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Today's Conchs
The First Conchs
Conch Influences
Primitive Conch Uses Harvesting Prohibitions

Today's Conchs

The name "conch" is widely used in the Florida Keys to refer to a lifelong resident of the Keys. Native people born in Key West and the Bahamas call themselves conchs . In times past proud parents in Key West placed a conch shell on a stick in the front of their house to inform neighbors of a new born infant. People who take up residence in the Keys are humorously referred to as freshwater conchs. Politicians sometimes issue certificates to people active in community interests declaring them "honorary conchs". Locals like being called conchs and take pride in the appellation.

The First Conchs

 

The first conchs were British sympathizers. Some accounts indicate they were given the name of conch after escaping to the Bahamas during the American Revolution and announcing that rather than go to war they'd eat conch. Another explanation indicates they were called conch because of the great quantity of conch in their diet and because they used the shell as a signalling trumpet.

Writer Slyvia Sunshine in her book Petals Plucked from Sunny Climes in explained the origin of the term in 1880,

"Conchs were the original English settlers of this place, who came here from New Providence and the adjacent islands of the Bahama group. "Couch" is not, as many suppose, a term of contempt, but a local distinction. When the first regiment of colonial militia was organized at Nassau, they adopted the figure of a conch-shell in gold, with a blue field, for their regimental colors, thereby declaring the protection of their natural position; from this the term is applied more particularly to those from that city. They are a temperate, frugal, industrious class of persons, accustomed for generations to procuring a living from the sea; but many of them on this island have turned their talents in other directions, controlling a large part of the commercial business of the place. The greater portion of them are engaged in wrecking, sponging, or fishing for the Havana market, many owning fine vessels, and being men of respectability, although belonging to those classes whose names, to one not acquainted with them, appear an equivalent to buccaneers or pirates."

These settlers of the Bahamas were engaged in wrecking and would salvage goods from ships wrecked on the reefs. When Florida became a territory of the United states in 1821, Bahamians who wanted to continue the business of wrecking had to move the Keys. They brought the conch label with them.

Conch meat extracted from its shell was a staple food of early Keys settlers. The meat was eaten raw, and marinated in vinegar for salad. It was fried to make conch steak ,diced to make conch fritters and used to make a delicious chowder. Conch meat was sold all over for reasons of commerce. It is because the conch's close historic and economical ties to the Keys that native Keys residents are called Conchs.

 

Conch's Influence on the Florida Keys

The word "conch" pronounced "conk" is derived from a Greek word meaning shell. When used in the Keys or the Caribbean Islands it refers to a mollusk, the Queen Conch, which has the technical name of stombus gigas.

Conch has had a profound influence on the Keys. It is not only the Florida Keys most famous shell, but has become a symbol of the Keys as well. Huge replicas of the Queen Conch can be found along the side of the Keys' Overseas Highway to catch the tourist eye. Visitors to the Keys have been touring Key West on the Conch Train for decades. Key West High School teams are referred to as "Fighting Conchs", Conchettes is the name given to the school's drill and many businesses use the word conch in some form or another in their name. Because cars registered in the Keys do not have to undergo the usual emission control and safety inspections required in more populated parts of Florida, there are a number of older cars in the Keys. When these cars reach a certain state of delapidation they are called "Conch Cruisers".

 

Primitive Conch Uses

Conch has had a strong influence on the regions where it is found. Conch has been and continues in some areas as a prime source of protein. In the Keys and throughout the Bahamas and West Indies conch was a major source of food. Columbus's crew according to his logs ate conch after gleaning conch shells from the waters of Cuba. Archaeologists' excavations show that the conch was used by Indians as food, and as a tool. It is thought that pre-Columbian Indians possibly use the conch shell to make the huge canoes that Columbus observed Indians using during his visits to the New World. Columbus described canoes five feet in width and upward of 70 feet in length which were made of mahogeny tree trunks such that the centers were burned and chiseled out.

Indian settlements from the time before Columbus show that the Conch shell was used as scraper, scoop or dipper, hammer, gouge, chisel and eating dish. The shell was also used as a trumpet. Ancient West Indian civilizations have worshiped idols made from conch shells.

Indians used the conch shell for ornamentation and decoration and as a valuable trade object. The Arawak Indians of the West Indies created bracelets, amulets, necklaces, hairpins, and buttons from conch shells. In the Bahamas craftmen still create cameos from part of the shell. A link to a beautiful carving in a conch shell is provided below:

Conch Shell as Art - Beautiful cinnabar Mayan tracings of a king's face incised on the surface of this conch-shell trumpet thought to be the personage summoned when the trumpet was used in a bloodletting rite. Pre-Columbian, (A.D. 250-400)

Conch shells have been made into horns for centuries. In addition to their use in religious rites, the conch-shell trumpet had many practical uses. They were used by Indians to communicate from village to village and were used to initiate battles. Historic accounts of Hernando DeSoto's explorations of Florida tell of Indian tribes greeting his explorer with the sounds from conch-shell trumpets. And in the cane fields of the West Indies slaves were summoned at the end of each work day by the sound of a conch trumpet.

Even in the present time conch shells are used as trumpets. Sea captains, sailors and fishermen signal each other with them. Conch blowing contests are a part of present day Key West celebrations.

How to Make a Conch Trumpet

Conch shells and horns make a great souvenier of the Florida Keys.You can purchase a shell from one of the many shell stores located along the Overseas Highway in the Florida Keys. You can also purchase an already made conch horn for a bit more.

To make a horn all one needs to do is to saw off an inch the tip of the Conch shell spire. With the tip gone a spiral shaped center column called the columella will be exposed. You then chip out about one half inch of culumella and smooth the cut edges with a rasp to fashion a comfortable mouthpiece to trumpet on. You must curl you lips as with a trumpet letting your lips vibrate as you blow to create a conch horn sound. Large shells have more volume and thus will create as deeper sound. Small shells will produce a tone with a higher pitch.

 

 

Prohibition

The Queen Conch is now protected by Florida and Federal law. Once abundant in the Key, the Key's most famous shell was banned from be harvested in United States waters in 1985 because its population as been severely depleted.

Conch is still harvested elsewhere in the Caribbean but with government control. Conch is still a major food source in the Bahama Islands, but permission must be obtained from the Bahamian Government to export conch food products. Permission is also needed to export conch shells for use in the production of the floor covering material terrazzo.

 

Research into the conch along the Florida Keys shows that in some areas of the Florida Keys, conchs are starting to come back. In some areas they are not.

Conch had to be protected because it is the favorite food of many. In the Keys locals and tourists eat conch dishes. Any conch product or preparation eaten in the Keys has been imported from the Bahamas or other Caribbean islands.

When prepared properly to soften the texture of the meat many people consider conch to be among the choicest seafoods of the world. In the Florida Keys restaurants often will include on their menu conch fritters, conch seviche, conch salad, a marinated dish called cracked conch and of course the ever popular conch chowder.

Aphrodisiac

With the pharmacitical companies development of viagra and other similar products, aphrodisiacs of the past seem to have lost favor. Cooked conch, pickeled conch and raw conch meat have been considered to be an aphrodisiac. Of note, particularly in the West Indies a rod shaped portion of the conch's stomach called the "crystalline style" is swallowed by males as they proclaim "It will make you a Mon man".

 


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