A Heroic Craft: Boat Builders in the Turks & Caicos Islands
By Kendal S. Butler
The Turks & Caicos Islands owe their current success to the foundation on which they stand. This foundation was not the brainchild of politicians or the economic and social elites. It was the result of necessity and the reaction of citizens rising to meet the challenge of bettering their overall condition by building boats for the purpose of addressing their needs. In the 19th century, the distinctive Turks Island sloops and schooners would carry a major part of the burden of unifying the country through the movement of people and freight.
The early years
In 1492, Christopher Columbus arrived in the Turks & Caicos Islands and found them populated by Taino Indians. By 1520, all of the Indians had disappeared, either enslaved or dead from diseases contracted from the Europeans.
From the 16th until the early 18th centuries, the Turks & Caicos were used as a pirate’s haven. Bermudans began visiting to harvest salt in the 1670s and advanced it to the level of an industry in the early 18th century.
In 1674, it was legally adjudged that the Turks & Caicos were a part of the Bahama Islands. Over the years the population of salt rakers grew as the value of salt rose due to demand. There was increasing social and economic interaction with the Bahamas, particularly the southern islands.
After the secession of the Turks & Caicos Islands from the Bahama Islands on December 25, 1848, there was an increased building of boats as the new colony sought to make its way on its own. In addition to the salt industry, wrecking would become a lucrative industry and pursuit.
Building a boat
Normally, the keel of the boat would be made from the pine tree. Madeira trees supplied the timber for the stern post, stem, and sometimes for the frame. The horse flesh or buttonwood trees were also used to provide frames. The pine tree was used for planking, the mast, dead wood, deck beams and overall structure.
Building a boat involved going into the bush and searching for the right length, thickness and shape of tree. Afterwards came the labour of cutting down the tree and carrying it to the boat building site. Then the wood had to be ripped by hand.
The mast and other wood would be placed in the sea to be cured before being used. A sloop big enough to travel internationally could take from nine months to build. (The time could be longer or shorter depending on the number of assisting carpenters.)
There was no set price for a boat. Pricing could differ from settlement to settlement on the same island. What influenced the price was the relationship between boat builder and client. Family members were generally given special consideration; friends were given “a good deal,” and others were charged whatever the market could bear.
The launching of a vessel was a day of celebration and pride for the boat builder’s community. It meant that members were less dependent on another community for transporting freight and passengers, and had some control over the procuring of sustenance and development.
A key role in advancement
The social and cultural level of the Islands was, in a general way, advanced in a uniform manner because of the communication and interaction made possible by means of the locally built boats. The concepts and practices which provided the basis for the development of the nation were spread and re-enforced by and through the locally built boats. Interestingly though, these boats were both the savior of the colony and a contributor to economic decline.
The movement of passengers and freight between the Turks & Caicos Islands, the Bahama Islands, Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Cuba and Florida assisted greatly with the overall development of the colony. Fish and conch were traded to the Dominican Republic and Haiti; sisal and sponges were traded to the Bahama Islands; and Noel Gardiner’s 68 foot Caicos Joy provided freight services (including vehicles) between Florida and the colony during the early 1970s. These were important developments undertaken by locally built boats in order for the colony to advance.
On the other hand, reliance on the locally built salt lighters cost the Islands their main industry. Salt lighters were sailing sloops without decks to facilitate the loading and transport of salt to freighters which were offshore due to shallow waters. These crafts could sometimes be over 50 feet in length.
Until 1873, salt was the main source of income for the Turks & Caicos Islands. After that, the salt industry started to decline because of mined salt in the USA, which was protected by high tariff rates on imported salt. There would be a revival of this industry in the early 20th century, but because of the length of time it took to load salt into the tankers by means of the salt lighters compared to the modern and mechanized salt loading system in Inagua, the Turks & Caicos’ salt industry declined, with Inagua eventually becoming the third largest salt producer in the world.
The whaling industry which functioned from the late 19th century to the early 20th century and was based in Salt Cay, was also serviced by locally built boats. This industry provided whale meat for local consumption, with the whale oil and bones exported.
