Mallon Andrews on Crawford, 'The Last Turtlemen of the Caribbean: Waterscapes of Labor, Conservation, and Boundary Making (Flows, Migrations, and Exchanges)'

Sharika D. Crawford
Kyrstin Mallon Andrews

Sharika D. Crawford. The Last Turtlemen of the Caribbean: Waterscapes of Labor, Conservation, and Boundary Making (Flows, Migrations, and Exchanges). Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020. 216 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-6021-9

Reviewed by Kyrstin Mallon Andrews (UC Irvine) Published on H-LatAm (May, 2021) Commissioned by Casey M. Lurtz (Johns Hopkins University)

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I will always remember the looks on the fishermen’s faces as they sat in the mayor’s office on the north coast of the Dominican Republic. A video of the fishermen slipping a hawksbill turtle over the side of their skiff back into the ocean had gained the attention of the town’s mayoral candidate, who took this opportunity to praise the fishermen for their ecological conscience while conveniently depicting himself as an eco-conscious candidate. Like many in this rural fishing town, the fishermen had grown up eating the occasional sopa de carey (hawksbill soup) cherished by their parents and grandparents, yet increasingly illegal to make. Inadvertently thrust into the limelight both of politics and of conservation, the fishermen’s faces reflected a discomfort that—as Sharika Crawford argues—has been long in the making.

Crawford’s The Last Turtlemen of the Caribbean: Waterscapes of Labor, Conservation, and Boundary Making, brings the Caribbean turtle fishery to the front and center of political histories, cultural processes, and conservation policies that continue to saturate the region today. Tracing the lives, labor, and mobilities of Caymanian turtle fishers from the 1880s to the 1970s, Crawford illustrates the entangled demise of sea turtle populations and Caymanian turtle fishermen in the Caribbean. Amidst a growing tide of political and ecological difficulties, Caymanian turtlemen have played crucial roles in the establishment of modern maritime boundaries, conservation policies, and lived geographies of the Caribbean. Centering the Cayman Island—some of the smallest island territories of the world’s largest imperial power—in Caribbean historiography, Crawford challenges monolithic depictions of the region as predominantly rural and plantation based (p. 4). She argues instead that the shared maritime mobilities of turtles and turtlemen affords us a broader picture of how transnational cultural communities, political processes, and marine ecologies take form. To compose this picture of the last generation of Caymanian turtlemen, Crawford draws from a rich tapestry of oral histories, inter-Caribbean diplomatic correspondence, and the publications of leading sea turtle conservationists.

The Last Turtlemen joins a growing tide of scholarship that draws our attention to deeply lived seascape geographies, mobilities, and fisheries, showing how human-animal entanglements are driving forces in Caribbean history. The turtle fishery spanning a transnational and transimperial seascape played a central role in “the construction of maritime boundaries and the creation of international regulatory systems to control an ecologically mobile resource” (p. 9). Considering turtles within the long durée of Caribbean ecologies and economies, Crawford’s book contributes critical insights to existing work on human-animal entanglements, environmental histories, and the role of maritime communities in state-making.

Declining turtle populations, new navigational technologies, and increases in capital investments all led to the adoption of long-distance turtle fishing voyages, which characterized turtlemen’s labor in the first half of the twentieth century. From the 1880s, when turtles were prominent along the coasts of the Cayman Islands, to the 1950s, when long-distance turtle fishing became the industry norm, structural changes impacted both the risks and incomes of turtlemen. Long-distance fishing voyages required significant financial resources, often provided by prominent Caymanian business owners. Those laboring on turtle boats endured extended periods at sea, deadly hurricanes, and unreliable incomes in the form of a share of the vessel’s earnings rather than wages. Crawford illuminates the deep entanglements between shifting ecologies, political economies, and labor regimes shaping Caribbean history in the twentieth century.

Crawford’s compelling historical narrative builds upon recent scholarship illuminating the centrality of maritime engagements in the history and identity of the Caribbean. For both turtles and turtlemen, mobility was a central aspect of life histories, identities, and social networks. As they followed turtles within an integrated maritime geography and economy, turtlemen forged relationships transcending linguistic, national, and imperial boundaries. A vibrant maritime culture and economy developed along the seafaring routes of Caymanian turtlemen, and along with it, a regional system of shared fishing techniques, environmental knowledge, and navigational strategies among Caymanian, Colombian, Indigenous Miskito, and Central America’s Afro-Caribbean communities.

One of Crawford’s most significant arguments is that conflicts over transnational turtle fisheries helped to shape national maritime boundaries far beyond the Cayman Islands. Turtles, of course, pay scant attention to borders, and as chapter 4 chronicles, disputes over remote keys and shallow reef banks often hinged on discourses about national resources and the rights to access them. From the 1880s to the 1950s, and as a declining turtle fishery pushed Caymanian turtlemen farther out to sea, a series of disputes over access to fishing grounds illustrated “the messy multilateral process of maritime boundary making, in which contestations among multiple national and imperial state actors … helped to consolidate a once porous but contested space in the circum-Caribbean” (p. 85).

As this book makes clear, turtle conservation policies and scientific knowledge would be at best incomplete and at worst ill-informed without the insights Caymanian turtlemen. Crawford chronicles the brief yet impactful collaborations between conservation biologist Archi Carr, and Caymanian turtlemen that led to the establishment of a turtle tracking program based in Costa Rica’s Tortuguero rookery. Conservation efforts in 1950s and 1960s were shaped by postwar politics and driven by a growing global interest in the sea and its inhabitants. Even as Caymanian turtlemen contributed essential knowledge to conservation science and policy, their labor was increasingly restricted through declining fisheries and the very policies of marine conservation they helped to create. Despite initial intentions to cultivate sustainable turtle fisheries, by the 1970s Carr’s research found any form of turtle consumption to be unsustainable.

Turtlemen are central to the book’s narrative and, as Crawford argues, to broader processes of boundary making and social life across seascapes. Despite their focal role, turtlemen disappear at the end of the book, their labor rendered impossible by both changing ocean ecologies and transnational conservation policies. I wondered, did turtlemen feel betrayed by conservation policies that eventually rendered their work illegal despite their contributions to the research behind environmental policies? While previous chapters focus on the expansion of national maritime borders, the last chapter leaves the reader with the sense that conservation is a new type of boundary making, where those dependent on fragile fisheries are definitively barred from not only sea spaces, but also the diminishing economies and ecologies of the turtle trade.

At a moment when marine conservation policies are flooding the Caribbean, Crawford’s book is a timely reminder that the sea has long been at the center of regional debates about labor, environment, and the reaches of imperial and national powers. Crawford’s expertly woven narrative of a fishery in decline could be superimposed upon any community of fishers in the Caribbean today. Sharp declines in marine resources, disputes about borders at sea, and increasingly tense relations between local fishers and conservation policymakers continue to saturate Caribbean seascapes. The Last Turtlemen offers readers more than a detailed picture of a defining moment in environmental history. Rather, it provides a picture of the often-overlooked actors at the heart of boundary making, political ecologies, and the lived geographies of the Caribbean. While Caymanian turtlemen may have disappeared, their legacies lie in the network of maritime borders they helped to draw, the changes they imprinted upon a broader Caribbean ecology, and in the contours of conservation policies unfolding still in Caribbean seascapes.

Citation: Kyrstin Mallon Andrews. Review of Crawford, Sharika D., The Last Turtlemen of the Caribbean: Waterscapes of Labor, Conservation, and Boundary Making (Flows, Migrations, and Exchanges). H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews. May, 2021. URL:

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