Thatching in The West Indies & Central America

  Some thatched roofs, up until c1930


         (This follows on, from a page on the craft in  Canada, The United States & Mexico)

The craft of thatching hereabouts, up until around 1930 and to a much lesser extent since then; was carried out in the main by two groups of people. Firstly by the native populations, where they had not disappeared through attrition and disease, and also by the various immigrants that often displaced them.

In earlier times, the work of incomers was frequently carried out by their slaves and these enslaved peoples’ descendants in later decades… Just a quick look at the following images will show distinct groups of thatched buildings, that mirror this division; from small homes to some enormous structures; perhaps some of the biggest in the world.

To the modern eye most of the thatch shown looks primitive, but what these buildings are in fact, is the result of the clever use of local thatching and building materials, often in a harsh hot climate. Built by people with limited resources, to usually create stout, weatherproof, well insulated homes…

The thatchers throughout this area invariably tied layers of thatch, to a timber framework; using a myriad of differing techniques. The thatchers opposite, in 1900’s Panama, are tying on half palm branches. A clever and fast method of covering a roof.

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A few Islands in the West Indies…

In the images of West Indian thatching, an almost standard type of small, square/rectangular home is depicted; covered with a local thatching material. These were the dwellings of the poorer sections of society, more than likely the immediate descendants of the enslaved populations of the various islands. Slaves were required to build and maintain their own dwellings; thus they built and thatched in the same manner, as that found in their West African homelands. This type of building being found on both sides of the Atlantic.

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‘The Destruction of Roehampton Estate, in St James Parish, Jamaica’… This scene dates from the end of 1831, when a slave revolt overtook much of this island. Of interest is the collection of thatched slave dwellings, on the right. Showing the small, square form of contruction, found on many islands, up until the present day. Seemingly the rioters took care not to burn their own homes… Probably housing the 322 slaves freed a little later. When this estate received £5745 under the ‘Compensation Act’; the slaves getting nothing…

The Bahamas …

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In a description of these islands in 1804, Daniel Mc Kinnen noted that the slave houses were often thatched. Palmetto providing an ‘abundant and convienent thatch’.

On the Farquharson Estate in 1831-2, records show ‘men’ employed ‘cutting thatch… over the creek’; mixing mortar and ‘ridging the Dwelling House and other houses’ etc.; Also ‘thatching Mistreses shed and one side of the roof which the Hurricane tore up a good deal last year’. Along with a great deal of thatching on other ‘houses’. Thus the thatch used hereabouts had a watery provenance, with competed roofs having a mortar ridge. It also appears that the free population on this estate also lived under a thatch roof, including the ‘Dwelling House’.

Thatched homes were often rectangular, with wattle and daub walls and later stone built. Many roofs seem to have been hipped, with the shape of the house and the roof following West African traditions. The thatch opposite at Nassau, dating to around 1925, is very typical. Palm leaves are in evidence, but ‘Trash’, the leftovers of the sugar cane harvest was widely used. The ridge often being held in place by crossed timber poles.

Jamaica …

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At home c1890... Modern research suggests that the thatching techniques used here, owed more to an African heritage, than any British one. (The working methods may even stem from the original Arawak natives). Similar to many other Caribbean islands; along with the overall design of the smaller homes that were mostly thatched. The likely African name of ‘Tatu’ seemingly once described these small buildings.


‘Thatch’ in local parlance means any of the round leaf palms that grow on this island. Bull Head, Fan, Round, Long & Silver or pimento. A term used since at least the middle of the eighteenth century. Palmetto was also noted as thatch, at much the same time.


In 1819 the homes of slaves were noted as being coated with ‘palm thatch, or the leaves of the coco-nut tree; an admirable covering, forming a lasting and impenetrable shelter both against the sun and the rain’. Another account five years later noted ‘long mountain thatch, palmetto-thatch or dried guinea grass, either is more durable than the straw thatch used in this country’ (Britain)... Up until the 1970s, thatch was still a popular roofing material.
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Maroons... Over time more than a few slaves escaped into the mountains of this island, forming free settlements, which in the main successfully resisted attempts to overrun them. They became known as ‘Maroons’; from the Spanish 'cimarrón' = untamed... The colonial government eventually gave up pursuit, making a first peace as early as the 1730’s. Trelawney Town, above, was the largest of the Maroon settlements in Jamaica, seen resisting an attempt at capture, in the very late eighteenth century. The thatched homes of the inhabitants appear similar to those in other parts of the island. Perhaps akin to the photo on the right, a century younger than the image of Trelawney; showing a palm thatched roof. Groups of Maroons still live in separate villages; maintaining a robust heritage...
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The Cayman Islands …

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Helping out…The national tree of the Cayman Islands, is the Silver Thatch Palm, its leaves were used as both roofing and walling for the homes of the island’s inhabitants, from the earliest days of settlement. Being widely used until well into the twentieth century. Often teams of neighbours rethatched a roof. With perhaps ten men and several thousand palm leaves... The work had to done quickly because if the leaves were allowed to dry out they became useless for roofing. A roof could last a decade; especially if the palm was harvested around the time of a full moon, giving leaves with less sap to attach insects. Or so many islanders believed... The two small roofs above were likely thatched easily in a day.

