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  • Subsidy from Nature:Green Sea Turtles in the Colonial Caribbean
  • Karl Offen

throughout their careers, archie Carr, James Parsons, and Bernard Nietschmann—the latter two were early and influential members of the Conference of Latin American Geographers (CLAG)—asked challenging questions about human-environmental relations and, in so doing, highlighted the essential relationship between the green sea turtle and human activities in the colonial Caribbean. They interrogated the fundamental linkages between specific ecosystems and the sociopolitical and economic developments to which these links contributed. Today we may call this sort of research coupled human-environment systems, but exemplary cultural-historical geography has always strived to analyze the mutual entanglements uniting society with environment. The purpose of this commentary is to encourage Latin American geographers to continue this vein of research, and specifically to do so in a way that elucidates the broader significance of society-environment relations. I do this here by following up on the powerful historical implications suggested throughout the works of Carr, Parsons, and Nietschmann.

Geographers have long analyzed how subsidies from nature allowed particular patterns of human settlement and resource use, and the intrepid scholarship of Carr, Parsons, and Nietschmann was no exception.1 Although their work with Chelonia mydas, or the green sea turtle, is well-known among marine ecologists and conservation biologists today (Rieser, 2012), the far-reaching significance of their historical deductions have been largely overlooked. This is unfortunate because their assertions suggest that Chelonia's abundance and lifecycle ecology undergirded settler colonialism, plantation agriculture, piracy, portions of the slave trade, and intra-imperial conflicts throughout the Caribbean basin and from the earliest days of the European presence. Despite this claim, much of the work by Carr, Parsons, and Nietschmann remains unknown or underutilized by historians of the colonial Caribbean.

The abundant, predictable, and easily taken Chelonia provided an essential and nutritious food source for early Europeans in the Caribbean basin, allowing piracy and commercial enterprises built upon the exploitation of human labor to take root. Notice of the indispensable subsidy from nature was made as early as 1954 by Archie Carr, who opined that "all early activity in the new world tropics–exploration, colonization, buccaneering and the maneuverings of naval squadrons–was in some way dependent on the [sea] turtle.… More than any other dietary factor the green turtle supported the opening up of the Caribbean" [End Page 182] (Carr, 1954, p.17). Shortly thereafter, James Parsons (1962) sustained and reinforced this observation in his classic The Green Turtle and Man by highlighting the strong connection between piratical activity and the wide abundance of Chelonia throughout the western Caribbean. Taking mostly a cultural ecology approach, Bernard Nietschmann (1973, 1979a, 1979b) illustrated the pivotal role of Chelonia in bringing the Miskitu people into allied relations with buccaneers and early English settlers in the far western Caribbean, groups that decisively altered the human geography of that region for 200 years and helped explain the rise of non-Spanish colonies in the region during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In spite of these compelling and prescient conjectures, only a few historians of the colonial Caribbean have engaged with this aspect of their work.

A recent article by the historian Mary Draper (2017) illustrates how these earlier studies remain poorly known but also why they should be more widely appreciated. Draper examines the role of timber and green sea turtle acquired in the "maritime hinterlands" of early English Barbados and Jamaica, respectively. She found that available surpluses of these off-island resources were essential for urban and capitalist development in the English West Indies. In the case of Jamaica, she illustrates how the harvesting of Chelonia from surrounding ecosystems allowed for the rise of Port Royal as a critical entrepot for piracy and smuggling. Her work suggests, but does not fully develop the implications of, the centrality of Chelonia for provisioning the enterprises which provided the start-up capital necessary for commercial agriculture, sugar mills, and the purchase of enslaved labor in Jamaica (Draper, 2017; see also Zahedieh, 1986, 1990; Crawford & Márquez-Pérez, 2016). Though her study is fundamentally ecological and geographic, Draper does not reference the decades-long and wide-ranging work of...