Turtles and Postage Stamps

THERE is no need of my stating at this time that the English are a maritime nation. It is a truth accepted with a yawn. Still, one proof of the fact is curious enough to bear repeating — namely, that several of the things to eat and drink which we regard as most English are no produce of England at all, but of places distant from it long ships’ journeys.

The port laid down by ‘thoughtful baronets’ is fetched from Portugal. Oranges, for marmalade, come from Jaffa or Valencia. Tea, on its travels to the white tea tables of Albion, must cross two seas, parts of two oceans, to say nothing of gulfs, bays, and other briny items. As for the turtle soup over which aldermen, napkin in collar, smack their lips at Mansion House dinners, where are the turtles caught, to make it? In the Thames?

Certainly not. They come from the Mosquito Bank off Nicaragua, and are netted and shipped by the fishermen of Cayman.

I

Grand Cayman, on the map, you may not find, unless your atlas is large and your patience long — one speck of British pink on the broad blue Caribbean. It arches its seventeen-mile back just a few feet above the sea, there south of Cuba; an isle of glossy and shimmering green leaves, ringed about with the white of surf on the rock, or whiter sands. When I set foot ashore it was a bright March Sabbath morning; the almond trees, which celebrate their autumn in that month, were towers of crimson along the white shore lane, while the ‘Easter lilies’ and amaryllises, for which it was the spring season, stood in white-sanded yards in clumps of translucent white and scarlet.

No less shining, the white cottages had jalousies and doors of buff or peacock blue, and by the picket gates the roosters arched their burnished necks, crowing brassily in the hot sunshine. Here was the Torrid Zone in its purest colors — an island made for great calms and heats. While we bathed in the glass surges on West Bay Beach, a young islander, who had befriended me, would lift his arm and point to seaward, to the waterspouts twisting their black ducts from sea to sky. He looked a figure out of some old sunburnt myth, pointing to perils which cannot touch enchanted ground.

‘Angelic dynamo! Ventriloquist of the Blue!’ Hart Crane burst out, when he remembered Cayman, and tried to express the spirit of the place in one ejaculation. His rhapsody the Caymanians have given up trying to understand. Their usual visitors are not poets, but gentle ornithologists with very little to say, or evangelists who devote their time to reporting the existence of another and even brighter world. Besides, turtles — and postage stamps — are the Caymanians’ concerns.

By agreement between Nicaragua and the British Crown, the islanders have the sole right to net turtle on the Mosquito Bank. This is the modern form of a monopoly they established for themselves by hardihood, knowledge, and industry, and have maintained for nearly two hundred years.

Jamaica, of which Cayman is a dependency, had its heyday in the eighteenth century. Those were the times when William Beckford, richest man in England, built fantastic castles in the wilds of Portugal and wrote Vathek on an income which poured in from his Jamaica sugar lands. The planters and governors who came and went, and the red-coated fashionable military, brought home a taste for turtle soup. Like the tobacco of America, or the tea of the East, the Creole luxury was accepted as one of the great Empire blessings, and became a British Institution. Thus the Caymanians, on their outpost near earth’s best turtling grounds, in time found themselves supplying the meat not only for the opulent Jamaican ‘second breakfasts,’but for dinners at the Mansion House in distant London.

In the long pursuit of this one business the islanders have learned a great deal about it. The management of their schooners, whose sails continually brighten the western Caribbean, has, in two hundred years, made them that sea’s most respected sailors. No yacht cruises the West Indies, it is said, without at least one Caymanian aboard. Ashore, every boy rigs toy boats and expects to follow the sea. Every old man, behind his leathered brow, stores the memory of storms and ports, and is likely to be a retired sea captain. As for the women, like true sailors’ wives they vie in boasting of the superior agonies of their various fits of seasickness, on trips away from home.

Ships’ carpentry is a familiar island art. Under the almond trees the keels are laid, saws buzz, and hard timbers, chosen for their natural curvature, are squared up. The Caymanian specialty is a catboat sharp both fore and aft, which is painted the intensest blue that money will buy. This color the fishermen say is least soon noticed by the turtles, as the boats creep up above them where they feed; but a man seeing the blue of those boats on the still fiercer blue of the islands’ harbor waters is likely to be so dazzled that the sky above appears not blue but a dull rosy color.

As for the turtles they net, the Caymanians very well know their ponderous subsea habits, and how to keep them alive while they are being shipped. The women at home very well know how to cook turtle meat.

My first taste of West Indian green turtle was in the soup form, at the old Cheshire Cheese in London, where it costs what is euphemistically referred to as a pretty penny. More recently, in Nassau, I was so lucky as to be invited to dine on Bahamian baked turtle.

This creature was a small one, but provided a great event. Soup, most excellent good, came first, with the pale green of lime slices riding on its darker bosom; next, the beast itself, turned bottom up, with its flipper meat in a ring of force-balls, and an ornate crust of scrolls and ribbons arching where its breastbone once had been. When Mrs. MacAfee, my hostess, plunged in the fork, a gust of steam rose, through which I caught a glimpse of her black cook’s radiant face, peeping from the pantry.

In Grand Cayman such dainty treatment is thought unworthy of a turtle. What! Stuff him back in his own shell as if he were a crab? Most undignified. Moreover, to bake their turtles entire, two hundred pounds of meat and casing, would strain anybody’s oven. No, the Caymanians butcher their turtles as if they were steers. Assorted slices of the meat, with strips of fat and pale toothsome tissue, are fetched home from market threaded on loops of thatch-palm fibre, to be pot-roasted with tomato, herbs, and plenty of pepper.

