Laying Rope

Every day this week, as a lead up to my Marsh Harbour book signing on Saturday, May 13th, I’ll be sharing historic Abaco photographs and brief excerpts from my new book, Those Who Stayed.

In the late 1880s, believing it held the key to the colony’s economic success, Bahamian Governor Ambrose Shea introduced sisal, a plant that yields a stiff fibre used to make rope, twine, mats and other household items.

Lambert Gates (left) and Vertrum Lowe laying rope, circa 1950. Photo courtesy of the Albert Lowe Museum.

Since the U.S. had no domestic sisal supply, the governor pointed out, there was a ready market nearby. Furthermore, since sisal plants live more than a decade and survive in virtually any condition, they require minimum care.

Sisal, which was hand-harvested two to four times a year, provided employment for many Green Turtle Cay field labourers. Families who owned no land but wished to take advantage of this opportunity were granted 10 acres at five shillings per acre, to be paid from the proceeds of their first harvest.

One hundred thousand tons of Bahamian sisal was produced in 1892. That which wasn’t exported was used domestically to produce rope.

Dried sisal fibres were fed through a spinning wheel to make narrow strands. With homemade equipment, local men wound three of these strands into a larger cord – called “laying rope.”

In the photo above, Lambert Gates (left) guides the loose sisal strands, while Vertrum Lowe uses a hand-made wooden guide (called a “fid) to separate the strands as they twist into one rope. Save

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4 thoughts on “Laying Rope

  1. Really enjoying your week of historical photos and narrative history Mandy. Thanks!

  2. Amanda, do you know why sisal ultimately died out as a cash crop in the Bahamas? I’ve never been able to figure that out. It seems the perfect thing for growing in our poor soils. It would have happened sooner or later anyway, with the coming of nylon, but nylon didn’t come into common use until the 1940s, and sisal declined long before that.

    Reggie

    • Hi, Reggie. According to my research, there were a few factors. First, though the sisal plants originally grew well, they soon began showing signs of stunted growth – they didn’t grow as well as expected. Second, once Flagler’s railway allowed access to southern Florida, the U.S. could grown its own sisal. They also could get sisal from Mexico, which apparently offered a better quality product and less expensive labour.

      Amanda

      • That makes sense. Even though sisal is a hardy plant, seemingly tailor made for growing in harsh conditions, I suppose even that might have slowly gone into decline, as had cotton 100 years earlier. And no doubt Mexican labour would have been cheaper even then, when most of our people were still living at subsistence level. As for Florida, the RR reached Miami in 1896, so I can see that having an impact early on, although, by all indications, there was a large sisal plantation on Little Abaco after 1910.

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