This is the final part of a series about the Corn Islands – two small, beautiful and remote islands on the western edge of the Caribbean, off the coast of Nicaragua. Part 1 of the series (which can be found here) introduces the islands, while Part 2 (which can be found here) focuses on coconut production, which used to dominate the local economy.
In Part 3, people of Caymanian origin tell how and why their parents or grandparents made their way to Corn Islands and they and their children adapted to their new homes.
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Migration has always been an important part of life in the Caribbean – both people moving to the Caribbean and also people moving between islands and beyond. Caymanians have always looked across the seas to sustain themselves, the small islands – located roughly equidistant between Jamaica, Cuba and the Yucatán penisular – being almost entirely unsuited to agriculture. Now, of course, the British Overseas Territory of the Cayman Islands is one of the most prosperous parts of the Caribbean, its economy largely based on financial services and tourism. But as late as the 1970s, the situation there was very different.
In contrast to most Caribbean islands, the Caymans had little in the way arable land, with agriculture – such as there was – barely even providing for basic home needs. Instead, Caymanians largely derived their livelihoods from the sea.
Since the arrival of the first settlers in the 17th century, the Cayman Islands have been associated with turtles – green and hawksbill. As turtles were gradually hunted to virtual extinction in Caymanian waters, islanders turned to new fishing grounds, in particular looking northwards to Cuban waters and westwards to the Caribbean coast of Central America.
Following the abolition of slavery 1833, waves of Cayman Islanders sought out new homes. As the islands off Central America and southern Cuba were well known to Caymanian fishermen, they attracted many people in search of land. By the early 20th century there were probably more people of Caymanian origin living in the Bay Islands of Honduras, Nicaragua’s Corn Islands, Colombia’s San Andrés and Providencia and Cuba’s Isle of Pines than there were in the Cayman Islands.
Caymanians were always a small minority of the population of the Corn Islands. That said, numerous Caymanian families moved there in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The great attraction of Corn Islands was not so much the proximity to the turtle grounds of the Pearl and Miskito cays, but rather the availability of fertile land.
This blog post features five women with Caymanian links. [The previous included the memories of two other Corn Islanders of Caymanian heritage.] They tell of their families’ early years in the Corn Islands, how their grandparents or parents adapted to their new homes – and also something of their own lives. All have family in the Cayman Islands – relatives who never left their once impoverished homeland and sons, daughters, nieces and nephews and grandchildren who have “returned” in search of new opportunities.
Hazel Barnard Cothrell (born 1912)
“Corn Island used to be different – we didn’t find life hard”, Hazel Barnard told me. Difficult though life may have become, Miss Hazel has certainly lived a long one: on February 2nd 2015 she celebrated her 103rd birthday, making her the oldest person in Corn Island.
Miss Hazel, who talked to me in her yard as she was cooking up some chicken, agreed with the other so-called “native islanders” who I’d met that there was tension with migrants from the mainland, but she said that got by with them as best she could.
One difficulty that Miss Hazel had with some of the newcomers was that she only spoke English – when I asked whether she could speak Spanish, she replied with an emphatic “no”: “In them days we didn’t have no Spanish where we were going to school”, she explained. “We just had Spanish teachers who’d come, stay a couple of days and then they go and don’t come back again.” For her children, however, things were quite different, “them can speak Spanish”.
“My father, Halford Barnard, was from Caymans. He came to Corn Island with his mother and father when he had 12 years. They was fishermen. My grandfather, John Barnard, he used to go Caymans plenty – that was his home. He used to go Caymans and then come back here. He had his own boat. A catboat.
My grandfather, he used to carry the turtles to Cayman. I didn’t know my grandfather but I did know my grandmother – that was Lucy Barnard. Lucy is from Caymans. She was a ‘Bodden’. My grandfather bring her here. That was after he married, he come here with his children.
My father was a farmer and he used to go to the sea and catch turtle – to the other islands, to Colombia and to King’s Cay. They used to fish the turtle, bring them here, and then kill them and then sell to the people. And we used to bring bird eggs from the cay. Little eggs. He used to farm plantain, banana, cassava and coconut. He had one acre and a third – a big place. He died years ago now – in 1940-something. He was 75.*”
*If this information about Miss Hazel’s father is accurate, the Barnard family would have left Grand Cayman in the 1880s to settle in Corn Island.
