September 18, 2020

Cayman Turtler

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The GoldfieldFrom Atlantic Creole: Black Folk Don’t Sail XII

“But history, as they say, is comprehended backward though it must be lived forward, and when we examine our predecessors we bring our own lamps.”

– Coming Of Age In The Milky Way, Timothy Ferris

I know it is politically incorrect to even mention the fishing of the Sea Turtle these days but it did happen and to exclude such a history is to start deciding upon what facts we withhold during this era that happens to be publicized today as ‘not nice’. This, like quite a few realities, minimalises the maritime heritage of those who gave and risked their lives to create and maintain a culture. A few things that are not normally noted about the Green Sea Turtle, which is mostly covered in this manuscript: are they are reptiles who abandon their young, too many of them in a concentrated area wipe out the turtle and eel grasses upon which many other marine animals live, people are low on the scale of turtle predators, they have the highest protein intake for human consumption and since we do not know how many Greens there are to say they are possibly endangered makes no sense. But, they are a wonderful and sympathetic creature who for over four hundred years were cherished most by those who hunted them best, the .

I started researching the Cayman Turtling fishery back when I first arrived on that wonderful archipelago back more than thirty years ago. The Caymans were my first step into the Caribbean, outside of Key West and was recommended as a good transition from the States into the Caribbean as a general culture. Eventually, we, my partner, Lucy Mott-Lee, started and published a couple of magazines that encompassed five cultures on four islands. Our motto was, what is the same about islands is that they are not the same.

We lasted a little more than two years and in that time made numerous friendships that have lasted through time. Lucy still lives and works in two of our subject islands, the Turks and Caicos Islands and Haiti.

I went further into the project that brought me to the Caribbean, Invisible Sailors Invisible Ships, but specifically targeted the Cayman Islands because of their sphere of influence through the fishinin’ of Green Sea Turtle. What struck me first was the design and construction of their vessels. The Caymanian Turtle Schooner was like no other vessel in the . They had fine lines, finished hulls, evolving rigging and what I am trying to say is there was and is an attention to detail that I recognised only in their vessels. The isolation of these islands, to some degree, added to the test of time that kept this tradition of seeking perfection in all woodwork because you can still see it today in their buildings. But, there were more reasons than the geographic at play and that is the substance of this writing.

Please forgive some of the writing for this has not been completely edited, though many have assisted in helping me with my grammar and spelling, sometimes I just persist in my inbred in-capacities.

This manuscript is not yet complete, after all of these years. Some of the material was lost in my shipwreck and a hurricane, and many of those interviewed are sitting, shaking their heads at my misconceptions of their intentions from Davey Jones Locker. Hopefully, this will encourage a better insightfulness without the usual on the way to boredom academic work that drowns our mariner’s maritime heritage.

IMAGE: Cayman Turtle Schooner leaving Bay Islands

INTRODUCTION

“If you would know the age of the earth, look upon the sea in a storm.”

A -Joseph Conrad, Mirror of the Sea, 1906

 

Cayman Turtler is a person, occupation or vessel, and the term is complimentary for those of us who sail and appreciate a life working under the fickle caprices of the sea. To ask a mariner to go out four hundred to six hundred miles and coast back and forth hunting for a specific type of animal at the beginning of the hurricane season and to ask the same mariner to repeat this practice all throughout that same season would be to ask a mariner to forego all knowledge gained in the practice of that profession. The other side is to know your areas of endeavour so well that slight changes in weather will be your newspaper, current direction will be your arrows of anxiety and an awareness of the locations of the nearest protected anchorages would most assuredly be your second hand. Combine these and mix wisdom handed down throughout almost four hundred years of assembly and one has the archetype of the Cayman Turtler. Not all turtlers were adherent to this ancestrally perpetuated knowledge, many turtlers died proving and refining the data, some were just dumb, and/or greedy, some were experimenters, entrepreneurs and many just followed their captains or pilots.

