Monthly Archives: August 2014

Turtles, Turtle Soup and Class at Sea

 Green Turtle Image

 As a young boy turtles played only a small role in my life. While weeding my mother’s garden or playing in the back yard I came across the occasional boxer turtle.  Bemused by the slow moving animals I loved watching their halting movements through the underbrush. It never occurred to me turtles could be a source of food or reinforce social status. How unaware I was! A recent review of whaling journals at the San Francisco Public Library has made clear how little I still know about the central role of turtles and turtle soup on whaling voyages in the Age of Sail. It is Americans’,  particularly whaling seamen’s, fascination with sea turtles during the Age of Sail and how turtles and turtle soup helped shape identities that I want to discuss in this post.

With the exception of New Orleans restaurants and some cruise ships, there are not many American public dining spaces that today serve turtle soup. Most contemporary Americans have never eaten turtle soup. The same could hardly be said for early settlers of the Americas or their European cousins.  Englishmen sailing to Virginia who found themselves shipwrecked on Bermuda in 1609 subsequently set out for Virginia on the Sea Venture with supplies that included green turtles. Despite early seventeenth century attempts to limit harvesting of turtles the Bermudian turtle population was quickly depleted. As a result, Europeans spread out over the western Atlantic to Florida, the Cayman Islands and elsewhere in search of turtles. Turtlers, i.e. small vessels harvesting turtles, became an important component of the Western Atlantic maritime economy. These small vessels were critical to the development of a web of commercial connections whereby turtles were captured and then shipped to North American and European consumers.

In the ensuing centuries overhunting resulted in turtle canneries, such as A. Granday’s of Key West, having to limit their production of turtle soup, and eventually lead to strict regulation of turtle harvesting. With the passage in 1971 of the Endangered Species Act, killing of sea turtles in United States waters was prohibited and Granday’s and other turtle canneries went out of business.

Granday's Turtle Soup Label

But in the 18th and 18th centuries turtles were an important food staple in the Atlantic. A market for turtles and turtle soup was well developed in England as early as 1753 when Gentleman’s Magazine contained several notices of large sea turtles being dressed in London public houses. Demand for turtles grew so significantly that ships from the West Indies constructed wooden tanks in which live turtles could be transported. And an association between turtle soup and upper class pretensions developed fairly quickly. Even before the American Revolution turtle soup was associated with fops or dandies, wearers of macaroni wigs.

The Drosy Contrast or Turtle & Bone Soup Macaronies

“The Drowsy Contrast or Turtle & Bone Soup Macaronies”

Residents of North American were not far behind their British cousins in both developing a taste for turtle soup and associating its consumption with refinement.  It appears that Charleston was the first major North American city which developed a market for the consumption of turtle soup in public dining spaces. Given the city’s proximity to West Indian and Floridian sources of sea turtles this is hardly surprising. In 1784 the Charleston Coffee Shop offered “Turtle Soup every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.” Soon competitors such as Moore’s Exchange Coffee-House and Tavern and Browne’s Eating-House placed similar notices in local papers.  By the 1790s advertisements regularly appeared in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston newspapers offering the public “Real Green Turtle Soup!” that was “of the best quantity,” while “gentlemen of the city” were urged to partake in dinners in which turtles would be “dressed in the finest style” before heading to the theater.

The popularity of turtle soup during the 18th century is also apparent from the1798 country dance called “Turtle Soup.”  (Those of us of a certain age might remember the Turtles last album was called “Turtle Soup.” I doubt that Flo and Eddie were inspired by the eighteenth century dance, but stranger things have happened).

In the first three decades of the nineteenth century, whether dancing to the sounds of “Turtle Soup” or not, many Americans and Europeans who were or aspired to be among the leisure classes ate turtle soup. Dining proprietors in Newburyport, Salem, Hartford, Newport, Providence, and Albany all advertised that turtle soup was on their menus and sought “gentlemen” to feast on the delicacy. Turtle soup came to be seen as a symbol of Victorian opulence, associated with lavish Lord Mayor’s and aldermen’s banquets. At most such galas, as well club dinners at hotels such as Young’s, the Parker House and the Albion Hotel, turtle soup was almost “invariably offered” as the first course of a extensive menu. Well off families were urged to have their servants pick up soup so the “families can be supplied.”  In contrast workers who crowded into noisy crowded nineteenth century sixpenny restaurants where rapid fire meals were consumed in less than thirty minutes did not expect to be served turtle soup.