Dolores Brock Terry (born 1927)
Whether it was due to shyness or not having much interest in the past, my conversation with Miss Dolores was quite short. In common with many other islanders, she expressed worries about people migrating from the mainland – people who had introduced “thieving and murdering and drugs” which “in days gone by never happen in Corn Island”. Even so, like most “native islanders”, much of Miss Dolores’ family were migrants themselves – either having moved to Corn Island or having gone elsewhere.
“My father was from right here in Corn Island. My mother came from Cayman when she was a girl of four years. My mother was Lucy Brock, before the marriage she was a Terry. She have eight years since she die. When she died, she have 75 years.* Maybe things were bad over in Caymans, so, well, she come on this side to live.
My grandfather Terry, he tended the church – the Baptist church. He came here and was living here and afterward he joined the church. He used to bake. He used to bake pies and things and sell. That was my grandfather. He never used to fish. When he get here he joined the church, up North End – he used to live behind the church. The church is still there. Now they’re building it over – they’re building a new church. Plenty people in the north are Baptist – Anglicans are on the south side, but Baptist takes most people. They preach in pure English.
There were many people from Cayman here – plenty people! The Cayman people do all kind of jobs. They have the Ebanks and they have the one woman by the name of Elsie Rodriquez – she was a Caymanian too. She die. There was Ferdie Nicholson – but he die. He used to work on the land. He had a place where he used to make copra. Them dry the coconut then they press them and get the oil out of them. He would sell it to Managua. He died right here. He have a son right now in Cayman, name of Ronnie – Ronnie Nicholson. Ferdie died about seven years aback. Not too long he dead.
All my grandfather’s sons was fisherman. My uncles used to fish turtle and all them things. People from Cayman used to go to the cays and buy turtle. Stop off to the island and to buy provisions – them in Caymans had hardly provisions. Now they have plenty of provisions over there.”
*If this information is accurate, Lucy Terry (the mother of Miss Dolores) moved from Grand Cayman to Corn Island around 1921.
Bonnilyn Tucker Quinn de Welcome (b. 1924)
I was told that Bonnilyn Welcome – or Miss Bonda, as she’s usually called – knew as much as anyone did about Caymanians in Corn Island, even though she was not of Caymanian origin herself. Both her parents – Jeremiah Tucker and Gladys Quinn – were members of long established Corn Island families, but Miss Bonda had married a Caymanian. And as I’d been assured, she seemed know at least as much about the Caymanians in Corn Island as she did of her parents’ families.
“I met my husband right here in Corn Island – Thomas Adrian Welcome Watler. I was married to Thomas in 1953 – July the 20th. And I bring in this world four children – three boys and one girl. Two sons are in Corn Island, a son is in Grand Cayman and a daughter in Miami.
Thomas was born in the Grand Cayman Island, in the British West Indies in 1909. He was nine years old when he came over to Corn Island. He came with his mother (Patricia Watler Welcome), his father (Abner Jones Welcome), his uncle (Tyler Jones Welcome) and his wife (Lena, a Watler) and aunt (Josephine Jones Welcome, who married Watler). They came down to Corn Island after the hurricane in 1906 in Grand Cayman Island when the people began to drift away from that island.
Thomas’s father and uncle were businessman. They had three vessel: the Klondike, the Welcome Right Hand and the Aviator – they were sailing vessel. They used to sail around to the United States and buy things and go back to Cayman Island. But after the hurricane the island was destroyed and they come down, sailing to Providence Island and San Andrés. They felt they were going to settle there but they didn’t bring down their family so they keep on and they hear about Corn Island – and they come to my island. They used to buy lumber down here, for building boats and take back to Mobile [Alabama] and then they used to bring foodstuffs to Cayman.
Well, Thomas and my uncle-in-law and my father-in-law were business people and after they come to this island they start working with the Franklin Baker Company. And they used to work with lumber, coconut and copra. Right here in Brigg Bay they had an office and they had a big wharf. They had a big ship coming in from Mobile, by the name of the Scania. They used to take the cargo from Corn Island up to the United States. My father, Jeremiah Tucker, was a sailor boy on the Scania. That’s how my father know the United States. Many of the other islanders man used to work on it too.
Those Welcome men, they was not thief nor pirate, they were people what come to bring work down to Corn Island. They buy property in the island and they began to cultivate, by Walua Point, and they bought some in what we call Cow Pen. On the island, they cultivated coconut and all kind of fruit. They used to make cane syrup. Cultivate cane – you grind them and make syrup and sell right here on the island. They also had some land at Set Net Point, over on the mainland.
