CCF Features: The Conch Shell in Caribbean Culture

Source: Wikimedia

The conch, or Queen Conch (Lobatus Gigas), has long been harvested in the Caribbean for both food and various practical, cultural, and symbolic uses of the large mollusk and its beautiful shell. It is regarded as a national symbol in the Turks and Caicos Islands and appears on their national flag; the conch shell also appears on the coat of arms of The Bahamas.

The rubbery, almost gamey texture of conch meat has enticed the taste buds of Caribbean people for centuries. The Taino were known to crack the shell of the conch and pull out the flesh of the animal. Bahamian free-divers, as much as 800 years later, practice a similar tradition. Conch is eaten raw or cooked. Conch soup is a seasonal offering in Jamaica while conch fritters, conch chowder, cracked conch and conch salad are enjoyed in Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas alike.

The shell of the conch is diverse in its applications. The Taino crafted it into tools which they used for excavation, hunting and other activities. More recently, the shell is also used as a decorative item and boundary marker in gardens and on walls, as is for instance commonly seen in traditional dwellings in the Cayman Islands. Conch shells are also sold as souvenirs in the tourism industry and crafted into jewelry. The shell trumpet is prominently featured on the statue by Albert Mangones, Le Marron Inconnu (The Unknown Maroon, 1967) near the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, one of the most iconic public art works in the Caribbean.

The pleasant white and pink shells were also used as a tool of deception and long-distance communication in guerilla warfare and revolution. Maroons in Haiti, for instance, used the shell as a horn to communicate with each other and to intimidate the colonial forces, by making their numbers seem much larger than they were. This use of the conch shell was probably learnt from the Taino who called their shell trumpet, which was used for communications as well as in rituals, the guamo or botutu. As a result of this legacy, the conch shell is also a symbol of freedom and resistance.

From food to warfare, the conch shell has long been shaping the culture and history of the Caribbean. The slow-growing Queen Conch is however threatened by over-fishing and is since 1992 listed in Appendix II on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which groups species that are also susceptible although currently not threatened with extinction, may become so without trade controls.

Traditional fishing practices may however provide some protection for the conch. In the Turks and Caicos, after centuries of fisherfolk throwing conch shells overboard, small islands have been created, many of which have become reefs in their own right and nurseries to a varied array of fish.  Although not backed by scientific evidence, these conch shell mounds seem to have helped in the conservation status of the conch in the Turks and Caicos, where conch populations are still abundant. Fisherfolk have observed that the conch avoid empty shells, so by accumulating the shells into mounds, the conch are encouraged to move to open water where they are safer from harm and able to procreate and grow.