Ransacking nature and building up a fortune by satisfying the cravings of a selfish elite; Or, How an industry dominated by T.K. Bellis Turtle Company Limited of London, England, nearly obliterated a true marvel of the sea, Part 2
Hello there, my reading friend. Given that yours truly still had a lot of material on T.K. Bellis Turtle Company Limited of London, England, I thought best to put said that material in this second instalment. And here it is. Are you not joyous? I could easily have turned this project into a three-part article, you know…
Humm, your show of joy is not exactly staggering but it will do.
As yours truly hinted at in the first part of this article, by the early 1870s, Thomas Kerrison Bellis had come to realise that the way the English / British sea turtle trade was organised was quite inefficient. Convinced that he could do better, he went into business in 1874. Bellis seemed to have a real knack for business. In 1882, for example, he won a silver medal at the International Fisheries Exhibition held in London. In 1883, he won a gold medal.
By the end of the 19th century, T.K. Bellis Turtle, the firm run by the Turtle King, as Bellis was known, pretty much had a monopoly on the English / British (and Empire / Commonwealth?) sea turtle trade. Would you believe that Bellis claimed to control 90 % of said trade? Indeed, T.K. Bellis Turtle might have been the largest importer / slayer of green sea turtles in Europe at the time.
A typical T.K. Bellis Turtle Company Limited advertisement. Anon., “T.K. Bellis Turtle Company Limited.” The Canadian Journal of Commerce, 17 October 1902, 1622.
And yes, my reading friend, T.K. Bellis Turtle products like turtle soup and jelly were indeed available in Canada since at least 1902. The advertisement which appeared in October of that year in the weekly The Canadian Journal of Commerce, published in Montréal, Québec, an advertisement you saw only seconds ago, was / is proof of that.
Thanks to Bellis’ management, the average cost of turtle soup at the end of the 19th century went from 0.46 £ per litre to 0.22 £ per litre, sums which correspond to approximately $ 135 and $ 64 in 2023 Canadian currency. And yes, that meant that the cost of Imperial and American gallons of soup might have gone from the equivalent of approximately $ 615 to $ 290 and from $ 510 to $ 240 in 2023 Canadian currency. The mind boggles.
And yes, T.K. Bellis Turtle most certainly had a royal warrant of appointment which allowed it to state on its products that it supplied the household of Queen Victoria, born Alexandrina Victoria of house Hanover. Yours truly has a feeling that it also supplied the household of her son and successor, the, very respectfully, gluttonous King Edward VII, born Albert Edward “Bertie” of house Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, but I digress.
Caught in the gulf of Mexico by small crews moving about on schooners or sloops, the green sea turtles destined for the British market were delivered to Kingston, Jamaica. Each ship could carry between 80 and 150 green sea turtles, when times were good, for the hunting parties that is. And yes, a number of turtles caught in the hunters’ nets might well have drowned before the latter could get to them.
Put in enclosures containing seawater and fed sea grass, the sea turtles were soon put on board ships of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. Fed with lettuce (and oatmeal?), the sea turtles were again housed in tubs. It is possible that they got hosed with (warmed up?) sea water during their one way trip to England. While on the train to London, the sea turtles were kept warm by numerous foot warmers.
The use of the word warm was most important indeed. Cold temperatures inevitably proved fatal. On one occasion, in the 1890s, 45 of the 120 sea turtles carried by a British mail ship died en route, from one cause or other. Another 30 died from cold on English soil before they reached London.
Even though, as was stated in the first part of this article, fully grown green sea turtles could weight up to 190 kilogrammes (420 pounds), the meat of these individuals was deemed too tough or lacking in delicacy for the mouthparts of the United Kingdom’s wealthy elites. As a result, by and large, only individuals weighing between 45 and 65 kilogrammes (100 to 140 pounds) were seized.
While it had initially kept the surviving sea turtles in its cellars, until their presence in the kitchen was required… Err, yes, the turtles were initially kept in tubs containing sea water or on straw mats perhaps. Err, let us start over. While it had initially kept the surviving sea turtles in its cellars until their presence in the kitchen was required, in the late 1890s, T.K. Bellis Turtle put these survivors to death soon after they reached its facility. The sea turtles thus became preserved turtle, turtle galantine, turtle herbs, turtle jelly, turtle pate and turtle soup, not to mention, goodness gracious, turtle oil soap.
Incidentally, a galantine was / is a dish composed of pieces of white meat surrounded by a mixture of stuffing and salpicon, the whole thing cooked in a stock out of which a jelly was made to glaze or accompany the galantine.
