930

Friday, January 4, 2013: 10:30 AM
Cathedral Salon (Hotel Monteleone)
Sharika D. Crawford, U.S. Naval Academy
Turtle fishing has a long history in the Caribbean, especially along the southern lowlands of Central America and the adjacent islands. Seventeenth century European accounts noted the seasonal migratory circuit of indigenous dwellers such as the Miskitu of present-day Nicaragua. By the nineteenth century, English-speaking settlers from the Cayman Islands, Jamaica, and the Colombian Island of Providencia joined them searching for Hawksbill, Loggerhead, and Green turtles often relocating permanently in areas rich with “green gold.” Turtle fisheries became an essential livelihood strategy for many peasant households. However, this seasonal movement of turtlers became threatened at the end of the nineteenth century as state actors began demanding that fishermen obtain licenses and pay other fees. These policies aimed to consolidate territorial boundaries and raise revenue for penury fiscal budgets, which jeopardized the economic livelihood of turtlers and weakened the strength of their social network formed in the receiving societies.

In this paper I examine Nicaraguan, Costa Rican and Colombian authorities’ efforts to restrict foreigners, particularly Cayman islanders, from fishing turtle off the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua and Costa Rica as well as in the cays surrounding the Colombian archipelago of San Andres and Providencia. Drawing on travel accounts, Jamaican, Colombian, and North American newspapers, Colombian diplomatic correspondence, and secondary sources, I argue that controlling territorial waters became one mechanism for Spanish American states to affirm sovereignty over regions with porous borders that, in turn, threatened the social and economic networks of those at the margins of the Greater Caribbean. By shifting the focus from agro-export commodities such as sugar or bananas to a secondary commercial activity such as turtling, we extend our purview to different geographical locales often overlooked in the historiography on intraregional migration in the Caribbean.

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