The expense of turtle soup and what Miss Corson’s Practical Cookery’s calls the “inconvenience” for families in killing large turtles did not stop those of limited means from aspiring to eat turtle soup. Price may have deterred workers from purchasing turtle soup but inventive cooks soon came up with an alternative – mock turtle soup.  Mock turtle soup was popular in both England and North America and recipes for it can be found cook books of the late 18th and early nineteenth centuries. Typically , as did Mrs. Raffald’s 1807 Experienced Housekeeper recipe for “artificial” turtle soup,  calf’s head was used to provide the gelatinous texture found in traditional turtle soup. But whether the mock turtle soup utilized calf’s head or fried ham it offered workers a means to experience the pleasure and associations of turtle soup without the expense or fuss involved in killing a large turtle.

For seamen whose diets were, to be charitable, dull and unvarying, sea turtles offered both an opportunity to ‘spice up’ their diet and partake in an activity that on land was generally limited to those of greater means than the typical Jack Tar.

Baltimore Patriot, July 21, 1821 Turtle Soup Ad

Baltimore Patriot, July 1, 1821

Sailors, particularly whaling seamen, had a good deal of experience capturing and eating turtles. This resulted in mariners expressing preferences concerning the types of turtles they ate as well as how the turtles were prepared. New Bedford men often considered the green turtle “somewhat coarse food” causing them to leave the “flat-shelled fellows on the beaches behind us.” However, Massachusetts whalers did like terrapin turtles that they toasted, claiming that toasted terrapin was “sweeter than almond.” Other seaman, such as William Whitecar, expressed a preference for Madagascar terrapins. Whitcar and his mess mates found that despite some turtles having lived in the ship’s hold for a year they were “quite fat, and [provided] a delicious meal.”

When whaling crews captured large numbers of turtles ships’ cooks were said to create dinners “surpassing a civic banquet in the quality and quantity.” Given the immense size of some sea turtles, which could weight as much as two hundred pounds, the killing and cooking of these animals in the tight confines of a whaling ship was no easy feat.  Sailors appreciated the efforts of ship cooks in preparing turtle meals. The mariners described their dinners of turtle meat and/or turtle soup as “feast[s] fit for a prince.”  In describing turtle dinners on board a whaling ship the American seaman Thomas Beale remarked that “our black cook” had presented a feast that was “aldermanic.” Clearly Beale and other whalers enjoyed the fact that despite their physically demanding and often isolated lifestyle they were able to partake in eating high end food and engaging in a dining experience that on land was generally only experienced by more wealthy individuals such as aldermen. Whether the turtles they ate were green turtles from Florida, Madagascar terrapins or Pacific sea turtles, seamen’s dining on turtles constituted an inversion of usual class roles. Whaling seamen engaging in turtle fests at sea was the maritime equivalent of Election Day or Pinkster Day, where a black slave was elected Governor for a day. While neither turtle-fests at sea nor Election or Pinskter Days undid existing  class structures, they did provide the underclass – sailors and slaves  – a brief respite in which roles were reversed.

Wealth typically translates to greater health, meaning wealthier individuals who can afford better quality and diversity of food on average live longer.  It is likely that eating turtle meat and soup allowed some unknown number of whaling seamen to reap benefits of a more diverse diet typically limited to those of greater means, and perhaps live longer lives than seamen who had less diverse diets.

What might be most interesting about the class implications of turtle soup is how long it retained its character as a dish for society’s elites. When John Lusty, chairman of the English firm which imported turtles, died in 1947, his obituary noted Lusty’s turtles had “graced the table of many a prince and society hostess,” as well as three monarchs. And yet, as the below image of Worthman’s Mock Turtle Soup indicates, even today there are still some who cannot afford turtle soup who seek to enjoy the luxurious experience associated with eating the soup without paying its cost.

Worthmore Mock Turtle Soup

Could You Survive on a 18th Century Seaman’s Diet?

