Ask anyone who remembers when the economic miracle of the ‘60s turned Cayman from “the land that time forgot” into a major financial center, and they’ll tell you just how hard life here used to be.
If you ask a man, he’ll tell you how he had to go to sea to work on the ships. If you ask a woman, she might tell you how she had to tend the family’s “grounds” – a patch of land where she grew cassava, or how she spent all day twisting strands of rope out of strips of silver thatch leaf.
There was little here in the way of natural resources, apart, of course, from the people themselves. Shaped by these islands and the seas that surround them, the people took whatever they found and made something beautiful out of it. Little wonder the rope they made was the toughest, strongest and most dependable. Indeed, there’s something very special about all things Caymanian.
Margaret Powell, 78, learned everything she knows about weaving the fine strips of tough, sun-hardened silver thatch palm leaf into exquisite bags and hats (“Cayman palm straw work,” as she calls it) from her mother. She began when she was about 12 years old, she said. The only difference is that her mother never used to make the pretty women’s shopping bags she has on sale at her stall on Wednesdays at Camana Bay, but she used to make much bigger baskets for gathering vegetables from her family plot of land.
The shopping bags on display sell for $45 to $65. Quite expensive for a shopping bag, you might think, until you actually get to see one, and feel the strength (and see the beauty) that has gone into making it. I asked her how long it took to make.
“I could do a bag like this in three days, although it takes even longer to prepare the thatch as well,” she said. When you look at it like that, these bags should be treasures selling for hundreds of dollars each.
“We also made a lot of rope,” she said. “We had to do that to eat. It was so necessary because there was nothing else to work at in those days. We had to process the thatch leaves by drying them out in the sun, then we would take out a knife and strip it. There is a “back” and a “front” to the leaf. The back part is very stiff – that’s what we make the house brooms from, and the other part is the flexible part – that is what we made the rope strands from.
“The rope-making was hard because first you had to prepare the strand, and had to prepare enough strands to make a 25-fathom rope. They would be twisted by hand, and you had to keep pushing it as you go along,” Powell recalled.
Once made, the neatly coiled 25-fathom lengths of rope would be taken to one of Cayman’s stores, and there it would be exchanged, not for money, but for groceries such as small bags of flour, sugar, beans or coffee. The store would send the rope to places like Jamaica, where it would be used on ships and schooners.
“My mother was also very talented at making hats – beautiful hats – and she would also give those hats to the merchants on the vessels going to Tampa and Key West and she would tell them to buy shoes and the items we couldn’t get – and she made a good living off doing that,” Powell explained.
Deal Ebanks remembers how, as a young boy back in the ‘60s, he would spend long hours playing with, and making, hand-carved wooden spinning tops, known as gigs.
“We grew up playing with these gigs on the streets of Hell … That was an everyday thing for us children, you know, and we would be out there until the sun went down,” Ebanks said.
“I started to make gigs when I was about seven years old – I got a pocket knife for Christmas. I wanted to make them myself because everybody else had a gig and I had to buy mine from the stores.
“We used to make them out of guava wood and have competitions with them. The whole idea was to try to bust the other gig open. We would sharpen the nails on our gigs to something like an ice pick, and we would have a bulls-eye. The one that got closest to the bulls-eye would get the first shot.”
Ebanks would also play marbles with the other children in the neighborhood, as well as make kites and fly them.
“I wasn’t that good at marbles, but I was pretty good at gigs, and I would make two out of one piece of guava wood. So I would trade my gigs. I’d say: ‘I’ve got another gig here, if you want. Give me 50 marbles for it.’ But then they would turn around and win the marbles right back. That’s how children are.”
Ebanks moved to Texas when he was 14, but he never forgot those long days of furious fun on the marl road. When he came back for a visit during Pirates Week in 1997, the only place he saw gigs was in a display in East End. That’s when he decided he was going to get the tops spinning again – something he began in earnest when he finally settled back here in 2004.
He began showing his children all the things he learned as a young boy. A year or so later, Ebanks and some others who didn’t want to see the old ways die out, got together to form Cayman Islands Traditional Arts Council, a nonprofit organization with the aim of keeping a wide spectrum of traditional arts – including silver thatch weaving, gig making and spinning (and other traditional pastimes too, such as racing soldier crabs and kite flying) – alive for future generations to enjoy.
CITAC members get together regularly at the street market that meets on Wednesday afternoons in Camana Bay. There, Ebanks and his uncle William Banker can be found keeping children enthralled by showing them how to wind up the strings round the gigs, and how to throw them down on the ground, unfurling the string to make them spin and spin.
Ebanks also enjoys showing the next generation how to blow a conch shell, to make it sound like a hunting horn.
“When I was growing up, I would hear all the fishermen. They would be blowing them – they would use it as signaling to the ladies that they’ve come in with their fresh catch.”
He added with a smile: “Instead of having a cellphone, we had a shell phone.”