Rope making is one of Cayman’s past industries that is kept alive by organizations like Cayman Traditional Arts, relying on volunteers like West Bayer Billy Banker to pass along his first-hand knowledge.
Mr. Banker can be found most Wednesday afternoons at the Camana Bay market, happy to share his tips on rope-making and spin a few yarns of his own.
Now 81, and with a twinkle in his eye, Mr. Banker, who retired 10 years ago from Cayman Water, recalls his childhood vividly.
“When we were kids, the main chore in those days in Bosun Bay and Northwest Point was making rope,” he said.
“The boys and girls did it after school, and on the weekends, before we were allowed to go play.”
There was a lot of play in those days, and sports was what he enjoyed, with cricket being the most popular for the kids at that time.
“I only learned to play soccer when I was 16,” he said.
“There was one ball, which we got from the school, and sometimes we would have to stop the match when it would deflate while we were playing,” he laughed.
He did keep up with cricket, playing on the national side at age 60, which he believes made him one of the oldest players on the masters team. Mr. Banker is keen to explain the rope-making process, going through all the steps.
First, families had to collect the “tops” of silver thatch palms, the trees’ unopened leaves.
“There were a few silver thatch palms in West Bay, [but] all that land now is subdivisions, mostly,” he said. “But you really needed a lot of those tops to make rope, which were collected on the full moon, or a few days after. You would need a lot of land to have enough trees, so many families would take their catboats down to South Sound, or Newlands and other places and cut the tops there, where there were a lot of silver thatch palms growing.”
The tops were also carried back home on foot or with the help of a donkey.
The reason for cutting on the full moon has to do with the sap content, which would be lower and allow the leaves to last longer and attract fewer insects.
According to information on silver thatch from the National Trust website, thatch was used in home construction as roofing and walling since the days of Cayman’s earliest settlers in the 1700s. It was also used for baskets, hats, and other items.
“It was thatch rope, however, which was the dominant land-based industry in Cayman for many years. Since the Silver Thatch Palm was very resistant to salt water, rope made from it was much favored by fishermen and turtlers. The largest demand came from Cuba and Jamaica,” the Trust notes.
Laid out to dry for several days, the leaves were separated from the stems, and made into strips.
“Mostly, it was the women who would twist those leaves into strands at night at home, and the boys would line up the strands,” said Mr. Banker.
The Trust notes strands 30 fathoms long were needed to make a standard 25-fathom long rope, measuring about 150 feet.
A “rope cart” was used to make the rope from three strands, which was the work of the boys (and some girls).
Mr. Banker has a rope cart he uses to demonstrate the process, though set up to produce a much shorter length of rope.
On a recent afternoon, he had the help of two eager youngsters, Imogen and Brooke Smailes and their dad, David, who made a special trip to Mr. Banker’s kiosk at Camana Bay to make some rope to take home.
The way the cart works is that three strands are attached to one end of the cart, connected to three spindles on a triple winch connected together with what Mr. Banker called a barboard. At the other end, the strands are brought together on a single spindle. A wooden device called a cob is used to keep the three strands together and taut, which is walked down the length of the rope as it is twisted.
With all four finding their rhythm, the system worked beautifully and the Smailes family ended up with an attractive length of rope. “Back in the day when we worked, we had to make that rope perfect,” said Mr. Banker.
“It had to be smooth, with no bits sticking out, and we couldn’t cheat on the length, they always checked it very carefully!”
He continued, “We would take the rope to the store, where we would exchange it for household supplies. We never sold it for money. The stores would sell the rope on.”
The Trust notes that the store owners often owned the ships that exported the rope, in which the sailors were shareholders. Once the rope was sold, the sailors were paid in a mixture of goods and money.
Jamaica needed a lot of rope in 1945 after its fishing fleet was devastated by a hurricane in 1944, making for a huge year for Cayman rope exports which totalled 1.5 million fathoms.
Silver thatch rope, said Mr. Banker, was very good for saltwater due to its resistance to rot, but not well suited for freshwater. The ropes were used for fishing boats and sailing boats, mostly for anchors, sails and tying up.
“There was a special rope we would make that was thinner, used for edging sails, but that was harder to make,” he said.
Eventually, synthetic rope took the place of rope made of natural materials, bringing an end to Cayman’s little domestic industry.
Mr. Banker says he cannot remember any rope being made by the time he left Cayman at 19, in 1954, to go to sea as a messman.
“It may have been still going on in other districts but in West Bay, by that time there was no rope making,” he said. “But it kept food on the table for many families for a long time, and I am always happy to show anyone who’s interested how we used to do it.”