As a result of local Baptist churches in the mid-19th century, rudimentary education was made available to some children who otherwise might have had no such exposure. The teachers in these church-based schools were members of the local church and received some financial remuneration. These Baptist churches were serviced by the London Baptist Missionary Society through its Nassau-based operations. Locally built boats were used to transport the Society’s personnel and materials from the Bahama Islands to the Turks & Caicos.
The potential for tragedy
There were tragedies and near tragedies involving the locally built sloops. During the early 1940s, noted boat builder and captain James Hamilton (1902-1963) was able to save himself from certain death because he was could speak Creole (due to his many trips to Haiti.) Captain Hamilton was engaged to sail a large sloop from New Providence to Haiti. However, the Haitian men on the sloop felt insulted and belittled and plotted to kill Captain Hamilton and dump his body into the sea. During a disagreement among the Haitians as to who would assume captaincy, Hamilton was able to slip off the sloop in the vicinity of Long Island. Captain John R. Turnquest, a fisherman from Upper Deadman’s Cay, Long Island, rescued him after two days in the water near Conch Point.
On September 13, 1945, Gustavous Lightbourne, owner/captain of the sloop G.L. Progress (built by Algernon Dean, Sr. of Blue Hills, Providenciales) went conching and fishing around the French Cays (Plana Cays) along with Eric Parker, Thomas Palmer and Livingston Swann — all from Blue Hills, Providenciales. An unannounced hurricane struck. In order to save themselves, they cut down the sloop’s mast and the vessel was driven by the weather conditions to Crooked Island. Arrangements were made by the commissioner who resided on Acklins Island for the survivors to catch the Bahamian motorized mailboat from Long Cay to Inagua. In Inagua, they were fortunate to meet Theophilus “Tappy” Parker’s vessel Extend, which was captained by Robert Dean. The vessel made a trip to Haiti, stopped at Grand Turk and then went on to Blue Hills. Residents were shocked to see the men some 47 days later because they had been given up as lost to sea. In fact, their memorial service had already been held!
It is interesting to note that from 1800 to 2000, there were four members of the TCI’s Legislative Assembly who were boat builders. The two who are deceased are Fuller Walkin of Blue Hills, Providenciales and Paul Higgs of Bottle Creek, North Caicos. The two still living are Gustavous O. Lightbourne and Hilly Ewing, both of Blue Hills. Hilly Ewing went on to receive ministerial appointment and bore responsibility for immigration, natural resources and national insurance at various times.
During the mid-1930s, the boat-building men of the Hall family of Lorimers, Middle Caicos built some vessels and sold them in Haiti. With the resulting funds, the Halls bought a large tract of government land in Lorimers. To this day, members of the Hall family occupy this land. The only way for anyone to build or live on this property is either being born or marrying into the family.
One outstanding finding is that over 200 years, there was only one female boat builder found! Cecile Louise Deane-Smith (1932-2001), the daughter of renowned boat builder John Algernon Deane and Susan Hall-Deane, was married to David Smith, a fisherman. Because he needed a boat and could not build one, Cecile built the 28 foot Silver Velly Stream (also known as The Meow) for her husband. Having been trained by her father in building boats and in general construction, Cecile repaired boats and buildings and built her home. She also worked in construction in the early 1970s in Nassau and Grand Bahama.
According to my research, the number of boat builders from 1800 to 2000 is listed as follows. (These figures are subject to change with further research.) Grand Turk: 4; Salt Cay: 9; South Caicos: 18; Providenciales: 30; North Caicos: 80; and Middle Caicos: 47.
The government and private sector organizations should honour these boat builders and take steps to ensure that their legacy does not die, as its cessation would be a great national cultural loss. Present and future generations must never forget that their personal, communal and national status have their origin in the boat builders who are, in fact, among the true national heroes of the country.
Kendal Butler has been documenting the history of boat builders in the Bahamas and Turks & Caicos Islands for the last seven years. His interest was spurred by the stories he heard of his great-great-great grand-father, who was a major boat builder in Exuma, The Bahamas.
Mr. Butler is current working on a final draft of his research, “The History of Boat Builders of The Bahamas and The Turks & Caicos Islands from 1800 to 2000” and it is expected to be published shortly.
For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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