IMAGE: Caymanian Pilot Fred Virtue in Bermuda

In the following pages we are going to follow the paths of the three definitions of Cayman Turtler from their vocational origins through to their vocational demise. We do not endeavour to present a completely comprehensive study, that is not the point of the series. Our journey will be a bird’s eye overview, a photographically clear condensed history of a seafaring culture. The Turtlers started turtling almost four hundred years ago and stopped hunting turtle just a little more than forty years back. Of all the beautiful sailers that were designed and constructed here only Western Union, chartering in Key West, is known to be afloat; and there is no Caymanian occupation in this day and age called turtling. But, quite a few of the turtlers were alive and well when this was started, with good memories and a knack for telling tales of those days.

Cayman Turtler was a community affair with participation in research, editing and accumulation of materials shared amongst a committed diversity of all the age groups and cultures resident in the Cayman Islands. It was a co-operative effort to preserve a history that has been without subjective documentation and thereby without real relevance to the Cayman community at large. This book is also meant for the visitor to obtain an insight of this complex society that seems at casual glance so simple and hospitable and warm. The book, to the visitor, will show a rugged association of individualistic adventurers, romantically beating to windward showered in bow wave spray with an over abundance of pulling canvas taking them out on a hunt. The turtle hunters will be captured for immortality by camera in innocent poses of proud haughtiness and will leave the impression that these sailors knew who they were and what they were about.

That Caymanians gained the reputation of being the greatest merchant marine sailors on earth owed to the heritage shown on these pages which ironically aided the death of that same tradition. Who were these people whose attention to detail and hierarchical discipline honed seamanship skills that were the envy of the Caribbean Basin? What was this type of culture whose very reason for being was the hunting and selling of a migratory marine reptile? Why did these rovers transit the vast bowl of the Caribbean spreading their influence and blood lines from Jamaica in the Northeast counter clockwise to Surinam in the Southeast? How did this tiny island group, a British Crown Colony, accomplish so much without the recourse of conquest or war?

The history of the Caymanian turtle industry and its infrastructural associations tells a different story of the history of the Caribbean than one is accustomed. There is the odd bit of piracy and there are the revolutions (the latter not amongst the Caymanians) here and there but, what is evident, is an assimilation into host countries that clearly held respect for the hereditary maritime character of the Caymanian.

The And The Taino

“Vast quantities of water are circulating through the Caribbean- somewhere between 12 and 25 times the total amount of fresh water in all the rivers of the world put together…”

-Nigel Calder, The Cruising Guide To the Northwest Caribbean,1991

The Caribbean Sea is 1500 miles long and at its furthest almost the same wide. The Islands, mainly small and volcanic, form an arcing curve north from the Coast of Venezuela to the Virgin Islands. The Greater Antilles Islands, in which the smallest are the Cayman Islands group, leave the arc of the to head directly for the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. For the most part the Islands of the Greater Antilles are large, mountainous and sedimentary. The land mass of what was once referred to as the Spanish Main(land) forms the solid half of the Caribbean Sea. At the Southern end of the Island chain 65 miles separate Tobago from the Main with Cuba at the Northern end, only 124 miles from the Yucatan.

The Atlantic Ocean’s South Equatorial Current arrives at the bottom of the Island chain to proceed into the cul de sac of the Caribbean Basin. This Atlantic river travels in an East to West, then a South to North direction along the Northern coasts of South America and the Eastern coasts of Middle America. The North Equatorial Current, also from the Atlantic Ocean, enters the Caribbean through the Windward and Mona Passages and joins with its sister current to flow up and out of the mouth of the Yucatan Channel as the Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream moves up the Eastern North American coasts pushing off across the Atlantic to find Europe, then, while on its run down to Africa, it separates once more into the North and South Equatorial Currents which move on their ways back to the Caribbean Basin.

