“You may call it folklore, but it’s a kind that has to be mostly right or somebody will starve. To understand the confidence of the Caymanians in their turtle lore, you must realise how intimately they have lived with the beasts and how closely they study their ways and wiles on the fishing banks.”
— Archie Carr
When Archie Carr set out to discover whether sea turtles embarked on vast, annual breeding migrations, the renowned herpetologist found himself travelling to a remote part of the Caribbean “of neither the Main nor the Antilles, of only the sea in its deepest part – three little lonely islands visited only by hurricanes”1.
Every story about the turtles’ alleged homing abilities seemed to originate in the Cayman Islands. So Carr went in search of the people who knew the animals best, not zoologists or naturalists, but the “Cayman turtle men”. There was no science to validate what the Caymanian turtlers told him, that “turtle can go home from anywhere”. The only corroboration the Caymanian turtle fleet got (and, indeed, the only kind they wanted) was a profitable catch.
I am a descendant of these hardy sailors and (as there is no archaeological evidence to suggest that the island was ever settled by an indigenous people2) my forebears were among the first people to call the Cayman Islands home when they arrived in the 17th century.
The “mostly right folklore” Carr describes is known nowadays as traditional environmental knowledge. This is the kind of knowledge that can only be gained through repeated anthropocentric encounters with the natural environment by a specific people in a specific place.
As the first people to settle the Cayman Islands, early Caymanians had no other recourse for survival than to interact with the land and sea around them, and garner the lessons from those experiences. They learned what could harm them, what could heal them, what could nourish them, and what could shelter them.
But time waits for no man and the Cayman Islands can no longer be called “the land that time forgot”. As we replaced our thatch roofs with standing seam and our traditional medicines with imported pharmaceuticals, we have lost a great deal of the traditional environmental knowledge that once characterised our relationship with our home.
That is not to say, however, that we cannot get that knowledge back…
This blog is an attempt to make some of the traditional environmental knowledge of the Cayman Islands accessible to the wider public. As a Caymanian who has lived and studied abroad, I know the challenges faced by those outside the country to gain access to shared cultural memories at a time when most records in the public archive have not been digitised.
As Caymanians, our cultural identity is linked to the natural environment of our homeland as sure as our navel strings are buried here… Perhaps it is time we get back to our roots.
1Carr, A. (1979). The Windward Road: Adventures of a Naturalist on Remote Caribbean Shores. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
2Craton, M. (2003). Founded upon the Seas: A History of the Cayman Islands and Their People. Kingston: Ian Randle Publishers.