Thatching on some Atlantic Islands

The craft, on Bermuda, The Azores, Maderia, The Canaries, Cape Verde, Tristan da Cunha & The Falklands; until c1950


T his page covers seven groups of islands, situated in both the North and South Atlantic Oceans… Not all Atlantic islands are found below, just those with a history of thatching. Thus Iceland and the Faroes for example are not included, as they have a tradition of turf roofing…

The lands found here mostly share a similar historical background, in that they were uninhabited when discovered and annexed by European countries; from the late Middle Ages onwards.

Our journey crosses vast areas of ocean and generally follows a clockwise direction.

Starting, at around Ten o’ clock, in…

Bermuda…

Around six hundred and fifty miles west of mainland North America, Bermuda is an archipelago of a hundred and eighty one limestone islands.

First sighted by the Spanish and finally colonised by the English, a century or so later; after a ship bound for the new colony at Jamestown in Virginia, was run aground here in 1609. Thatching their ‘cabbins’ with the local Palmetto palm was noted by one of the stranded newcomers; who had the islands to themselves for nine months. After finally sailing to Jamestown, the original leader Sir George Somers returned and an offshoot of The Virginia Company was up and running by 1612.

Palmetto thatch covered much of the early colonists roofs. But the craft it seems had disappeared by around 1800. Lack of a sufficient water supply, saw the quick evolution of limestone tiled roofs; which had the advantage, still in use, of collecting rainwater, for underground storage…

St George… The colony’s first capital, as seen in a detail of an 1624 map. By now St Peter’s Church and the Governor’s House were constructed of limestone; with the roofs of these and all others still of palmetto thatch.
St Peter’s Church, rebuilt, kept its thatch until 1765. By the 1670’s the town authorities were keen to ban palmetto roofing, due to the risk of fire. But the palm leaves were still a valuable resource…
In Pembroke parish 1677 saw the church rethatched, with each parishioner having to supply “eight dozen good leaves” on the 25th July, or else pay 1s & 4d and this was to apply whenever the church should need thatching.
A decade later the Governor reported back to London, that 29 Bermudian roofs were now of stone, 63 were roofed with wooden shingles; with the remaining 487 still coated with palmetto leaves…
Away from the towns thatching seems to have lingered on for a century or more… On Boaz and Ireland Island; the site of the future naval dockyard, a settlement of fisher folk, who kept themselves to themselves, ‘’ lived in huts made of boughs of cedar, and brush for sides, and having the roofs thatched with palmetto’’ They were recalled from her youth, by a 93 year old lady in 1876.
Palmetto… The photos above and opposite show the reconstructed ‘Settler’s Hut’ at The Carter House Museum on St David’s Island; now Bermuda’s only thatch.
As no images of traditional work exist, the thatching no doubt follows that found today on islands further south, in the Caribbean. In the past work here was carried out by the enslaved population; as it probably was in Bermuda… On these islands the slaves were more likely to be skilled artisans than field hands, with some thatchers among their numbers no doubt. If so, as in other slave societies, thatching and house construction often followed the West African traditions of the slaves…
The top left image also shows ‘The Carter House’, dating from the early eighteenth century; with a stepped limestone tiled roof; which may well have replaced a thatched one? Images copyright & courtesy of Carter House Museum
To view some historic palmetto thatching in the southern United States click HERE

The Azores/Açores…

Consist of nine volcanic islands, almost in the centre of the North Atlantic. And uninhabited, when settled by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century. The population was drawn, for much of the islands history, almost exclusively from mainland Portugal; thus the thatching found here must reflect this. The four images below are scenes from São Miguel, the largest of the group and show two distinct types of thatch roof. Although 870 miles west of the mainland, the islands remain part of Portugal…

The upper image is also found on the World Tour main page; I’ve used it again, as the image shows both types of thatch roofing found here; and early photos of Azores thatch are difficult to find… Most of the roofs depicted have a standard thatch, probably of wheat straw, which these verdant islands seem to have had in abundance. The coatwork of the thatch second from the left is fixed down by a series of wooden poles. This is shown in greater detail in the opposite image. Both types being finished with a ropetop ridge of outsized knots… These two photos, along with the lower pair all date from around 1905.
The photo on the left depicts a standard thatch, again likely of wheat straw. This and the other thatch shown above may well have been of combed material; as they lack outside fixings.

