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The Maritime Heritage of the Cayman Islands: Contributions in Nautical Archaeology.

Roger Smith
Thesis: August 1981
Chair: Bass
Nautical Archaeology Program

The Cayman Islands, three small, remote landforms in the western Caribbean, for several centuries possessed one of the most remarkable marine fisheries in the New World. From the moment of its discovery in 1503, this island group was recognized for its abundance of sea turtles--a resource which not only supported the opening of the West Indies, but also fostered the development of a unique race of sea-hardened people whose nautical skills have been renowned throughout the world.

The contributions of the Cayman Islands to the establishment of European hegemony in the Caribbean region have been only vaguely understood; similarly, the relationship between an isolated, insular environment and the cultivation of a distinct maritime culture also has lacked the attention it deserves. Unfortunately, seafaring traditions in the Cayman Islands, once paramount factors of subsistence and survival, now are rapidly disappearing in the modern flurry of air transportation and tourism. Maritime pursuits no longer provide incentives for young islanders to take up the traditional trades of their ancestors. Nonetheless, the foundation of the Caymanian character lies with the sea, and this ultimately cannot be forgotten or ignored.

To better understand the ways in which an intrepid and independent island society developed in the frontiers of the sea, elements of anthropology, archaeology, history and geography have been forged to create a cultural perspective of the maritime heritage of the Cayman Islands. Derived from archival research, ethnographic studies, and archaeological field investigations, this thesis explores the roots of the Caymanian legacy. In the following pages, a presentation is made not only of the discrete and parochial aspects of the turtling trade manifested in the Cayman Islands from the mid-1600s--that is, the men who fished the marine reptiles; the vessels and methods they employed--but also how these seemingly distant and forgotten islands represented a vital and significant part of the growth of the West Indies.

This is the unique and previously-unrecognized maritime history of the Caymanian people. Its details have been sought and compiled out of an interest in and an awareness of the importance of that uniqueness.

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