Cuba …

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A family home c 1900... The island of Cuba is by far the largest island in the Caribbean, with 'Roystonea regia', commonly known as the Cuban royal palm as the national tree. Being used as a source of thatch, timber and has a religious role both in Santería ( a mixture of Roman Catholic and West African religions) and Christianity, where it is used in Palm Sunday observances... By the mid eighteenth century, houses of wattle & daub covered with thatch were banned in Havana. Hurricanes, as well as fire being a danger. But these ’Bohios’ were popular, easily rebuilt after a tempest; with most of the island’s cities having a majority of them in 1754. Records show a great storm in 1768 created two problems; with many homes being destroyed in the Havana area; along with the palm trees being stripped of their leaves; these being so useful for rethatching... With neighbouring unaffected areas sending supplies in due course.
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Bright side; slavery in Cuba was abolished in 1875 but took eleven years to complete... Dark side; within a decade rebels were in revolt against the Spanish colonial government. To strip the rebels of supplies and recruits, thousands of locals were forced from their homes, into what were in effect Concentration Camps. Where a third died from disease and malnutrition. The image above appeared in United States newspapers, showing the removal not only of the inhabitants, but also of the thatch, covering their homes. Seemingly truthful propaganda; helping prompt an American war with Spain in 1898...
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Drying out... Thatched tobacco barns are still in use to dry the leaves, for the famous cigars. The one above dates from around 1900, the man giving a scale to these huge structures; thatch palm, on both roof and walls being ideal for the drying process.

Puerto Rico…

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Walls & roof...The Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, in the capital San Juan, was originally built in 1521; made of wood with a thatch roof. This only lasted five years, until a hurricane extensively damaged it; a reoccurring problem in this part of the world...


In 1907 it was noted that most thatching consisted of straw, tied on with ‘rods’; with perhaps a palm leaf ridge. Palm leaves called ‘yaugas’ were also noted, as thatch; with walls of the same material being constructed, as the image above shows. Already though metal roofs were in existence, often being made from flattened oil cans...
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Changing hands...The above photo, shows a thatch dating to the period when Puerto Rico ceased to be Spanish colony and became United States property, in 1898. The changeover having little effect on the thatching hereabouts...

Martinique…

Now part of France, but a colony until 1946 This island has suffered from both hurricanes and volcanic eruptions; with the capital being devastated by the latter in 1902. Around the time of the image on the right; where the inhabitants of the palm thatched home seem cheerful enough.


Slavery lingered on here until 1848, the lower left print dates from this time, with the right photo dipicting the housing of a later generation both being very similar...
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Barbados…

Like most other islands in this region, the design of the homes of enslaved people, owed much to their West African heritage. Similar to those in the image opposite. It was noted that, "shelter was regarded as the slave's own problem... left to build, repair, and furnish his hut with such materials as he could find for himself". The thatch often consisting of plantain leaves, palm leaves and the ‘trash’ of the sugar cane. The leaves of the Plantain being a common material, in earlier days, when it was a major food source. Later, during the height of Slavery the sugar cane provided much thatch, with the leaves and tops, as well as the crushed stalks or ‘trash ‘ of this plant being used. Thatch also covered many planters’ homes in the seventeenth century, as well as the homes of free whites, for a much longer period...
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Trinidad…

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On Trinidad thatched homes were often called ‘Carat houses’, being thatched with leaves from the Carat Palm ‘Sabal Manritiformis’, along with another species ; known as ‘Big Thatch’ Coccothermax bar Badensis.


This island lies less than seven miles from the South American coast of Venezuela; which has not greatly influenced the craft of thatching here. And in the eighty years after 1840, nearly 150,000 migrants arrived from the Indian sub-continent; who also had little influence, on the style of thatching. The image above shows a ‘native’ home on the island, with an ‘Indian’ home on the right.
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Curaçao……

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More of a trading centre than a island of sugar plantations. With large numbers of slaves passing through here. Freedom, for those resident on this Dutch island came late, in 1863. Their chief legacy is the existing thatched ‘kunuku’ houses. Based on the homes they were forced to leave in West Africa...

T he Craft in Central America...

Thatch, found in the countries of Central America, until the mid twentieth century, was used to cover a much more varied set of buildings, than those found in the West Indies. As these nations contained native peoples, slaves and their descendents; along with those of a mixed heritage. With the native inhabitants especially, creating structures quite different than those occupied by other groups. However the same types of thatching materials were used by all; consisting of the best locally available vegetation.




