Set aboard the Lillias Eden
, a ship set in course from the Cayman Islands along the edge of Central America, American author Peter Matthiessen’s adventure novel Far Tortuga
(1975) follows the ship’s captain, Raib Avers, and his crew, whose perilous journey involves suspicion, social conflict, and murder. Though the crew of the Lillias Eden
is supposed to be catching green sea turtles for trade, their endeavor brings them into contact with villagers and competing vessels, causing them to realize that they are mostly at the mercy of chance. The novel features themes such as nationalism, paranoia, environmental destruction, and natural disaster.
The novel begins as the Lillias Eden
leaves off from the Cayman Islands. Raib Avers directs the ship towards Nicaragua and Honduras, expecting to find many sea turtles arriving from their yearly migration north between egg-laying seasons. Raib’s father, Andrew, was also a captain of a so-called “turtling” vessel. He strives to maintain order among his crew, who often erupt into small conflicts and to maximize the Lillias Eden
’s turtle payload before the turtles migrate south again. Raib has updated the Lillias Eden
, which used to be fully wind-driven; it now has an engine to power across longer distances. Yet, it is barely seaworthy, and Raib lacks funds to upgrade it further. The engine shaft is bent, and Raib often resorts to using a combination of the wind and engine power, changing course to accommodate the changing weather. Some members of the crew complain they are at the mercy of the wind. The more optimistic members of the crew hold that the ship has the fortitude of any other great ship built in the Cayman Islands.
The turtlers aboard the Lillias Eden
frequently get drunk, revealing the worst aspects of their natures. One especially xenophobic man, Vemon Dilbert Evers, makes negative claims about the values of South and Central Americans, including the people of Nicaragua and Honduras whom they frequently encounter. Other members of the crew, who come from the Cayman Islands, think of themselves as alien and superior. They are also wary of the engineer aboard the schooner, Miguel Moreno Smith, at first because he is Spanish but later because he appears genuinely unsound. Other suspicions abound throughout the group; at one point, Raib even joins in and makes fun of a rumor that the turtler Wodie Graves is a murderer.
The turtlers’ deepest suspicion is not of each other, but of the United States. They believe that the United States systematically abuses its power to bully the other countries into submission. They mock the country’s failure in the Bay of Pigs catastrophe. Vemon adds that the communists are no better, and he hopes that Cuba gets bombed. Raib proves a judicious captain, allowing but not enabling his crew’s problematic ideologies to ensure that the group continues to work well together. However, his patience ends with the news that Captain Desmond Eden of another turtling ship, the Davy Jones
, is in the area. Desmond claims that he is Raib’s illegitimate half-sibling, a notion Raib rejects. Desmond is a notorious captain, known for criminal acts such as smuggling weapons in his boats. One of Desmond’s former crew members, Byrum, now works for Raib.
When the Lillias Eden
inevitably crosses paths with the Davy Jones
, Raib finds his father, Andrew, aboard the rival ship. Andrew has suffered a stroke and is now mute. Raib brings him in and places him in the care of his son, Buddy. Raib’s turtlers rebuke the ruthless Desmond for extorting immigrants’ life savings to smuggle them to the southern United States. He also allegedly murdered a man in Honduras.
After Desmond’s arrival, everything seems to change for the worse. Raib’s crew is waylaid by a storm that verges on becoming a hurricane. Raib compares the looming storm to hell. While some turtlers, including Will Parchment, state their regrets about becoming turtlers, in a surprise twist, the previously sullen Buddy declares that he now wants to be a turtler.
Next, the Lillias Eden
crosses paths with the Alice H. Adams
. Raib’s crew realizes that they are no match for the modern vessel, which has caught hundreds of turtles, while they have barely over a dozen. Andrew dies, and his body is only found days later, in the process of being eaten by rats. Some of the turtlers begin to abandon the voyage. Just before the storm hits, the group’s remaining cohesion and peace seems to dissolve: Brown threatens Raib, then leaves, and the crew learns that Nicaragua is about to ban turtling ships from the Cayman Islands. The hurricane hits, throwing the Lillias Eden
into a reef. It sinks, killing Buddy, Will, and Raib. Of the entire remaining crew, only Speedy survives. The novel’s ending suggests that despite all of the characters’ moral and existential deliberations, they were ultimately at the mercy of nature and their fates were determined by chance.