My father-in-law cultivated there coconut, mango, pear, fruit in general. He laboured there, and there is where he got sick and developed cancer by his mule kicking – they used to work with mules. Then he come back to Corn Island. His daughter, Silvia Welcome, was a nurse – she was sent over to learn in Kingston, Jamaica. She mind him, she took care of him at home until he passed away in 1942 – he’s buried beside the Moravian Church, and his brother – Tyler Jones Welcome – beside him.
After Miss Silvia’s father died she went to Panama where her brother and sister was. She took her mother to Panama – she died at the age of 94, in the ‘60s. Miss Silvia got a job in Panama at the Anglican hospital, where she worked for some while. Then she went up to New York with a family and then got a job in a hospital. And I also was living for one year in Panama with my three children.
My husband, he farmed at Wahua Point. We farm coconut, sweet potato, plantain, banana and we make the coconut into oil and we used to sell it, the oil used to go to Managua to make soap. But we lived from the money that we sell our coconut. It went down to Punta Gorda, San Juan and take it up to Granada.
Making coconut oil was hard. You had to chip those coconuts, then you have a meal that you grind, and you have a mill and grind them and press them down and then comes the trash. Then the ladies them have big drums, you tie those drums with the sack and you wash that trash properly good with water on your hand until all the milk is out. Tomorrow morning you skim it off and fry it. And after it’s fried, the big drums got sent off. That’s what we used to live from. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we could buy food and educate the children and the mother stay at home and cook, wash and prepare the breakfast and sew.
The last time my husband went to Cayman Island was in ’61 – he also went in ’59. He went to sell some property that his father had left there. And they still have some property that is unsold there – in East End on the Grand Cayman Island. My husband went to the English Embassy in Managua and got his passport there and flew to Grand Cayman Island. Raymond Welcome (his cousin here) and Hubert Watler Welcome who was living in Jamaica – they all inherit this property.
Then we built a hotel here, right on the beach – but we was unfortunate – we got burnt out. We had to start all over again. We sold the property, moved and built another home. But the hurricane tore that down! My husband never become a Nicaraguan – he remained an English subject. He always kept his passport and my son have it over in Cayman Island. So he didn’t have any difficulty getting in over there or getting a job.”
Lucy Ebanks Brock (1931–2014) and Florence Ebanks Brock (1933–2013)
The sisters Lucy and Florence Ebanks, who I met separately, were both a font of knowledge regarding their family background. They both fired off surnames of family members – apart from their direct ‘Ebanks’ branch, there were ‘Brock’, ‘Downs’, ‘Hart’, Terry’ and ‘Pouchie’ branches – explaining the complex relationships at a speed that I could barely keep up with. Most of Lucy and Florence’s family members originated in Grand Cayman (with the Ebanks side of their family coming from the island’s North Side) but there were also direct family ties with San Andrés and Honduras.
When people I met heard that I was interested in turtle catching, I was always told to visit Lucy and Florence. Their father used to catch turtles and Florence followed in his footsteps, a unique accomplishment for a Corn Island woman. “She can sure handle a boat”, people often told me with a mix of amusement and admiration.
“My mother and father had ten children, I’m the oldest daughter. My father was born here, but his three older sister and brother was born in Caymans. I think Papa was the first to be born here in Nicaragua in 1902. They must have arrived here in the end of the 1800s.
My [paternal] grandfather came here and he was farming. At that time he used to do a little farming around here in Corn Island. My grandfather had his farm in a place the call Little Hill. It was just a little groundwork. At that time he also put up a little shop – like flour and sugar, rice and beans and things like that. He farmed just provisions – banana, plantain and coco and them kind of things. It was just for the family. In them days everybody used to plant for themselves, you know? Used to raise the chicken for themselves, used to raise the pig for themselves, used to raise the cow for themselves. It was very quiet in those days.
My grandfather [Ebanks] was around 90 when he died. He died in ’49. My grandmother died earlier than that – before I were born. When she had her last pair of twin, when the children were about a few months old. My grandfather Brock, well, he was a carpenter. He was from Colombia – from San Andrés. My [maternal] grandfather was married to Emily Hart. Emily had Hortence Brock and Edgar Brock. Then Emily died. After she died, my grandfather married to Miss Lucy – she was Terry at the time, they also came from Caymans. So she gone ‘Terry Brock’. So then you have all these other children like Mathew and Dolores and Elisabeth.
