Transforming natural resources into cultural products has been going on in the BVI since the arrival of the first people. The pre-Columbian inhabitants lived a life empowered by craft. Everything from their houses, tools and weapons, to canoes, calabash, pots, idols and effigies all came from the environment in which they lived. A few of the ancient pre-Columbian crafts survived into the new order of European and enslaved Africans. Basketry techniques, seed decorations, calabash carving and ceramic skills of the Windward Islands attest to this and give evidence that craft knowledge never dies completely. During the plantation period many of life's necessary equipment was crafted in the islands, blending African and European heritages. On the estates, such skills as barrel making, blacksmithing and stone masonry were carried out by the slaves under European tutelage. In the slave villages, African crafts were reborn with the use and decoration of calabash water bottles and bowls as well as spoons, drums and other musical instruments. In the fields the need to transport produce and fruits made basketry part of daily life and hats made out of platted palms were an essential element of outdoor work, as was the making of clothing and dolls at home. By the sea, craftsmen mastered wooden boat building, rope work and fish pot making. Many of these crafts outlived the demise of the plantation period and stayed central to BVI culture up until the 1960s. Basketry, straw hat making and boat building had become the classic BVI traditional crafts. The BVI is blessed with some of the best basket making materials in the Caribbean. Growing in almost every ghut you will find the hoop vine. It is this vine that Mildred Fahie, who is now over 90, and the late Darwin Scatliffe grew up learning to split, strip, clean and weave into strong, practical baskets; the quality of which, has no match in the whole Caribbean. Mildred started making baskets from the age of 13, having learnt the trade from her father. She spent much of her life in the fields of the Long Trench area of Tortola tending her herd of cattle and gathering hoop vine to make baskets in the evenings. On Saturday mornings she would sell the baskets at the weekly Road Town market, or quite often put some on a boat for her relatives to sell in St John. Although well into old age now, she can still be seen making baskets at her roadside bar in Purcell. Wisely she has taught the trade to her daughter Sylvie. So thankfully this once common household craft has survived to the next generation. With baskets now fetching upward of $100.00 a piece it might be time for some more of the youth to consider learning the trade.
Ketura Thomas and Jenny Wheatley of East End blessed me with some insight into the workings of another of the BVI's classic crafts. Ket and Jenny grew up knowing straw work. "The men were fishing and boat building and the ladies would plat straw for hats. That is all we did, there were no offices then." The straw "comes from the leaf of the tyre palm (coccothrinax alta) that grows on the north shore of Tortola, Guana Island and Scrub. Even back then it was rare and hard to get, so the bulk of the straw came in from St. Barths. In the '40s and '50s there was a booming cattle trade from Tortola to St Barths, which was being used as a "duty-free" entry port to the beef markets of Guadaloupe. On the return trip the sloops and schooners would bring back bundles of the straw palms for platting. The craft was set up as a true community cottage industry, where by many girls and ladies would plat the straw into ribbons, which they then sold, for 1 cent a yard to a hat maker. A hat would take up to 25 yards of platted straw to make and when sold in market would fetch up to $1.50. Truly a lot of money in the times when sugar was 5 cents a pound and a chambermaid could raise a family and save money working for $4.00 a week. In those days the market for straw hats was steady and a co-operative style purchasing centre in Road Town, would buy the hats and export them to the busier tourist markets of St John and St Thomas. The skill of sewing the hats has now come down to two of the elder women of East End, Mrs. Crab and Mrs. Penn. The craft is in serious danger of extinction, though with a concerted effort, dedicated training courses and some serious price restructuring of course, the craft can survive. Another of the islands most well known and skilled straw hat makers was Estelle Dawson. Although now retired, her contribution to the craft is an important one.
The last and least visible of the traditional crafts was not so much a household craft but a marine industry. Traditional boat building, in its heyday, was fundamental to the survival of the BVI, and the essential tool by which we communicated and traded with our neighbors and the outside world. The sturdy frames needed for the hulls were hewn from the local white cedar (tabebuia hetrophylla), the BVI national tree. Intimate knowledge of the forests and the correct phases of the moon to cut the wood was an essential element of this craft. It takes great understanding of and faith in nature to put to sea in a vessel built by hand from the trees that grow around you.
The last BVI wooden sloop slipped into our waters a few years ago up in Anegada and its master Mr. Watson White has now put down his tools. Another great BVI shipwright the late Osmand Davies of East End named his last boat the Youth Instructor. The trade cannot yet be called dead. The HLS Community College is maintaining the surviving Tortola sloops and basic shipwright skills are being taught to keep them afloat.
The extent to which the BVI has developed in recent years has separated the average citizen from daily, personal, contact with their natural environment. But by seeking out craft knowledge (both traditional and new) young people have great opportunities to reconnect with nature and generate an income at the same time.
BVI straw hats, baskets and boats, are recognized as some of the highest quality crafts in the region. Even considering the massive changes time has brought to our social, economic and cultural environment, as well as to our daily needs, there is still a role for these heritage crafts in the BVI, not just as a means of preserving cultural identity reinstating a deeper respect for our environment, but also as a valid income generator for the youth. The economic principles are simple: scarcity creates value and value creates opportunity.
Aragorn Dick-Read is an artist and the owner of Aragorn's Studio on Trellis Bay. For more information on local crafts go to aragornsstudio.com.