It’s that time of year that we are thankful for cooler weather when fruits and vegetables can be sown in abundance for reaping in a couple of months’ time. The Cayman Islands Agriculture Show, held on Ash Wednesday (this year falling on 26th February), will be celebrating its 53rd year in 2020, a huge milestone for this important family event. In this latest Then and Now three-part article, we explore the development of agriculture over the years and learn how it has always been an integral, if somewhat overlooked, part of Cayman’s infrastructure.
The 40th anniversary edition of the Agriculture Show’s programme contains a fascinating article providing a glimpse into the earliest development of agriculture, detailing how the first settlers to Cayman probably brought seeds and plants with them from where they lived before. Land owners earmarked specific tracts of land on which to grow provisions and crops were often shared and used in payment for other goods and services.
In 1765 a Royal Navy officer visited Grand Cayman and noted in his log book that the islands had wood, fish, turtle, fowl, hogs, yams, plantains and limes. In 1773 Royal Navy hydrographer George Gauld reported Indian corn, yams, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, plantains, melons, limes and oranges and “most kind of the fruits and vegetables that are to be found in Jamaica.” He also noted many goats, two horses and no sheep.
In the late 1700s/early 1800s, cotton had become an important agricultural export for the Cayman Islands. The article said that between 1802 and 1804 approximately 200,000 pounds of cotton were exported from Cayman, with less than a dozen cotton plantations producing 40 - and as much as 60 - tons of cotton annually. Most of the slaves living in Grand Cayman during the late 18th and early 19th centuries worked in these cotton plantations, the articles stated.
A tough job
In 1824, Cayman’s newly established legislature passed laws that underscored the high regard its people had for livestock by imposing severe penalties on anyone who killed or maimed livestock. Farming continued to play a central role in life in Cayman during the 19th Century and early part of the 20th Century, with coconut plantations flourishing, particularly on the Sister Islands. The first Commissioner, Frederick Shedden Sanguinetti estimated that a million coconuts were shipped mostly to Mobile, Alabama between October 1901 and February 1902. In the census of 1911, 39 men were listed as coconut cultivators, all of them on the Sister islands. Unfortunately, a disease killed most of the trees in the early 1900s. Also, in that same Census, 20 men were ‘farmers and planters’ and 229 ‘provision cultivators’. Life was not easy for Cayman’s early farmers. In the early 20th Century they would ‘back’ their produce home in thatch baskets supported by a band around their foreheads. A few owned donkeys or a pony, others a small canoe, but most went on foot.
The article goes on to detail how agriculture gained in prominence under the administration of Commissioner G.S.S. Hirst (1907 to 1912) who instigated the regulation of the fish and agriculture market on the Hogsties waterfront, effectively making George Town a trade centre for fishermen and farmers. A branch of the Jamaican Agricultural Society was also established in Cayman.
In 1936/37, Jamaica’s Department of Science and Agriculture commissioned an agricultural survey in the Cayman Islands undertaken by WH Edwards. Mr Edwards stated: “As the general standard of Agriculture is at present very low and as returns would be considerably increased without capital expenditure, if a sound agricultural policy was followed and judicious agricultural practices adopted, every effort should tend towards improving the agricultural education of the population.”
He encouraged the organisation of an active Agricultural Society already begun earlier that century, the establishment of nurseries and centres of distribution for improved varieties of plants of which he said “the Islands are in great need” and suggested holding regular agricultural shows.
Mr Edwards saw the importance of a sound agricultural industry for the benefit of Cayman residents:
“A large proportion of the inhabitants will now have to depend to a great extent on Agriculture for their livelihood, and the community, therefore, should have as its first aim, the production of crops to satisfy local needs, though production for export should be kept in view.”
Be sure to read the upcoming second part of this article which will trace the development of agriculture through to the 20th Century.