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Tortoises

( Originally Published 1851 )



It is not improbable that some of our readers, who reside near a great commercial port, may have. seen the landing of a cargo of strange looking animals, which, turned upon their backs, appear the most helpless of creatures, and in this condition may have naturally led the spectator to imagine that they are incapable of removing from place to place, and have therefore little enjoyment of existence. These creatures, to use the language of the epicure, are fine " lively turtles" the term " lively" being understood to mean that they have suffered little from a long voyage that they are in good health and that the " green fat," the glory of aldermen, is in the most perfect state of excellence. Without asking our readers to feel any very strong interest in the prospects of high living which the arrival of a cargo of turtles offers to many individuals who are somewhat too much inclined to set a high value upon the gratifications of the palate, we may be able to satisfy a rational curiosity as to the habits of these singular animals, which offer some higher benefits to mankind than that of furnishing the most costly luxury of a city feast.

The turtle and the tortoise belong to the same group of reptiles in fact the turtle is a tortoise which principally inhabits the water, and is only found occasionally on the land. The two varieties represented in the above plate are the Green Tortoise (a), and the Loggerhead Tortoise (b). The former is the species chiefly used for food. It is found, in great numbers, on the coasts of all the islands and continents of the torrid zone. The shoals which surround these coasts are covered with marine plants; and in these water pastures, which are near enough to the surface to be readily seen by the naked eye in calm weather, a prodigious abundance of animals, mostly amphibious, feed, and amongst them multitudes of tortoises Dampier, the old voyager, describing the Gallapagos Islands, says, " There are good wide channels between these islands fit for ships to pass; and in some places shoal water, where there grows plenty of turtle grass; therefore these islands are plentifully stored with sea turtle." The tortoise, whether of the land or water species, is, as most of our readers know, protected, both on the back and belly, by a hollow shield, which is open at each end, for the issuing of the head and fore-feet at one time, and the tail and hind-feet at another.

The upper shield is termed the back-plate, or buckler; the lower shield the breast-plate. The middle of the buckler, in most of the species, is covered by numerous pieces or plates resembling horn in texture and composition; and the beautiful sub-stance known by the name of tortoise-shell is obtained principally from a small species called the Hawksbill. The feet of the marine tortoises are much longer than those of the land, and their toes are united by a membrane, so that they swim with great facility. The head, feet, and tail are covered with small scales. The jaws of the wide mouth are not provided with teeth, but the jaw-bones are very hard and strong, and being at the same time very rough, the animal is enabled to consume its vegetable food with ease, and at the same time to crush the shell-fish on which the marine species also feed. The green tortoise attains an enormous size and weight; some individuals measuring six or seven feet in length from the tip of the nose to the extremity of the tail, by three or four feet broad, and weighing as much as eight hundred pounds. Dam-pier says, " I heard of a monstrous green turtle once taken at Port Royal, in the bay of Campeachy that was four feet deep from the back to the belly and the belly six feet broad. Captain Rocky's son, of about nine or ten years of age, went in it (meaning in the shell) as in a boat, on board his father's ship about a quarter of a mile from the shore." The green tortoise commonly weighs from two to three hundred pounds.

The female turtle deposits her eggs on the loose sand, and leaves them to be hatched by the influence of the sun's rays. These eggs are round, and two or three inches in diameter; they are covered with a membrane something like wet parchment. They are hatched in less than a month after they are laid; and in about eight or ten days the young reptiles creep to the water.

The wood-cut at the head of this article represents the manner in which the marine tortoises are caught on the coast of Cuba, and on parts of the South American continent. The Count de Lacepede, in his History of Oviporous Quadrupeds, has described the various modes in which the business of tortoise-catching is carried on; and we shall conclude this notice with an abstract of his account. It must be remarked that the turtle is a most important addition to the ordinary mode of victual-ling a ship; and that, therefore, the war in which the human race engages against them is rendered absolutely necessary by the wants of navigators.

In spite of the darkness which is chosen by the female tortoises for concealment when employed in laying their eggs, they cannot effectually escape from the pursuit of their enemies: the fishers wait for them on the shore, at the beginning of the night, especially when it is moonlight, and, either as they come from the sea, or as they return after laying their eggs, they either despatch them with blows of a club, or turn them quickly over on their backs, not giving them time either to defend themselves, or to blind their assailants, by throwing up the sand with their fins. When very large, it requires the efforts of several men to turn them over, and they must often employ the assistance of handspikes or levers for that purpose. The buckler of this species is so flat as to render it impossible for the animal to recover the recumbent posture, when it is once turned on its back.

"A small number of fishers may turn over forty or fifty tortoises, full of eggs, in less than three hours. During the day, they are employed in se-curing those which they had caught in the preceding night. They cut them up, and salt the flesh and the eggs. Sometimes they may extract above thirty pints of a yellow or greenish oil from one large individual; this is employed for burning, or, when fresh, is used with different kinds of food Sometimes they drag the tortoises they have caught, on their backs, to enclosures, in which they are reserved for occasional use.

" The tortoise fishers, from the West Indies and the Bahamas, who catch these animals on the coasts of Cuba and its adjoining islands, particularly the Caymanas, usually complete their cargoes in six weeks or two months; they afterwards return to their own islands, with the salted turtle, which is used for food both by the whites and the negroes. This salt turtle is in as great request in the American colonies, as the salted cod of Newfoundland is in many parts of Europe; and the fishing is followed by all these colonists, particularly by the British, in small vessels, on various parts of the coast of Spanish America, and the neighboring desert islands.

" The green tortoise is likewise often caught at sea in calm weather, and in moon-light nights. For this purpose two men go together in a small boat, which is rowed by one of them, while the other is provided with a harpoon, similar to that used for killing whales. Whenever they discover a large tortoise, by the froth which it occasions on the water in rising to the surface, they hasten to the spot as quickly as possible, to prevent it from escaping. The harpooner immediately throws his harpoon with sufficient force to penetrate through the buckler to the flesh; the tortoise instantly dives, and the fisher gives out a line, which is fixed to the harpoon, and, when the tortoise is spent with loss of blood, it is hauled into the boat or on shore."

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