B ritish Honduras/Belize...

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Known as British Honduras, during the period covered by this page, this small country was renamed Belize in 1973 and gained independence in 1981; the last British continental possession in the Americas.
The Bayleaf or Botan palm ‘Sabal mauritaformis’ is still considered ideal for thatching, lasting between 10 and 15 years. In the south of the country the palm ‘Manicaria saccifera’ was widely, used giving a life of perhaps three decades. Cohune palms ‘Attalea Cohune’, were also utilised in thatching; giving a shorter lifespan to a roof. It was believed that the best time to cut palm leaves for thatching, was between the full and new moon...
The above image shows a typical thatched village in around 1920; probably near the border with Honduras...
Mayan Village c1912... On the right, Benque Viejo del Carmen... The westernmost settlement in Belize, on the Guatemalan border. The site was founded by native Maya, in the mid nineteenth century, with many moving to the colony, fleeing from persecution in neighbouring countries. The thatch here appearing very similar to that used by other ethnic groups...
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G uatemala...

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The area of Central America, which is now occupied by Guatemala, once formed the centre of the Maya civilization. Being conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century. Today people of Maya descent make up around 40% of the population. Their thatching styles being shown in the old images...
Various types of thatching material were and are still used here. Two types of palm, the Guano and Cohune species, along with a coarse grass, that was noted in the Alta Verapaz and Izabal areas.
The left image shows a palm thatch; in Spanish the old postcard notes the scene, as the ‘roof of the birds of the night’... Hinting this was the home of squatters; who seem to have built and thatched a good sized dwelling. The right photo depicts a ‘native home along the shore’, which has a somewhat nearer appearance. Both images date to around 1905...


H onduras...

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River side thatch... The homes above lay on the Cuero or Salado River, which runs into the Caribbean, similar in design to the buildings below. The right hand print dates to 1880, depicting natives on the Bravo River, thatching structures of a quite different shape.
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In the 1850’s, it was noted that mahogany cutter’s temporary dwellings, were often thatched ‘with long grass from the swamps, or with ‘’cahoon’’ leaves or the branches of the thatch palm’. The local Payas who lived near the Rio Tinto, on the North Coast, were noted using ‘swallow tail grass’ as thatch. As did the Carib people near the coast, along with ‘’cahoon’’leaves; their homes being ’exceedingly well built’. The village opposite, captured on film in around 1920, also consists of well made and thatched buildings. Which follow a common design, perhaps showing some Spanish influence.



E L Salvador...

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Old and new thatch... 1400 year old traces of thatch were found when a village, long covered by ash from the Loma Caldera Volcano, was excavated in the 1990’s. It seems types of grass were the favoured thatch at that time, as remarkably traces remained. Palm leaves seem to have been used in the above image, dating to around 1930; with ridges of metal sheeting.

Nicaragua……

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Mosquito Coast... Not named for the insect, but for the Miskito people, who in the eighteenth century allied themselves with the British. Who returned in the next century, to set up the ‘Miskito Reserve’; along the Caribbean coast of this country, whose government seems not to have been consulted... The images above show the capital of the region, Bluefields, in 1845. The thatch is similar to that found in some Caribbean islands and Venezuela. The area was finally incorporated into Nicaragua half a century later but not without some difficulty...
The image opposite is of Corinto, on the Pacific coast, depicting thatched buildings very similar to those in the Caribbean; dating from around 1900. Five years before, the town was occupied by the British, seeking an indemnity for the annexation of the Mosquito Reserve; which they duly received. The town it seems was a desirable location, as the United States also sent forces here to protect their interests in 1896 and 1922...
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Costa Rica……

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Talamanca... Better describes an area, in the southern part of this country, than any particular native populations, who live there. But it is the name given to the people on the two postcards above, dating from around 1900. The left one depicts the gathering of palm leaves for thatch, by women. Hard work; but traditionally women enjoy a higher status than men in this society... To the right and opposite are two enormous thatched buildings, created by indigenous peoples, the opposite dating from 1928...

Panama……

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For the Americas, Panama is a relatively new country, created with the backing of the United States. The area seceded from Colombia in 1903; allowing for the American construction of the famous canal to be completed, eleven years later. In 1920, the dwellings of indigenous people in the ‘San Blas’ area (now known as Guna Yala), were noted as ‘large and skilfully constructed with a thatched gable roof, supported by columns of bamboo or palm tree posts’... However, most images of Panamanian roofs of this period, show steeply pitched, hipped thatched roofs; similar to those found in the Vera Cruz area of Mexico... The upper image depicts thatch in the Arraiján District, bordering Panama City. Similar roofs being found in the opposite photo, of the island of Taboga in the Gulf of Panama.
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