The winds, reacting to the earth’s rotation, reinforce the westward movement of the currents, setting up the famous trade winds of the Caribbean. These trade winds facilitated travel by sail among the early arrivals to the Islands of the Caribbean. The two names dividing the Lesser Antilles are the Windward and the Leeward Islands which graphically depict the fact that the Westerly blowing trade winds favourably affect the North and South routing of the transporting vessels. Lesser Antilles lay in a trail that leaves the winds on the sides of the transporting vessels, the easiest manner in which a vessel might travel under sail. Most of the Islands in this group are within eyesight of the other, so the skills of navigation could be rudimentary to still gain a destination.

Taino Cristobol Colon (Columbus) mistakenly called the people he first encountered, Indians, because he thought he had discovered a route to the islands known to be on the Eastern side of the Indian Ocean. From that time there has existed a layman’s confusion as to the name of the general culture of Colon’s New World acquaintances.. Though it is not certain if the Guanahatabeys of the Northern periphery of the Greater Antilles or the Island Carib of the Southern extreme of the Lesser Antilles are in the same cultural group, the name Taino seems to be the general classification of the indigenous culture of the Caribbean with which Colon mainly made his contacts.

Ciboney, Borinquen and Lucayo all shared the language and culture of the Taino but referred to themselves by their localities. The word Taino has been translated to mean, “noble” or “good”. The often used term, Arawak, mistakenly refers to a different linguistic and cultural group who still inhabit the coasts of the Guianas and Trinidad alongside their ancestral neighbours, the Carib, also self-referred to as the Igneri or Eyeri.

It is generally believed that the Taino culture was the second influencing culture to have expanded into the Caribbean Basin and that they followed, first, the South Equatorial Current and outpouring waters of the Orinoco River to carry them to the Islands, then the trade winds to carry them up the chain of Islands. The first cultural group to have settled in the Islands is conjectured to be its oldest recorded inhabitants, the Guanahatabeys of Northwestern Cuba, who are thought to have made the passage across to Cuba from Middle America taking advantage of the counter current that runs along the southern side of the big Island.

The Greater Antilles Taino had a very organised matriarchal society that lived in governed, permanent villages. Though their artisans seemed specialised they did not seem to have developed crafts as occupations. Both sexes painted themselves red for celebrations, which might have led to the misconception of the red man. The Taino grew their agricultural plants in heaped up mounds arranged in regular rows and constructed extensive irrigation systems. Cassava, sweet potato, squash, beans, peppers and peanuts were their principle crops. Fruits, calabashes, tobacco, cotton and pineapple were also cultivated. Tobacco was smoked in the form of cigars.

The Taino had inter-island, as well as coastal trade, with reports of long distance voyages in pursuit of particular products. It is also recorded that the Taino caught fish and turtle with net, spear and used hook and line. They also kept both fish and sea turtle in thatch and stick pens until they were ready to eat them. The Taino of Hispaniola taught the Spaniards, French and English how the sea turtle could live for long voyages on their backs to provide a more than excellent source of protein. They also taught them to boucan , or smoke-dry sea turtle and cow meat for later sustenance.

Possibly the last photo of the Cayman Turtle Schooner, Wilson,

Photo property of Santiago Moreno, San Andreas Island

Off-loading Green Sea Turtle in Key West, Florida circa 1930

Though there is no substantiated proof that Taino lived on the Cayman Islands their influence in the surrounding larger Islands of Jamaica, Hispaniola and Cuba gave those European settlers an expertise in the hunting of the sea turtle and eventually led to the Caymanian becoming the greatest of those.