My wife often says people tend to either favor sweet or savory foods.  This may be true for many twenty-first century Americans. However, while today many of us are obsessed with food (is it locally grown, organic, gluten-free, vegan, etc.) sailors in the Age of Sail rarely had the opportunity to choose between eating sweet or savory foods.  More to the point, their diets rarely varied and sailors had little say regarding the food they ate.

What was an 18th seamen’s diet like? A quick look at Royal Navy (“RN”) victualling regulations provides a sense of the food sailors ate. The regulations required the following foods be served to naval crews on a weekly basis:

                Biscuit         Beer          Beef           Pork            Pease        Oatmeal   Butter        Cheese

                Pounds   Gallons       Pounds    Pounds       Pint            Pint            Ounces      Ounces

 Sun. 1 1 1 ½
 Mon. 1 1 1 2 4
 Tues. 1 1 2
 Wed. 1 1 ½ 1 2 4
 Thurs. 1 1 1 ½
 Fri. 1 1 ½ 1 2 4
 Sat. 1 1 2
 Total 7 7 4 2 2 3 6 12

Janet McDonald, Feeding Nelson’s Navy (2006), 9-10

This diet remained largely unchanged until 1847 when the Navy began to utilize canning. Seamen on 18th century American whaling vessels were served a similarly unappetizing selection of food with corn and beans occasionally providing some variety to their meals.

A couple of observations about a sailor’s diet in the 18th century:

  •      Grog, rum mixed with water, was considered “sacrosant” by naval crew. Officers occasionally drank wine but it was rare that the crew did so, unless, as they sometimes did, they opened up a cask without permission.
  •      Fruit was not a regular staple for sailors. Not until 1795 did the Admiralty Board sanction the issue of lemon juice for naval crews. When crews had an opportunity to obtain fruit, they had, as the American seaman Thomas Beale observed, “good reason to be well satisfied.”
  • Vegetables were provided to seamen but in much smaller quantities than most Americans today would be used to. During the American Revolution when vegetables were no longer regularly provided Royal Navy seamen large numbers of naval crewmen became ill (of the approximately 100,000 RN seamen serving in the war 23,000 landed on the navy’s sick list).  As Gabriel Bray’s “Four Marines Eating Pease” illustrates, unlike many contemporary school children, eighteenth-century seamen did not have to be urged to “eat your peas.”  Cooks who obtained vegetables or fruits were favorably viewed as enabling crews to “live high for some time.”


Gabriel Bray, “Four Marines Eating Pease,”

  •  Fresh meat rarely was provided to the crew. To vary the steady diet of salted meats some naval vessels were issued fishing tackle. For example, in 1712 H.M. Yacht Charlotte received “trawl nett, peter net, oyster drudges, mackerrell lines and mackerrell hooks.” As the two below illustrations by Lieutenant Gabriel Bray indicate, it was not unusual for sailors and marines to use tackle to obtain fish in order to break the monotony of a salted meat diet.

Marine & Seaman Fishing off the anchor, HMS Pallas, NMM PAJ 2013

A sailor fishing off a gun. PAF2016

  • Rats, which were present in most sailing ships, although not part of any ship’s official diet, were known to make their way into many a seaman’s mess. (Anyone know of a recipe for rat that might appeal to present-day American tastes?)
  • Contrary to the impression given in Thomas McLean’s caricature of a black cook and steward, it was very unlikely for a ship’s cook to be plucking a fresh chicken. It was more likely he would be cooking salted meat.

Naval Scenes, Steward and Cook copy

However, McLean’s illustration does neatly capture the centrality of food to seamen’s shipboard lives.

So this raises the question, could you survive on the diet of an 18th century sailor?  Hint, colorful salads such as the one depicted below, which my friend Diane and I recently shared, would NOT be what 18th century ship cooks provided to crews.

Montmartre Beet Salad

After my next posting on turtles and turtle soup I’ll post  a poll regarding food choices for seamen. Spend few moments to answer it and I’ll discuss the poll results in a later blog.

Seamen “Love Their Bellies”: How Blacks Became Ship Cooks


 City Gazette and Daily Advertiser, Aug. 1, 1791

City Gazette and Daily Advertiser (Charleston), Aug. 1, 1791

During orientation at Mystic Seaport in April Voyagers were told that hot cooked meals would not be provided when we sailed on the Charles W. Morgan. Being polite well-behaved academics, artists and writers, we did not harrumph about the cold provisions we were to be provided. Why complain when we were being given an opportunity few others would ever have, to sail on America’s oldest whaling ship. This would not, however, have been the reaction of seamen in the Age of Sail to such news.

