What Pirates Ate

by Conor Friedersdorf

This is a story about how some sailors fed themselves in the early 18th Century while trying to plunder Spanish colonies and their supply ships:

Tortoise, and to a lesser extent turtle, were ideal foods for seafarers. Giant tortoises are found only in the Galapagos and, at that time, a few remote islands in the Indian Ocean. Galapagos tortoises possess the remarkable adaptive ability to survive for months without food or water, their bodies going into a state of almost suspended animation during the periodic droughts that afflict the islands. Sailors would corral tortoises on deck for a few days while they cleared their bowels, and then stack them on their backs below deck like so many barrels of food, slaughtering them as needed for months thereafter. Turtles fared less well. If taken from the beaches before laying their eggs, they would last only a matter of weeks before dying.

The excerpt is taken from The Unnatural History of the Sea by Callum Roberts, which I'd include if I could assign the current Congress any five books to read. Its main subject, the alarming depletion of the world's fish and marine mammals, is among the most pressing environmental concerns of the next several decades, and he manages to impress that upon the reader in a work replete with beautiful turns of phrase and fascinating vignettes.