Tortoiseshell, the carapace scutes and plastron of the hawksbill turtle, has been prized and traded since ancient times.
Tortoiseshell, the beautiful scutes of the carapace and plastron of the hawksbill turtle, has been prized since ancient times. Surrounded by legend, tortoiseshell has been described as “one of the romantic articles of commerce, not only because of where it comes from, but because of the creatures from which it is obtained and the people engaged in the trade.”
Jewelry and other tortoiseshell objects have been unearthed from pre-dynastic graves of the Nubian rulers of Egypt and excavated from the ruins of the Han Empire of China. Over 2,000 years ago, Julius Caesar considered tortoiseshell to be the chief spoil of his triumph. By the 9th Century, caravans of Arab traders carried rhinoceros horn, ivory, and tortoiseshell throughout the Indian Ocean. For the next 1,000 years, the tortoiseshell trade flourished. Around 1700, during the Edo Period, the bekko, (tortoiseshell,) artisans of Japan established themselves at Nagasaki.
The tortoiseshell trade has been closely linked to European discovery, conquest, and commerce around the world. The Portuguese, Dutch, French, and English played major roles in the global trade. Exploitation occurred throughout the world’s tropical oceans, and especially in the East Indies, (modern day India, Indo China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Philippines.) The East Indies were a major source of the shell of antiquity, as the rich waters have fittingly been called the world’s most productive seas for tortoiseshell.
In the insular Pacific, international trade did not develop until the mid 19th Century, but once established, it took a tremendous toll on the region’s hawksbills. For the next 150 years, tortoiseshell was a prized commodity in the Pacific, first with the sandal-wooders and then with the whalers.