Even the thatch under the timer framework below appears combed… Again all lies under a ropetop ridge. Why the locals used two differing techniques is unclear; except they may have protected more vulnerable, older roofs against wind damage with a wooden frame?

Madeira …

Consists of four volcanic islands, 600 miles south west of the Azores and 320 miles west of the African mainland. The islands were also settled by the Portuguese and remain part of that country. Soon after settlement a slave economy arose around the production of sugarcane; the number of Africans involved was seemingly small, not enough to influence the type of buildings or the thatch that covered them…


There are two traditional types of dwelling hereabouts, firstly the more substantial, hipped ‘Redonda’ house, examples are shown above, opposite and below, all dating to around 1910.



The other type of buildings, once only occupied on a seasonal basis, are the ‘Fio’ or ‘Empena’ type, the one above, dating from c1930 and the ‘Meio-Fio’ dwellings opposite from c1900. The latter’s lower storey often being used to house livestock.
All thatching on these islands follows the same method; that of tying on layers of wheat straw or ‘colmo’; often uncleaned stubble, roots and all known as ‘restolho’. A butt up ridge ‘cumieira’ is formed by turning the stubble upwards. Like the coatwork this is stitched into place, the sways remaining exposed. The old images that show lines of sways are worn roofs, not newer ones with outside fixings…
I have written this in the present tense, as the craft is still practiced; supported by a vibrant tourist industry…

The Canary Islands/Canarias…

An archipelago of seven large islands and some smaller ones; all of which are volcanic. Situated 250 miles south of Maderia and 62 miles from Africa. Lying close to the African coast meant that a long established native population was in residence, when the islands were annexed by Spain in the early fifteenth century; to which they still belong…

Traces… Like Madeira these islands have a dark history of slavery, based around sugarcane production. Both native Guanches and later imported peoples were exploited. They have left little behind, except for some DNA in the modern population. They also had little input into the type of thatching seen in the three Edwardian images; above, opposite and below. The first two depict work on Tenerife, the largest island. Differing ridge types are in evidence; no doubt reflecting a Spanish heritage.
Similar work is seen below, on thatch near Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, the capital of Gran Canaria. In the past this island especially, was known for its abundant cereal crops; the straw providing a useful thatching resource.

Cape Verde/Cabo Verde…

Ten volcanic islands make up this nation, lying around 1000 miles south of the Canaries and 400 or so west of mainland Africa. Empty, when claimed by Portugal in the mid 1400’s, the islands shook off colonial rule in the 1970’s. Like Madeira and the Canary Islands, this was long a slave society; but here the number of enslaved West African peoples was large enough to influence the types of thatched buildings found hereabouts…

Influences… The eighteenth century print seen above depicts homes on Santo Antão and São Vicente, the two largest islands. Various types of dwelling appear; especially on Santo Antão. Gabled thatch, similar to some buildings on Madeira and the Canaries already noted, are seen; along with the round homes of what were no doubt enslaved people. This type of construction is known locally as a ‘Funco’; similar to types found in Guinea-Bissau, another former Portuguese colony, almost opposite on the African mainland. The print shows only this type on São Vicente…