My father was Weddison Ebanks. He married Hortencia Brock – my mother. Dolores Brock is my aunt. She and my mother were sisters.”
“My mother used to tell us our age. She used to tell all of us our age. How old we is and what day we was born, what month and everything. I was born in March, on a Thursday night, 16th March. Some people don’t know when they were born. Some of the old people never used to tell them. To keep them like children all the time. My mother, well she want us to know. Because she says that’s just keeping the children in the darkness. She would always tell us – she’d tell us anything that she knew.
Charles Ebanks [1854–1948] and his wife Lucy Pouchie Ebanks [1860–?] were my grandfather and grandmother from my father side. I know my grandfather but I don’t know my grandmother. She died when my father was five years old. But he came down here – him and his wife – I guess must been looking work. They were very poor. He went down to Prinzapolka first – that’s on the mainland, up there where they used to have bananas, going up to Puerto Cabeza. Up there they used to cut a lot of banana – they used to ship banana. So there where he comes he used to work first. And afterwards he moved to Little Corn Island.
My grandfather bring here his wife and four children. Alman Ebanks, Lemion Ebanks, Ettie, Laura. My father, he born here on Corn Island. Then Uncle Bertie and Aunty Pearla – they was twin – the two of them born here too. And Uncle Aran. Uncle Aran was after my father. Aran Ebanks. He was living after in Limón – he died in Limón. After Uncle Aran he had Papa. And after Papa then he had Uncle Bertie and Aunt Pearla. Then after Lucy dies, and leave them two baby.
My grandfather, him died in I think 1948. I think he had 93 or 94. All of them live an old age. Aunt Laura, that’s the last one of the aunts to die, she had 98 years when she died [in October 1997] – she was born in Caymans. She came over when she was a baby. Then afterwards he sent her back to Caymans to school.
My father once went to Cayman just to see, because he wanted to know his father home. He wanted to know his father home so he went to Cayman with one of the Cayman boat, with Cap’n Allie. That is in ’46 or around then. He found his aunt and uncle there and then they show him his property there and then he sold a piece. But the graveyard part, he didn’t sell that, the family graveyard. Lilia, my niece in Cayman right now, told me they had three spot leave there, in the graveyard, to keep for security so that if any of the Ebanks family go there they could bury there.”
“My father used to live on Little Corn Island. He had a big farm there – around 22 acres, cut down and plant, he used to ship coco and cassava from there to Puerto Cabeza. He also had a lot of cow, horse, mule, a lot of chicken, a lot of pigs. He had workmen. We used to make syrup from the cane, we used to boil the cane and make it into syrup.
For many, many years my mother and father was out there in Little Corn. None of us never born there. Mama usually come in [to the big island] and after the birth she go back. Many, many years, oh yes. I lived there as a girl. When we move in here after Papa lose his land we was big girls, let me see, when I was around 12, 13.
And my father was an engineer, a mechanic. In them days engineer was hard to find. Then they had a boat here that need an engineer. They gone and plead with my daddy to give them a couple of months ‘til they find an engineer. Then he did leave my mother over there in Little Corn with the workmen.
You know, you always have crooked people in this world. Well, a guy worked a little piece of land alongside my father. So [when my father left] that was the opportunity that this guy had to bring some surveyor , because Papa didn’t take out his document as yet. Them days the Little Island was government property, no? And they went and surveyed the place, including my father property with his little piece. My mother and father were so quiet they didn’t like problem with people. My father just take it like that. When he find out he lose everything – the man took everything, steal everything from under his nose. But God didn’t sleep. God work it out that no man could live there after that. They just couldn’t stay on that land. They just couldn’t come ahead with nothing. They go and try to raise cow and the cow they don’t. Nobody could make a life out there.”
“My grandfather was living between here and Little Corn Island. After Lucy, he married a next woman, Miss Adina. He used to cultivate in Little Corn, plant provisions – coco, cassava, plantain and like that. And he had a few fowls and pigs and cow and horse.
Afterwards he came in here and he married. My father was living over there and after he married my mother and carried her over there. The provisions, he used to sell them to Bluefields. Them days they used to carry them to Bluefields and sell them. He used to carry them himself. And we used to make coconut oil and sell them by the drum and send them to Managua. He just have a little dory. The bigger boats used to come and buy the oil and ship them. The boat belonged to a man by the name of Herman Hooker. He had a boat.”
