Long before tourism and the financial services powered Cayman financially, the principle economic mainstay of the Cayman Islands was turtling. Locals ate and sold the meat and exported the large shells overseas so it that it could be used in finished goods that were sold in Europe.
However, there have been other industries, including schooner building, sponge harvesting, the gathering of seabird eggs, wrecking, guano collecting, catching sharks for the leather industry, the felling and removal of hardwoods such as mahogany and cedar, the barking of red mangrove trees and cutting of logwood for their use in dyes. Coconuts were exported, cotton was gathered, ropes were made from thatch and, for a period, Caymanians worked as merchant seamen on commercial ships.
Thatch Weaving & Rope Making
Another noteworthy tradition is thatch weaving. ‘Laying rope’ was once one of the few means of making a living for Caymanian women and children while the men were away at sea.
This valuable custom has been passed down from generation to generation. Certain districts were known to produce the best ‘tops’ for cutting and people would often walk for miles to collect bundles of thatch, which would later be stripped, dried and twisted into fine fathoms of rope. This would then be traded overseas or exchanged for goods such as cloth, sugar or kerosene.
Turtles & Turtling
When the first Europeans came to Cayman, they found one of the largest turtle nesting grounds on earth. For nearly 200 years, ships of all nations (particularly French, Dutch and English) came to these shores to ‘turn’ green and loggerhead turtles and dry their flesh, an easily obtainable source of protein for ship or plantation stores.
Early on, Cayman became the centre of the Caribbean turtle industry. By 1800, the turtle population had dwindled and the local turtling fleet turned their attention to the south coast of Cuba and the coastline of Central America. Until the early 1960s, Cayman ships still supplied the largest share of turtles entering foreign markets from the Caribbean. These were mostly caught on the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua.
The Cayman Islands officially banned turtle hunting in 1988; however, in honour of Cayman’s turtling heritage, certain individuals are permitted to hunt turtles under license in accordance with the Marine Conservation Law. While typically some of these individuals apply to renew their licences annually, in the past few years, no turtles have been taken under a licence.
The Cayman Turtle Centre is a major tourist attraction. It is home to hundreds of turtles and supplies the local market with turtle meat.