It makes a dark and savory dish. Mrs. Jones, my landlady, when she brought in the platter, would set it down with a thump. Here was something. And seating herself on a box where she could shoo the chickens or wallop the cat, when they made too much of a fuss at the door, she would repeat the compliments heaped upon her roast turtle by my predecessors. It was the newcomer’s turn to add a few quotable remarks, I could see that. And since she was a widow who had had a great many troubles to bear, there in the little white house among the breadfruit trees, I did my best to satisfy her, meal after meal. The essayist was certainly not to be outdone in compliments by a mere ornithologist, or a parcel of Adventist missionaries.

II

At night in Georgetown, after the blue catboats had been tied to the cove buoys, and the West Indian nightingale, teetering in an orange tree, had said its last melodious say, the moon would begin to shine in a queenly style, and the white roads that wound narrowly among the fruit groves looked whiter than ever.

On one such night I went out to Captain Panton Thompson’s. The Sunday before, I had seen him ride in to church on his pony, with a hymnbook under his arm, and a straw hat set to a geometrically precise horizontal atop his gray head. We had grown acquainted then, exchanged views on international politics, and he had given me directions how to come out to his little estate to dinner.

The proposed venture threw Mrs. Jones into a fever of anxiety. How could she trust me to find my way on this vast island? It was like praising the turtle over again; I had to be profuse, extensive, and superlative in my promises to turn back at once if I found myself bewildered, before she would let me go. And then, footing it straight ahead down quite the right road, whistling in the moonlight, I was overtaken by a guide she had sent after me on a bicycle.

This proved to be none other than Miss Hilary Thompson, the Captain’s daughter. She hopped off her steed, and (to explain myself in a gruff way) proved a welcome adjunct to the moonlight walk. I had never heard of a girl named Hilary before; she possessed a charm and humor which well matched the pretty oddness of the name. As for American visitors, they are not commonly met with on the Caymanian roads. Thus, as we trudged ahead through moon-cast shadows of naseberry and shaddock trees, or past paddocks where cattle munched in the moonlit guinea grass, we had reason to look upon each other as beings out of the ordinary.

The Captain we found with his shoes off. The night was hot, and long years of command have accustomed him to independence of the world’s opinion. Dinner, too, was not turtle, but fish. But we talked turtle, as is inevitable in Cayman, after we had argued out the probable fate of the British Empire. And then, no less inevitably on that island, we talked postage stamps. Miss Hilary, at the magic words, fetched down her album.

Postage stamps I have never taken seriously. At the age of twelve I had an album with ‘G. Smith, the Stamping Man ’ in large letters on the flyleaf, and pasted as many kings, queens, and presidents in it as I could get for nothing. To this day I rather enjoy inserting the bright bits of paper, which Max Beerbohm says is the innocent basis of the philatelic frenzy. Luckily I have gone no further, nor has Miss Hilary. But to her and her father stamps mean more than they can to me, because they are Cayman Islanders.

To the Caymanians, a new series of island stamps is as great a matter of interest as a new musical show is to Broadway. Will it be a hit? In these obscure places, where stamps bought for actual use are few, the big post-office customers are the stamp dealers of the outside world, and the million collectors for whom they buy. In 1935, for example, these obliging foreigners, spontaneously, and without a hint of growling, paid about half of island government expenses. A more recent set of stamps, picturesque with conch shells and catboats, booby birds and turtles, has been even more popular. No hot cakes ever sold faster.

The chief business in a Caymanian post office, thus, is the postmarking of empty envelopes plastered with these philatelic hot cakes. The postmaster of Georgetown spoke with a sigh of the forthcoming Coronation series, and of how, on the day of issue, he would have a hundred and thirty thousand stamps to postmark legibly with that important date. All bogus mail, too, as usual. At Cayman Brac a bottle of liniment stood on the shelf ready for the same ordeal’s cramps and pains; and after it, the Captain and Miss Hilary decided, the staff would certainly deserve to be treated to a midnight turtle supper.

Still talking of these Arcadian fiscal wonders, we inspected Miss Hilary’s roses: a flashlight brought out the colors that the moonlight failed to show. She grew balsams, too, gayer than the pennyha’penny stamps which are the islands’ gayest. Then alone on the white road again, — resolving to send off a bushel of postcards, each with that rarity on it, an actually used Cayman Islands stamp, — I tramped back to town.

On the ‘next Cimboco’ the bushel and I sailed off together to the outside world. The mailboat’s chief cargo was not postage stamps, however, but turtles. Two hundred and twelve of them there were, broader than washtubs, making the trip to Kingston with me.

What a smell! — sickly sweet, as if designed to give the Caymanian women passengers new seasick pangs to boast of. As for myself, the safest place aboard was well forward, where the breeze blew fresh. Stretched out on a heap of sail there, with the gold teeth of a sailor flashing over me as he talked contemptuously of the turtles of Galapagos and Costa Rica, — which are caught ashore, lean from the laying of their eggs, — I could look down the hatch at ours, netted at sea while fat and luscious. Tier on tier they lay, all upside down. With their pale front flippers crossed in resignation on their pale bosoms, they looked like a sleeping ward of lawnsleeved bishops.

At Kingston, however, where they were hoisted up, weighed, and transshipped in a great hurry to turtle-hungry London and New York, this air of resignation was cast off. Our bishops hissed, snapped their jaws, and brandished their hind flippers in an awful fashion. The future they had right to dread. Their present discomfort no onlooker could but commiserate.

All the same, they were being treated with more consideration than I was, in a way, or those dear articles of island commerce, the postage stamps. While we (apologetically) were kept waiting, they went ashore, two hundred and twelve strong, one at a time. The Caymanians value their postal receipts, and love nothing better than welcoming visitors to their islands. But business is business after all, and turtles are turtles.