“After Papa moved back here [to the big island] he used to fish. He used to go over to King Cay and up to Miskito Cays. Most of his time he used to spend over there. He fished turtle. After the lobster came in he used to fish turtle and lobster. And afterward they had a year that a Jamaican come down and fishing fish, and send them to Jamaica.
I can remember when I come to knowledge as a young child, Caymans boat – they used to call them the vessels – they used to come here. Ship with sails. They used to come round here and go round the cays and buy turtle. Cap’n Allie – Allie Ebanks – he used to fishing turtle. He had two or three boats that they used to fish and buy likewise. He used come down, maybe spend 10, 15 days and go back up. Maybe spend a month and come back until the season is over.”
“We used to go to the cays, with my father as little children and Caymans boat used to be out there. The Cayman boat used to stay out, but my father used to stay ashore and then go back out. He had a little paddling dory with sail. After he went to Cayman himself he bought a bigger catboat. That’s what he had it for years. And my brother Alman went to Cayman and he bought a catboat and bring down and keep on fishing. Afterward Alman went back up to Cayman and he married up there and he lives up there. His wife, Evelynn was an Ebanks too – so she was ‘Ebanks Ebanks’.
We fished turtle and sometime we catch lobster and fish, just to eat, there was no sale for them. We selled to the Cayman boats turtle. At that time it was only 50 cent for a turtle – 50 cent for a turtle! Now they’re around 700 córdobas [US$60]. But it was mostly the Miskito people out there. Indians from Tasbapauni, from Puerto Cabezas on the mainland who the Cayman boats used to buy the turtle from. Only my father from here on the island catch turtle. And Mr White – he belonged to Cayman Brac too. He was a Caymanian. He came and lived down here.
We had a kraal fixed on the cay. Captain Allie would come to the cays and when he had enough turtle then they take them out of the kraal, load the boat and then they go to Caymans. All the boys who come down also used to come to Corn Island. There was one named, umm, Lindberg Ebanks which was a first cousin of my father – he used to come Corn Island regular. Linton Smith used to come to Corn Island, Randolph Candler used to come to Corn Island, Bill Rivers-Ebanks – also a cousin of my father. The Cayman boat also used to buy provisions also to take back to Caymans.
To catch turtle, we take a line, cotton line, and then knit it. When he done knit a long net, maybe about six or seven feet, then he put rope on one end, then he put some long buoys to keep it floating. Then he put a big rock with a rope and anchor that net. Then he stretch that net out a long way go round and they find where the turtle sleep on little rocks. Then them surround that rock where the turtle sleep. Next morning the turtle gets catched coming out and them fight to get out and wrap themselves up in the net. You have to go very early, before the sunrise. You’ve got to be there to get them turtle soon. Soon you have to be there.
The Indians had a way to strike turtle with pegs. They used to make a little thing out of iron. Then they cut it down to make four little blades and sharpen the point, very sharp. Then the get a long stick and they shove it down the end and they have a line to it. When they strike it, the peg go off – strike it into the shell or some part, then they haul it in. When they strike the turtle they always need to have a little piece of cloth and then they stop the hole wherever they strike it or the air get in and kill the turtle. But my father never used to like that. He had a lance but he seldom would strike the turtle – only if he see the turtle going to get out of the net. But the Indians always prefer to strike because they were more sure of it. They used nets, but the preferred striking. And then by night they used to go out and strike. When it’s calm, the Indians would go by night and strike the turtle.
Mostly man handle a boat. I was the only woman that did it! Well, I used to go with my father from a child. He used to carry us to the cays. Always when the school close he carried us out there to vacation and I always used to like going out on the boat with him. The other sister, they didn’t like it but I just like it. I would go and help them to paddle with oar, you know? No motor – with oar. I used to like when the breeze is blowing stiff, you hold on to man rope, you stand up and hold the boat up. I used to like hold with them, the sail. To keep the boat on its bottom. I never used to seasick.
After I married to my husband, we started to fish lobster in 1955. Then I used to go out with him with engine. He get an outboard motor – he had a ten horsepower. And afterwards we get two boats. He used to run one and I used to run one. Just get men to hire to pull the fish pots. For four years I used to fish. We didn’t have a home. We were just staying along with his mother. We work out there and save. I was the only woman on this island that went out there. Until after his son get big and started to fish and start to hire people.”