The Tortoise Shell highlights Jamaica’s Turtle Shell Industry that thrived between 1671 and 1692, primarily in Port Royal. The exhibit demonstrates the high level of artistry and sophistication that existed in Seventeenth Century Jamaica. This exhibit was prepared by Sasha-Kay Osbourne-Weir of the Museums Division at the IOJ.
Turtles of Jamaica There are four species of turtles found in Jamaican coastal (saline) waters, the Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricate), the Loggerhead (Caretta caretta), the Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), and the Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas). These turtle species are also found throughout the Caribbean. Another, the Slider Turtle (Trachemys terrapin), is a freshwater turtle endemic to Jamaica.
The shell of the Hawksbill Turtle was best suited for making ‘Tortoiseshell’ items. The term ‘tortoiseshell’ is in fact a misnomer, as the shells used were from turtles! Jamaica boasted a thriving turtle meat industry in the Sixteenth Century. Indeed, meat from the Green and Hawksbill Turtles was a local staple, and from Turtle Crawl in Port Royal, an abundance of shell was readily available for a Turtle Shell cottage industry. Considered a luxury, Turtle Shell comb cases and cosmetic boxes were fashionable during the era when extravagant powdered wigs were worn by both women and men. Turtle Shell combs were, however, essentially ornamental and primarily for show, as they were quite fragile and impractical for grooming either wigs or hair.
Save Our Turtles
Since its Sixteenth Century heyday, the turtle meat industry in Jamaica has ceased to exist and the reptile is now virtually extinct. More recently, to prevent the complete disappearance of the turtle from Jamaican and Caribbean waters, legislation has been enacted for the protection of several species. One such legislation is the Wild Life Protection Act (1945) that makes it illegal to molest or kill, or have the whole or any part of a sea turtle, dead or alive, in one’s possession, or to take their eggs. Sea turtles are listed in Appendix 1 of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). CITES is an international agreement between governments that aims to ensure that international trade in specimens of animals and plants does not threaten their survival.
Turtle (Tortoise) Shell Industry
Turtle Shell Comb Sets and similar ornamental items made from turtle shell are among the finest artefacts in the National Collection of the Institute of Jamaica. They were crafted between 1671 and 1692 mainly in Port Royal and demonstrate the high level of artistry and sophistication present in the island even in the Seventeenth Century. Comb sets and other turtle shell items are also evidence of an early souvenir industry and might represent the first use of the Coat of Arms of Jamaica as a decorative motif (the Arms date to c. 1661). Paul Bennett is likely to have been the maker as he was the only recorded turtle shell crafter in Port Royal prior to the 1692.
In addition to the Jamaican Arms, Turtle Shell pieces were engraved with symbols drawn from Jamaica’s flora and fauna, in particular the ananas, the Taíno name for the pineapple. The pineapple, a fruit endemic to Jamaica, was the signature motif for the island into the 18th Century, prior to its current association with Hawaii. The use of these motifs also coincided with a period of European curiosity in New World products and increased colonial interest in tropical specimens.
All Turtle Shell objects of these kinds associated with Jamaica bear the inscriptions ‘IAMAICA’ or ‘IAMAICA IN PORT ROYAL’ and a date, with the exception of those bearing the inscription ‘LIGUANEA’. This suggests that Turtle Shell crafting may have moved to the Liguanea Plain where Kingston was established after the 1692 Earthquake destroyed Port Royal.
Prepared by: Sasha-Kay Osbourne-Weir
National Museum Division