The new Camana Bay Visitor Centre on Market Street next to Design Studio offers an appealing place to learn about Camana Bay’s shops, restaurants, activities and events, and to buy gift cards, book overnight dock space or pick up a copy of “Camana Bay Times.”
The Visitor Centre also offers, perhaps unexpectedly, a bit of Cayman Islands history instilled in its design in the ropes that hold up the shelves lining the south wall. If you look more closely and perhaps even run your fingers over them, you may even sense the person who made them, Marlena Anglin, and the long line of Caymanian women who came before her.
Hailing from West Bay and nearly 85 years old, Miss Marlena — as she is usually called — is known for her abilities to weave leaves of the silver thatch palm, the Cayman Islands’ national tree, into ropes and other useful items. These items embody an era in the Cayman Islands when life was simpler, but also very challenging.
Thatchwork was first developed in the Cayman Islands in the 1800s as people settled from other parts of the world. Bringing skills from various backgrounds, cultures and countries was essential; but new abilities had to be learned to survive the harsh conditions that once existed in the Cayman Islands. Creating ropes and other items from silver thatch was one of them.
In these earlier days, gathering and weaving the silver thatch was a key part of the economic development of Grand Cayman and a way that families — specifically women, as most men went to sea — survived. “There were not many families who did not do it,” says Miss Marlena.
Various sizes of ropes, which had demand overseas, were then traded to gain much-needed supplies including sugar, flour and even oil for lamps because in the early 1930s, there was no electricity in the Cayman Islands. This was also a time when there were no paved roads and very few shops and goods to be bought, and mosquitoes ruled parts of the day and evening.
Generating items to trade was so important to daily survival that women would walk from districts such as West Bay all the way to South Sound to gather silver thatch and then walk all the way back with it on their backs. Or they would leave their bundles piled up in a designated place — close to where Grand Old House restaurant is today — to be collected later by boat and brought back to West Bay or the relevant district. The owner of each bundle would have left something on it to identify that it was theirs.
The practice of thatch-making was also a part of the rhythm of the community as it brought people together. To Miss Marlena, weaving thatch was something she almost always knew how to do, having had her mother teach her when she was nine. She recalls all the women in the neighbourhood getting together on evenings when the moonlight was bright enough to allow them to work. “They would boil their coffee and drink that, plait, and laugh and talk and tell old-time stories. This was why families were so close,” she says.
She especially remembers that people would deliberately share scary stories and play tricks — a key form of entertainment for everyone. Songs were sung as well. There were even different songs for each family, a tradition brought from Jamaica when songs were used to communicate key events and differentiate each family or group from another one.
Throughout all of the changes on Grand Cayman and in her life, Miss Marlena always created her thatchwork and sold the many items she produced, including hats, slippers or shoes, and baskets. Her baskets continue to be in demand and are still treasured today. One customer recently asked her to enhance a basket, one that he claims to have had for over 35 years, but still looks new.
Miss Marlena’s thatchwork helps promote the heritage of the Cayman Islands and she continues to teach schoolchildren how to create and weave “the thatch.” In recognition of her work and efforts, in 2012 Miss Marlena was awarded the Gold Medal of Merit for her outstanding and important services to the Cayman Islands. In 2014, she received the Long-Service Award for her extraordinary contributions in preserving and promoting the culture of the Cayman Islands.
The ropes in the Camana Bay Visitor Centre therefore represent more than just a design element; they also represent more than a century of artisan work, passed down through generations, giving the space a true sense of place.