Beautiful Soup, so rich and green,
Waiting in a hot tureen!
Who for such dainties would not stoop?
Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup!
[From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, 1865]
One turtle not protected by its briny environment was a Green Sea Turtle, Chelonia mydas, also known as the Green Turtle, Black Turtle, or Pacific Green Turtle, whose shell is in the Whanganui Regional Museum collection, donated by Tom Shout in 1954.
The turtle shell had been given to Tom Shout’s father in around 1910 by the New Zealand Prime Minister, Sir Joseph Ward. Ward had been presented with a live turtle on a return voyage from London, possibly in Sierra Leone, West Africa. Still alive when it arrived in Wellington, Sir Joseph donated it to the kitchen in the parliamentary restaurant, Bellamy’s, to be turned into soup. Shout’s father was the chef at Bellamy’s at the time.
Green Sea Turtles are named for the green color of the fat under their carapace or shell, a vital ingredient for making turtle soup. Turtle soup was a fashionable and popular repast for Edwardian gentlemen, and very suitable fare for Bellamy’s, New Zealand’s premier restaurant at the time.
Green Turtle soup was not, however, limited to diners at Bellamy’s. It was, for decades tinned and sold throughout the world. One of the most famous brands was the American product by Campbell, launched in the 1920s and lasting in popularity into the 1950s when it began a slide into obscurity and was discontinued in the 1960s.
A passion for Green Turtle soup had emerged in England in the mid-18th century. Considered a great delicacy, it needed to be made from freshly slaughtered turtles that had to be shipped from warmer climes in great tubs of water. It became, inevitably, more and more expensive, so a substitute was invented to address popular demand. Mock turtle soup often incorporated meats such as brains or calf’s head to mimic the texture of true turtle meat. Many consumers thought that these animal body parts also tasted very like turtle. Tinned mock turtle soup sustained many a British subject throughout World War II when rationing was at its most severe.
The Green Sea Turtle’s range extends throughout tropical and subtropical seas around the world, with two different populations in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Adults can grow up to 91 cm in length and weigh up to 180 kg. They migrate long distances, sometimes thousands of kilometres from their feeding sites, to breed on the beaches where they hatched. They can lay more than 100 eggs in every nest.
Today many species of sea turtle are endangered, with surreptitious culinary demand possibly contributing to their population decrease, as well as markets in turtle skins, tanned to make leather bags and wallets. While it is illegal to hunt sea turtles in most countries, they continue to be caught worldwide.
Since 2004 the Green Sea Turtle has been listed as Endangered (facing a very high risk of extinction in the wild in the near future) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. Conservation initiatives centre on nesting sites and include eco-tourism and environmental action plans.
Libby Sharpe is the senior curator at Whanganui Regional Museum.