In a totally different line of thinking, the… Sigh… A salpicon was / is a mixture of vegetables, meat, fruit and / or fish cut into small dice and bound with a white or brown sauce of the same nature. May I continue? Thank you.
In a totally different line of thinking, the following quote, found in a January 1900 issue of The Graphic, a hugely influential British weekly illustrated newspaper, might be interesting and somewhat disturbing:
A few spoonfuls of Bellis’s Real Turtle Soup or Turtle Jelly will often save a valuable life.
Unless Turtle Soup or Turtle Jelly has been administered, it cannot be said that the utmost has been done for the Sufferer.
Wow… And no, neither turtle soup nor turtle jelly had / has any proven effect on influenza, but back to our story.
The severe depletion of green sea turtle populations caused a mild panic in London in October 1904. Yea. According to some, it was impossible to find a single live representative of that ever more endangered species anywhere in the city. People were seemingly willing to pay more than 1 £ for 28 grammes (1 ounce) of turtle meat, which corresponds to approximately 265 $ in 2023 Canadian currency.
For 28 grammes (1 ounce) of turtle meat. I kid you not.
What dastardly villain could be responsible for that crisis, you ask, my reading friend? Well, you see, sea turtle hunters from various British colonies of the Caribbean were in the middle of a tiff with representatives of the government of Nicaragua.
Eager to tap into a new source of revenue, the government of Nicaragua, then headed by an enlightened despot, president José Santos Zelaya López, had decided, in April 1903, to impose a tax on every ship involved in the sea turtle trade. It did so at a time when it did not have the means to enforce that measure, however. Nicaragua was, after all, a small country with very limited naval resources. It also functioned in an environment rife with tensions.
You see, again, Nicaragua’s southern neighbour, Colombia, was still rife with unrest, as a result of a grievous 1 000 day long civil war. Worse still, a break up of the country supported / engineered by the United States had led to the creation of a new country, Panama, in November 1903. And yes, the creation of Panama was the direct consequence of the wish of the American government, then headed by president Theodore “T.R. / Teddy” Roosevelt, Junior, to control the canal it wanted to see built in the new country.
Mind you, yours truly wonders if the Zelaya López government might also have been a tiny bity annoyed by what it saw as the depletion of its coastal waters by people who, in previous years, had depleted their own coastal waters. Just sayin’.
In any event, the sea turtle hunters of the British colonies located in the Caribbean were understandably alarmed. Indeed, they asked the Colonial Office, the British colonial ministry, that the governments of said British colonies lease the required hunting rights on their behalf and refrain from taking steps regarding the enforcement of the tax until the arrival of a clarifying document prepared by the Nicaraguan government.
British importers of sea turtles were also understandably alarmed, and this despite the fact that they were quite pleased to see how difficult it was for Nicaragua to enforce its new tax. They all had pretty darn good reasons to be pleased. You see, according to Bellis, the imposition of said tax could increase the price of the turtle soup sold in the United Kingdom by up to 35 %.
A single litre of that delightful dish might therefore have seen its price climb to as much as 1.3 £, a sum which corresponds to a mind blowing $ 380 in 2023 Canadian currency. And yes, that meant that Imperial and American gallons of soup might respectively have cost the equivalent of approximately $ 1 725 and $ 1 440 in 2023 Canadian currency. The mind boggles.
If the Nicaraguan law was enforced, stated Bellis, the sea turtle trade would pretty well come to a crashing halt.
In late 1903 or early 1904, the Nicaraguan authorities tried to enforce the tax, threatening to seize the sea turtles aboard schooners and sloops from the Cayman Islands if payment was refused. The commodore of the hunting fleet politely refused to pay, adding that the British colonial authorities in Jamaica, the very governor of that colony perhaps, Sir Augustus William Lawson Hemming, had informed him that, as long as the British ships stayed out of Nicaraguan waters, in other words outside the 3 nautical mile (5.5 kilometres) limit, no payment of any tax could be demanded.
Better yet, the commodore might have informed the Nicaraguan authorities that the Royal Navy was ready to escort the ships involved in the sea turtle trade if need be. The Zelaya López government knew it had no option but to back off.
From the looks of it, the situation did not improve all that much over the following months. Indeed, things got worse. In late March 1904, claiming an infringement of their territorial waters, something the hunting parties denied, the Nicaraguan authorities seized 6 schooners hailing from the Cayman Islands, imprisoned their crews, destroyed their nets and released (or sold?) the green sea turtles they had captured.
The British government sent a small Royal Navy cruiser to calm things down and see to it that the crews of the schooners and the ships themselves got released and that a pretty hefty compensation be paid for the seizure of the schooners and their catch. Better yet, the captain of the cruiser demanded that the sea turtle hunting stations located on small islands in international waters off the shores of Nicaragua, destroyed on order of the Nicaraguan government, be rebuilt as quickly as possible.