The home opposite appears to be a smaller version, from around 1900; of a rough and ready Funco, on São Vicente.
Rectangular… The left image, again from around 1900 and also on São Vicente shows a much more substantial building, noted as a ‘native house’. The thatch is fixed mainly from the outside.
The lower print from 1806, depicts ‘Porto Praya’, now Praia the nation’s capital and largest city, located on Santiago island. The distant view shows what are likely to have been thatched buildings, probably similar to the more modern ones illustrated below right. Here the thatch is of palm leaves, cleverly fixed from the outside by palm strips, similar to a roping technique. This may also have been the thatch and fixing on the 1900 ‘native house’.
The 1806 image also has some locals in a boat, with a thatched shelter ‘midships’…
Colonial Thatch… The background stories, to the two old postcards above is unclear… Both show the island of São Vicente under colonial rule. The left has some military taking part in ‘The last Mass in the Field’. The priest is standing between some seemingly grass thatched buildings. A more relaxed scene is on the right; depicting a group of ‘Prisoners’; a rather diverse group, who are perhaps occupying the thatched dwellings in the background. One of which appears to be a Funco…

Tristan Da Cunha…

Lying 3700 miles south of Cape Verde…. This small group of volcanic islands are the most remote inhabited lands in the world; being at least 1500 miles from anywhere… Discovered and named for himself, by the Portuguese explorer Tristão da Cunha; the islands were annexed and permanently settled by the British in 1816.

The isolation and difficulty of access found here, meant the inhabitants needed to employ whatever the main island had to offer, to construct stout homes; thatch being employed widely from the beginning. Until a volcanic eruption in 1961 meant an evacuation; the returnees generally reroofing their homes with more mundane materials.

Before the Camera… The above scene dates from 1867, when Queen Victoria’s son Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh visited the main island, the only settlement was named in his honour; known still as Edinburgh of the Seven Seas. The thatch shown is similar to that depicted below, dating to the next century; with stone gabled ends and a ridge of turf. A type common in Scotland; from where some of the first settlers hailed…

The watercolour opposite is older, being composed in 1824 by one Augustus Earle. This shows ‘Government House’; a modest building it seems, under a hipped thatched roof. Perhaps a hipped roof proved unsuitable, in an exposed windy spot, with later thatches snug between stout stone gables. Opposite image; courtesy Nat. Library of Australia.
Flax… Or more precisely New Zealand Flax; which became the material of choice for any thatching carried out here. The roofs above and below are all coated with this material and an ubiquitous turf ridge…
The 1954 penny stamp shows both the material and a roof ready to thatch. In 2012 it was decided to build a replica thatched cottage; when the elder inhabitants were able to instruct the younger ones in the craft. An eaves course of small tied bundles of flax was fixed butts down; with the successive courses being stitched into place tops down. Finished as ever with a turf ridge.
The upper photo dates from around 1945, the two lower images from the late 1920’s…

Falkland Islands/ Islas Malvinas…

Around 2500 miles south west of Tristan da Cunha lies another British possession… This archipelago is situated about 300 miles or so east of the South American mainland, consisting of East Falkland, West Falkland, and 776 smaller islands. The sovereignty of which has been long disputed between Britain and successively Spain and Argentina… It seems the craft of thatching died out here a good while ago, but a little visual evidence remains…

Evidence… The best so far found, for a history of thatching hereabouts, lies in the above image. This dates from the early 1850’s and is one of a series by William Pownell Dale. The painting shows a couple of local Gauchos sharing some Mate, the herbal drink popular in much of southern South America; at Hope Place, East Falkland. They and their companions were on the islands to crop the large number of feral cattle, from an early date.
Of interest is the roof, which is most certainly thatched… The artist has captured a stitched coat, probably of grass, very well; if only from inside… (More examples of some ‘Gaucho’ thatch are found towards the end of the page on South America LINK)
Port Louis… Visited by Charles Darwin in 1833 & 1834. This print is from Captain Fitzroy’s ‘Narrative of the Voyage of the Beagle’… In his description of the islands Charles makes no mention of any thatch. But this cropped image shows the central building with more than one type of roofing; probably mostly thatched, as is the smaller dwelling on the left…

To return to the World Tour click Here