Phosphate mining was a short-lived but highly prosperous enterprise in the Cayman Islands in the late 19th century.
Beds of phosphate – a key component of agricultural fertilisers and an important commodity in the 19th century – were discovered on Grand Cayman and Little Cayman.
It involved mining deposits – created by seabird excrement in the interior of the islands – and transporting them on wheeled carts along rail tracks to the coast.
In his definitive history of the Cayman Islands, ‘Founded Upon The Seas’, Michael Craton described the phosphate industry as an economic “boom” for the islands.
He describes how the industry began in 1884 with the incorporation of the Grand Cayman Phosphate Company.
“Although the phosphate beds in George Town were soon exhausted, larger beds were discovered in West Bay and at the western end of Cayman Brac,” Craton wrote.
The Carib Guano Company began mining on Little Cayman in 1885 after the discovery of a very rich deposit on the island, the book indicates.
Exports were steady for around five years and the industry provided near universal employment, as well as handsome royalties for land owners. The discovery of larger phosphate deposits in Florida effectively shut down the Cayman operation, however, and the Grand Cayman Phosphate Company and Carib Guano Company had shut down by 1892.
“Though the industry was revived in a limited form on the Sister Islands from the 1920s to the 1940s, all that remained of this unusual episode in the commercial history of the Cayman Islands were sections of the metal tracks, visible for many years, which had borne the trolleys carrying phosphate from the interior to the coast,” Craton wrote.
Now historians are investigating the theory that the wheel-sets discovered underwater off East End may have been relics from these donkey-drawn carts.