Silver Thatch Rope in Cayman
Words by Vanessa Hansen Photos courtesy of The Cayman Islands National Archive Photographic Collections
Long before banks, hotels, and condominiums dotted Grand Cayman’s landscape, a unique natural resource lay hidden within “the islands that time forgot.” The endemic Silver Thatch Palm had many uses from roofing material to shoes, but it was thatch rope that became a key industry in the early days.
Fast forward to 2017 and you can find Deal Ebanks and Billy Banker every Wednesday at the Camana Bay Farmers and Artisans Market. Two of Cayman’s heritage ambassadors, they participate in various events throughout the year, enthusiastically sharing the islands’ rich history and tricks of the trade.
As artisan Deal Ebanks, explains, “Fishermen and turtlers in the region preferred our thatch rope because the saltwater made the rope easy to handle and also made it stronger. It lasted three to four times longer in saltwater than the other natural fibre ropes.”
"Making rope," Mr. Ebanks continues, "was a group effort. Families would all work together in this industry. Women and children would lay the rope, father and mother would usually twist the strand and the adults would cut the tops.”
However it isn’t as simple as it seems. There is a science behind the process, which starts with knowing the moon phases. “The best time to harvest is on a young growing moon up to a full moon,” Ebanks shares. It begins with cutting tops, which usually took an entire day, then a seven to ten day wait for the tops to dry.
Splitting the leaves in strips would take another day or two, and then twisting it would take a night or another day. According to Mr. Ebanks, the quickest and easiest part is laying the rope, but then it must be cleaned and dressed before being coiled for sale.
“When it came time to sell the rope," Mr. Ebanks shares, "it was taken to the local merchants who, after inspecting the rope for quality, would then value the rope around nine schillings per coil of 25 fathoms. When you made a special order of 50 fathoms in one length, you got 19 schillings for that length of rope.”
In case, like me, you don’t know your nautical measurements, one fathom is approximately six feet, a measurement based on the arm-span of a large man.
Mr. Banker adds that buyers were very particular, which meant meticulous cleaning and dressing before heading to market, or the rope was turned away. “It was a barter system back then,” Mr. Banker explains, “The rope was exchanged for other goods like flour.”
To place a current worth on the rope, Mr. Ebanks reveals, “We analysed the process and paying $7.50 per hour for labour and materials, concluded that ‘headrope’ – the bigger and most common size – cost $3.50 to $4.00 per foot to produce.” That is approximately $600 for the typical 25 fathoms of rope.
Although it is unclear how the special qualities of the Silver Thatch Palm were discovered, thatch rope played a vital role in the islands early development and the survival of its people. It continued to be an export into the 1950s when synthetic rope began to replace natural fibres.
Thatch rope while no longer a key export, is still alive and well thanks to artisans like Mr. Ebanks and Mr. Banker who continue the tradition across the islands teaching children and tourists alike. It is also nice to know that the Silver Thatch Palm has taken its rightful place in our history and culture. Not only does the Cayman flag pay homage to its contribution, in 1995 it was named our country’s national tree.
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