While most of the sea turtle hunters were indeed released before too, too long, in May I think, these individuals and, possibly, the crews of other ships were so rattled that they refused to hunt anywhere near Nicaragua. As a result, stated Bellis, the cruiser might have escorted the hunting parties. Whether or not this was true and / or whether or not the matter got settled before the 1904 edition of the huge annual banquet hosted in November by the Right Honourable Lord Mayor of London was / is unclear. Yours truly is of the opinion that, once again, the Zelaya López government knew it had no option but to back off.
Would you believe that another similar situation erupted in the spring of 1905? Yea. A small Royal Navy cruiser, a brand new one incidentally, was sent to Nicaragua to calm things down. The Zelaya López government indicated that it would not molest the British schooners and sloops involved in the sea turtle trade in international waters. It did not have much of a choice.
Yet another mini crisis erupted in the fall of 1905. I kid you not. Sea turtle hunters from the Cayman Islands accidentally entered Nicaragua’s territorial waters because they did not know where these waters ended. The captain of the brand new Royal Navy cruiser talked to the British hunters and the Nicaraguan authorities. The mini crisis subsided. Whether or not the matter got settled before the 1905 edition of the huge annual banquet hosted in November by the Right Honourable Lord Mayor of London was / is again unclear.
A brief digression if I may. The sea turtle hunting fleet of the Cayman Islands consisted of close to 35 schooners and sloops as of early 1907. Two thirds of that fleet operated in the coastal waters of Nicaragua. And yes, you are quite right, my reading friend, the sea turtle trade was indeed the chief industry of the Cayman Islands at the time.
And yes, again, the actions taken by the Royal Navy in 1904-05 were / are a classic example of gunboat diplomacy, the pursuit of various foreign policy objectives with the help of the conspicuous presence of warships and an implicit / explicit threat of violence should the weaker power not grovel to the satisfaction of the stronger power.
A potentially controversial thought if I may. The crews of the British West Indies / Caribbean colonies involved in the sea turtle trade and / or the British sea turtle importers themselves, Bellis included, knew that they could count on the Royal Navy if push came to shove. Some of these hunters and importers might have decided to take advantage of that fact. If I may be permitted to quote the aforementioned Roosevelt, “Speak softly and carry a big stick, and you will go far.”
The catch with such an attitude was / is that the power and influence of great powers wax and wane. China was at the receiving end of a whole lot of bullying and humiliation in the 19th and 20th century, courtesy of the Russian, Japanese, German, French, British, American, etc. empires, for example. Should one be surprised that, now that it has a great deal of power at its disposal, the leadership of the Zhōngguó Gòngchǎndǎng uses its new found strength to push around / intimidate countries near and far? China and the Communist party of China might only be acting as great powers have tended to act through the ages. Again, just sayin’. End of controversial thought.
T.K. Bellis Turtle was liquidated no later than September 1912. The links if any between that firm and another entity, that one put together in January 1911, T.K. Bellis Turtle Company (1911) Limited, were / are unclear. In any event, Bellis was one of the directors of the latter.
As you may well imagine, the onset of the First World War, in 1914, put the kibosh on the sea turtle trade. Besides the danger posed by German submarines, shipping firms also had to carry items of primary necessity rather than luxuries.
T.K. Bellis Turtle Co. (1911) was liquidated no later than January 1922. Bellis himself left this world in April 1929, at the ripe old age of 88.
Even though Bellis and his firms were no longer there, the populations of green sea turtles never bounced back. By the 1960s, the species was arguably on its way to extinction. Even so, would you believe that the American and Canadian tourists who flocked to Florida in ever increasing numbers in wintertime, after the Second World War, could slurp or gobble sea turtle soup and / or turtle steaks, not to mention sea turtle hamburgers, and this right until the 1960s, if not the early 1970s?
Thankfully, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora came into effect in July 1975. In March 1973, representatives of 80 or so countries, including Canada and the United States, had agreed upon the text of that legally binding, I think, international effort to protect the world’s flora and fauna. Canada signed the convention in July 1974 and ratified it in April 1975.
Even though the writing of this article did not / will not make a vegetarian or vegan out of me, for all intent and purposes, yours truly has, over the past few years, turned into a practicing… pescatarian, in other words a vegetarian whose diet includes fish – and other types of sea creatures. (Hello, EG!) In addition, this pescatarian also likes eggs and cheese. (Hello, Wallace and Gromit!)
See you later.