As Samuel Pepys, Secretary to the Admiralty, observed in 1677, “Englishmen, and more especially seamen, love their bellies above everything else.”  The importance of food in seamen’s lives was no less important in the eighteenth century. Which raises the question, who were 18th century ship cooks?

As the above slave sale notice implies, black men such as the “Negro Fellow” being sold, worked both as sailors and cooks. Many of these men could regularly be found working as ship cooks in the Age of Sail.  But if so, which blacks became ship cooks, and why were there numerous black ship cooks, and what was the role of black cooks at sea?

To understand the place of black cooks it is important to consider who became ship cooks and why. Throughout the Anglo-American maritime world disabled and elderly men were employed as cooks. (The vessels of Scarborough, England in the mid-eighteenth century are a good example of this practice. See”Sewing a Safety Net,” A primary reason for disabled and elderly men being employed as cooks was the job being far less physically demanding than the hauling of lines and unfurling sails that most seamen did.

Men missing a limb or having impaired vision were believed capable of being cooks and frequently were so employed. Thus, in 1753 when the cook of HMS Jason deserted in Boston, the ship’s captain saw little reason not to hire as the deserter’s replacement, William Hallbrook, a seaman who had lost a leg in the naval service. Musters of naval ships throughout the Atlantic contained entries for scores of other naval seamen who having lost limbs in action were kept in service as cooks.  As one sailor so aptly observed, many seaman had a bullet “shot away one of his limbs, and so cut him out for a Sea-Cook.” While one would think having sight would be a bona fide occupational qualification as a cook, one-eyed men and even those who were blind, such as men on HMS Sovereign in 1741 and HMS Flora in 1771, were employed as cooks. The prevalence of disabled cooks is made apparent by the Navy Board’s 1746 pronouncement that there were no vacancies for cooks “because so many crippled sailors have been helped this way” and its 1776 order directing “cripples and maimed persons as are pensioners” be given preference for appointment as ship cooks.

Another group of men regularly employed as cooks were older men. In the eighteenth-century men over the age of forty generally only went to sea as non-officers if impoverished or without other opportunities. However, ‘old’ men (forty or older), frequently served as cooks on all types of ships. Most of these old cooks were not quite as elderly as Nicholas Dougherty, the eighty year old cook on HMS Eagle. But forty and fifty year old cooks were commonplace on ships in the Age of Sail. The Charles W. Morgan itself is a good example; at least two of the six cooks whose age were noted in the ship’s crew lists –John Branscombe of England and Felix Morris of Chile —  were forty years of age and older. Each of these men made multiple voyages with Branscombe serving on five consecutive year long voyages.

As my last blog post discussed, ship captains were often willing to hire runaways with or without maritime experience. Often these fugitive slaves found work on ships as cooks. For example, when the 17 year old South Carolinian waiting boy Tom fled in 1797 the young bondsman was believed to have sought a berth as he had previously “shipped himself as a Cook.” John Giff and other fugitives “offered [themselves] as Cook[s] on board some Ship” or “affect[ed] [themselves] in the capacity of a cook.”

Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia), Apr. 22, 1796

Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia), Apr. 22, 1796

Although not all runaways seeking freedom at sea had prior cooking experience, many did. The prevalence of enslaved cooks in British American colonies is made evident by the scores of slave sale notices such as the one below. Having spent much time cooking for white masters fugitives found that those same skills could serve as the key to finding freedom at sea.

The Royal Gazette, Feb. 6, 1779 Slave Sale Ad

The Royal Gazette (New York), Feb. 6, 1779

George Prince, Jack Rogers and scores of other blacks served as cooks on African slaving ships.  Other blacks, such as the itinerant preacher John Jea, worked as cooks on New England coasting vessels, trans-Atlantic merchant ships, Continental naval vessels, whaling ships, privateers, pirate ships, Lord Nelson’s naval ships and West Indies sloops. The narrative of the most famous 18th century black mariner, Olaudah Equiano, makes evident black cooks’ presence at sea. A quick perusal of Equiano’s Interesting Narrative ( not only offers readers a description of a black ship cook spilling hot fat, but also tells of his friend John Amis, a cook on a West Indies ship, having been kidnapped in England and forcibly re-enslaved on the island of St. Kitts.  In short, black cooks were ubiquitous in the 18th century Atlantic.

