The giant tortoise wasn’t named by scientists for so long because they were too delicious.
No specimens ever made it back to Europe without being eaten on the voyage.
Including by Charles Darwin.
16th-century explorers compared them to chicken, beef, mutton, and butter.
But only to say how much better the tortoise was!
19th-century commercial whaling was only possible because the giant tortoises enabled ships to stay at sea for weeks at a time.
One tortoise could feed several men, and both its meat and its fat were perfectly digestible, no matter how much you ate.
Oil made from tortoise fat was medically useful.
It was efficacious against colds, cramps, indigestion and all manner of ‘distempers’.
It even tasted wonderful.
Even better was the delicious liver and the gorgeous bone marrow.
The eggs, inevitably, were the best anyone had ever eaten.
Some sailors were reluctant to try tortoise meat because the animal was so ugly – but after one taste they were converted.
Giant tortoises were invaluable to sailors, as they could be kept alive for at least six months without food or water.
Stacked helplessly on their backs, they could be killed and eaten as and when necessary.
Better still, they sucked up gallons of water at a time and kept it in a special bladder, meaning that a carefully butchered tortoise was also a fountain of cool, perfectly drinkable water.
Charles Darwin was less enthusiastic about the meat, writing
“the breast-plate roasted (as the Gauchos do “carne con cuero”), with the flesh on it, is very good; and the young tortoises make excellent soup; but otherwise the meat to my taste is indifferent.”
Some did survive.
In 2006, Adwaitya the Aldabra giant tortoise (Geochelone Gigantes), personal pet of Clive of India (1725-74), died in Kolkata Zoo, aged 255.
February 12 is International Darwin Day.
Siobhan is a freelance writer, research addict and lover of twisted history. If you like horrible but amazing history, check out her website www.interesly.com or Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/interesly. Or you can reach her through www.siobhanoshea.com.