As is natural for those from a small island nation, Caymanians have always had a strong connection with the sea. The 1934 census of the Cayman Islands illuminates this link, revealing that more than 50 per cent of men between 18 and 60 were involved in seafaring.
Caymanians began boat building around the turn of the 19th Century in earnest as a means for trading and fishing, however there are records that indicate the industry began even earlier, in the 1770s.
In his ‘Notes on the History of the Cayman Islands’ written in the early part of the 20th Century, George Hirst described how, “The Cayman Islanders have always been shipbuilders and as the community advanced in numbers so the shipbuilding industry increased.”
He noted that ship building was also prevalent in what was then termed the “Lesser Caymans”, i.e. Cayman Brac and Little Cayman.
“Not only in Grand Cayman but in the Lesser Caymans this industry made wonderful developments during the half century,” he wrote.
According to ‘A Brief History of the Cayman Islands’ by David Wells of the West India Committee for the Government of the Cayman Islands, Caymanians’ ship building abilities were really able to grab the attention of the outside world at the end of the 19th century, thanks to the work of Custos Edmund Parsons, who helped arrange for Caymanians to take part in the Jamaican Exhibition of 1891. In addition to displays of locally made thatch work, models of Caymanian schooners were also on show to stimulate interest in shipbuilding.
“The publicity gained from the exhibition did see a rise in the export of Caymanian products, particularly of thatch palm goods,” he wrote.
Not only were Caymanians prolific in their art, they were also revered regionally for their skills, as Hirst remarked: “At one time the reputation of Cayman built vessels was enviable in the Central American Republics and a very profitable business was carried on until towards the end of the last century when the supply was becoming greater than the demand…”
Wells noted that this was because of the craftsmanship that went into the making of every vessel.
“Caymanian ships were handmade with traditional tools, which meant that the process was both slow and labour intensive and not many vessels could be produced a year. For example, between 1905 and 1906 eight vessels were launched. It was generally considered to be worth the wait for the high quality of workmanship,” he wrote.
Hirst examined Cayman’s ship building industry from 1850 to the end of the 19th Century, and found that at the start boats of around 45 tons were the norm, while towards the end of the century ships as large as 250 tons were registered. Ships were made from local supplies of hard wood, such as mahogany and ironwood, wood that is almost indestructible and resistant to dry rot and hard as metal, while ship builders relied on imports of pretty much everything else, including planking, ropes, sail cloth, spikes, nails and blocks, which were imported from the US, while anchors and cables were imported from England. Boats could take anything from six to 12 months and even up to two years to make.
In order to create the perfect bend in the wood that was needed to create a boat, boat makers would bend a sapling to the shape needed and waited years and years for it to grow, while some timber was bent by steam.
According to the March 1974 edition of the Northwester, the 1920s and 1930s saw Cayman’s ship building industry at its peak. Among shipbuilders’ names were Bodden, Arch, McTaggart, Miller and in Cayman Brac the Scotts and Tibbets.
When a boat was launched in the Cayman Islands, everybody came to welcome her off. Wells wrote: “The launch of a ship was an opportunity for a major social event; on Grand Cayman the whole island was invited. Usually an ox was killed to provide meat and people brought a selection of food with them, from vegetables to cakes. When the time came for the launch everyone, men, women and children, took a rope to help pull the ship down into the sea. Whilst doing so it was traditional to sing sea shanties, ‘Whiskey is the life of man, whiskey, oh, my Johnny’ being a particular favourite.”
The majority of the vessels Caymanians made were used for turtling, but towards the end of the 19th Century ships were used as charters to visit and carry freight from and to the Cayman Islands. Hirst pointed out that as the vessels were made predominantly for fishing, when used to carry passengers those travelling in them experienced “awful discomfort” and lack of privacy. Boats were also used as mail boats, but by the end of the Second World War Caymanians were now working for large shipping companies while local shipping yards could not compete on wages and so the industry died.
Today, the Cayman Seafarers Association and the Cayman Catboat Club help to keep this aspect of Caymanian history alive.