Mystic Seaport’s listing of The Charles W. Morgan‘s thirty-seven crews contains no identifiable blacks among the sixteen cooks in the ship’s crew lists serving between 1841 and 1921. However, as the Boston Globe recently reported, on the ship’s 37th voyage in 1921 the black Julian Grace served as the ship’s cook (the crew list does not indicate a cook for this voyage) Like a considerable number of other seamen on the Charles W. Morgan, Grace was from the Cape Verde Islands. Leaving Cape Verde at the age of nineteen Julian Grace settled in Massachusetts. His recipes for codfish cakes and beans with salted pork are still used by Grace family. Beans with salted pork would have been a meal Julian would have likely made for the Morgan‘s crew. But was he able to make them cachupa, the famous Cape Verde stew of slow cooked stew of corn, beans, and fish or meat ? Given that the ships of this era generally carried meat and often fished  the basic elements of the stew would have been available to Grace (see for an example of the crew fishing). Was he able to bring on board the yams and plantains traditionally included in the stew? And did the ship’s provisions include the garlic and bay leaves that gives the dish its flavor?  This is unlikely as few captains put much priority in spending monies to add variety to the crew’s meals.  But other than an entry regarding making bread on board, the ship’s journal contains no reference to the ship’s cook ( Thus what is unknown is how Julian’s, and for that matter, most Age of Sail cooks, cooking was received by his crewmates.

So eighteenth century cooks tended to be disabled, old and/or black. In short, they were often from the margins of society. It is therefore hardly surprising that in the eighteenth century black cooks often were ridiculed.  Thomas McLean’s “Naval Scenes – or sketches afloat – No. 3 Cooking” is a good example such ridicule. Unlike the typical image of a black seaman during the Age of Sail that depicted sable sailors as heroic (see, e.g., depicting a black gunner on the deck of HMS Victory at the moment of Lord Nelson’s death), McLean shows  the black cook and steward on the slaver Sandown as foolish. The cook’s low status is made clear by his being bare foot; while many plantation slaves in the Americas worked barefoot, seamen generally did not. On the other hand the steward is shown as perhaps slow or inefficient in his work, asking the  cook “Tommy am I to make the Pies” to which the cook replies, “Pies no look Al you  nasty d– Black.”

Naval Scenes, Steward and Cook copy

Naval Scenes – or sketches afloat – No. 3 Cooking,

Black cooks were also often made subjects of entertainment. For example, on a 1792 voyage to Cadiz the black cook of the brig Minerva was awoken and ordered to prepare breakfast for the crew. However, when he could not be found a half hour later it was assumed he had fallen overboard. However, two days later the cook was discovered “crawling out of a hole, he had secured to sleep in,” and “from which he was only roused by hunger.”  The crew was said to have “had a fine laugh on the occasion, and the cook was afforded them much entertainment since that time.”

Given the importance seamen placed upon food cooks were often the focus of their colleagues’ attention, for better and worse. With limited authority to alter what was generally a dull and repetitive diet (which will be the focus on my next blog), cooks stood responsible for a crucial element in crews’ lives and therefore the anger of the crew when food did not meet expectations. For example,  when a black cook dropped a plate on a slave ship the cook was flogged and had salt water and cayenne rubbed on his back. In contrast, in 1724 when the free black cook on Francis Spriggs’ pirate ship divided provisions equally, the crew responded “very merrily.” In sum, when combined with not being viewed by most sailors as skilled maritime workers, cooks occupied an ambiguous and difficult place on most 18th century ships.

So simply stated being a ship cook offered both freedom from enslavement and economic independence for many blacks, while at times the position also often served to reinforce blacks’ inferior status within the Anglo-America Atlantic.

If blacks regularly worked as ship cooks what foods did they cook? My next two posts will consider the foods typically cooked on ships and the outsized place turtles and turtle soup had in the diet of whaling seamen.