To see what has been done to date I am letting you in on my proposed Table of Content:

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

2          Table Of Contents

3           Introduction

5                      I-   The Caribbean and the Taino

8         II- Hunters Of The Sea Turtle

13       The Sea Turtle Of The Hunters/ The Sea Turtle Mysteries

15       Captain Charles Bush’s Notch Fin Story

16                   The Wilson Turtle (Captain Allie)

17       III-   Cayman Diaspora/Isle Of Pines (Isla de La Juventud, Cuba)

18                   Belize/ Bay Islands

19                  Bay Islands, Honduras

20                  Mosquito Coast

20       Juan Serrano or Robinson Crusoe

23       Cays & Setts

24       Caimanero From The Isle Of Pines

27       IV-   Infrastructure & Markets

32       Thompson Shipping (unfinished)

34       V-   Boats & Ships

36       The Tibbetts

44       Building a Ship

49       Interior & Cook House

51       Cayman Islands Shipping Registry

62       VI- Seafarer/ Captain Theophilus Ritch

64       Captain Charles Kirkconnell: The Family Kirkconnell

70       The Navigator: Captain John Hurlston

77                  Ranger: Carley Ebanks

87     Ranger Lessons: Captain Marvin Ebanks

93                   The Legend:Captain Allie Ebanks

102                VII-   Storms & Calamities/ R.L Hustler The Loss Of The Majestic

118     The Nunoca:   Eileen Eden

119     Rigger’s Luck: Captain Benny Bodden

121     Leumas’ Fate:   Captain Marvin Ebanks

122     Tale Of The Frank Bentley

129     VIII-   Decline Of Sail/ Turning From The Sea

134     List of Captains, Pilots & Sailors

143     Rite Of Passage by H.E. Ross

147     List of 20th Century Sailing Vessels

159     Sailing Vessels: Carley Ebanks

161     Commercial Sailing Vessels: Captain Charles Kirkconnell

162                 IX-   Glossary of Sailing Terms

170     X- Tote Bag: Of Ships

173     A.M. Adams: Michael Goodman/ Van Dyke Bush

174     Mr. Taylor Foster/ Provisions & Captain Allie

175     Captain Allie & Sails Kellicks: Henry Bodden

176     Sailmakers: Lawrence Bodden

177     Wilson, Adams & Goldfield

178                 Thompson’s Key West: H. Elroy Arch Setts Names: Henry Bodden

179                 XI- Thoughts & Poetry

181     The Goldfield: Joan Wilson*

For a lot more on this story with a complete INDEX go to: http://herossea.blogspot.com/2013/10/atlantic-creole-black-folk-dont-sail.html

 

*Here is Joan Wilson’s (Publisher of iNews Cayman) Poem on The Goldfield

 

The Goldfield

By Joan Wilson

 

Once hailed as the most beautiful ship ever built in Cayman

She was a real lady with her Egyptian cotton sails so grand

They say she broke speed records and was called a hussy

She was also very sleek and very, very, fussy.

 

Only the best sailors were hired as her crew

Mostly from West Bay came men we knew

Names like Farrington, Bush, Ebanks and Parsons

Were all hired on the spot for many reasons.

 

They were very good sailors the best in the land

No better could be found in Grand Cayman

This was back in 1930 – seventy years ago

When men were seamen and in the know.

 

She was launched with the music of guitars in hand

Everyone danced to the beat of the band

White rum came from Jamaica they say

Oh what a fanfare we all had that day.

 

A turtling schooner she was for a while

Carrying cargo between the Caribbean isles

Then she was sold and became a cruising home

Then sold again – no longer to roam.

 

This beautiful ship was a real movie star

And featured in parades both near and far

Sold yet again to the Goldfield Foundation

Who prepared her for Cayman her final destination.

 

But the voyage to Cayman was a total disaster

Breaking her boom and later dismasted

Towed in and worked on and most timbers replaced

Hell bound for Cayman and home again they raced.

 

With her masts on deck and Bob Soto at the helm

Her arrival was celebrated and we were overwhelmed

For to us she seemed so humble and so very small

And not the proud lady we once knew with masts so tall.

 

But she was home now and would be sailing soon again

Monies paid and chances taken would not have been in vain

But alas as fate would have it this was not to be

The North Sound claimed this lady – she sank below the sea.

 

Below the murky water the Goldfield is at rest

Today she’s rust, a skeleton, but yesterday she was the best

So may this lady be remembered and her history archived

Thank God for our seamen and to all who survived.

 

 

 

 

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