Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/March 1891/Cultivation of Sisal in the Bahamas




"ARE you interested in sisal? What do you think of it?" These were the questions addressed to the writer almost before he had landed in the Bahamas. The object of the writer's visit to the "land of the pink pearl" was to make a collection of its plants and animals; but, during the pleasant six months occupied in so doing, he had many opportunities of observing the cultivation of the "sisal hemp." This industry is now in its infancy in the Bahamas, but, if the present prospects are realized, it will before long bring to the islands both wealth and prosperity. Since his return the writer has found that most of those to whom he has spoken of sisal had at best but a vague idea of the fiber or of the plant that produces it, so it was thought that some notes on the subject might prove of interest.

The group of coral islands known as the Bahamas lies east of southern Florida and north of Cuba. One of the islands, New Providence, is well known to those who, in search of health or recreation, have been to Nassau and enjoyed its lovely winter climate. But the "out islands," as the remaining ones are locally termed, are seldom visited, even by those who live in Nassau. The largest of these "out islands" is Andros, which is about the size of Long Island, New York; there, as in all the others of the group, except New Providence, the population is almost entirely composed of negroes, only seven white men living on the island; and of these, four are interested in the production of the fiber known as sisal hemp.

The term "fiber" is used commercially to designate the material obtained from the leaves or stems of many different plants. Hemp, on the contrary, refers to the product of a single plant, known botanically as Cannabis sativa, and belonging to the same order as our hop. But in speaking of fibers the word "hemp" is often added, and thus we hear of "sisal hemp" or, as it is sometimes called, "sisal grass," or even manila. The latter term, however, is properly restricted to the fiber obtained from a species of plantain (Musa textilis), belonging to the same.genus as the hanana.

Sisal hemp, the subject of this paper, is obtained from the leaves of some of the species and varieties of the genus Agave, one species of which is well known in cultivation under the name of "century plant." This genus belongs to the order Amaryllidaceæ, and is related to the snow-drop, amaryllis, and narcissus; but, owing to the much greater size of the plants, and some peculiar points of structure, it stands prominent among its congeners. The agaves are indigenous in the New World only, and the majority of the species are natives of Mexico, only a few being known within the limits of the United States.

The same general appearance is presented by all, so that any one familiar with the century plant can form a very good idea of ihe appearance of the other species of the genus. In all, the leaves are thick and fleshy, as they contain the supply of material which is to nourish the great flower-stem when the plant arrives at maturity. This stem, which is a prolongation of the trunk of the plant, shoots up from the center of the rosette of leaves, and often attains a height of from twenty to thirty feet. The time required to arrive at maturity varies in the different species, and in the same species under different conditions. The "century plant" in its native home, Mexico, blossoms in from ten to fifteen years, while with us it requires thirty, fifty, or in some cases, it is said, even a hundred years to mature. During the production of the great flower-stalk the store of nourishment in the massive leaves is exhausted, and, after the fruit is produced, the plant withers and dies.

The leaves of all the agaves contain what are known botanically as the fibro-vascular bundles. In order to see these, it is only necessary to cut off a leaf of the century plant; as, in a thick transverse section, that has been allowed to dry slightly, the fibers will look like short bristles projecting from the surrounding soft tissue; and in a longitudinal section these bristly points are seen as threads running through the leaf. Should the observer be the fortunate possessor of a compound microscope, on examining these threads he will find them composed of exceedingly fine, elongated cells, closely connected in a bundle, and surrounded by the much larger circular cells that compose the soft parts of the leaf. When the outer skin and the soft tissue of the leaf are removed, the fibro-vascular bundles remain and constitute what is commercially known as "fiber."

While all the agaves will yield fiber of some kind, it is only in a few that the quantity and quality of the material are such as to make its manufacture profitable. This fact has been known for a long time in Yucatan, the home of the sisal industry. There the natives b.ave from time immemorial cultivated a number of agaves, until now it is difficult for botanists to decide whether some of them are distinct species or only cultivated varieties.

One of the native species, known as Agave rigida, is a rather small plant, having leaves from two to four feet long, and-as many inches wide. These are armed on the edges with darkbrown spiny teeth, and are terminated by a stout, reddish-brown spine. This seems to be the plant called chelem by the natives of Yucatan, and is the one from which the cultivated varieties are supposed to have originated. These varieties, collectively known as henequen or jenequen, are separately distinguished as the "yaxci, furnishing the best quality, and the sacci, with the largest quantity of fiber; chucumci, larger than the last, produces coarse fiber; and babci has finer fiber, but in smaller quantity."

Of the varieties mentioned above, only two need be considered—the sacci and the yaxci. The former, known as Agave rigida, variety longifolia, is distinguished from the native plant by having much longer, spiny leaves, from four to six feet in length, and slightly different flowers. It is extensively cultivated in Yucatan, and, as already stated, yields the most fiber. The other variety, the yaxci, botanically dignified by the title Agave rigida, variety sisalana, or sometimes even elevated to the rank of a species, is one of the most valuable of the fiber-producing agaves.

The leaves are of a dull-green color, four to six feet long, as many inches wide, and terminated by a stout, dark spine. The margins are commonly described as smooth, as they are without teeth, but in all the plants examined by the writer the leaves were slightly rough on the edges, and in many of the young plants some of the leaves had well-developed teeth. A full-grown plant presents a rather striking appearance, bristling all over with the long, spiny-tipped leaves, thickly radiating from the short cylindrical trunk, which is crowned by a sharp, slender, cone-like bud. Indeed, a large plant makes one think of a gigantic sea-urchin. The leaves as they unfold from the bud slowly assume a horizontal position, but remain rigid and straight, never curving downward, as they do in the century plant.

As has been said above, when the plant arrives at maturity, and has a sufficient store of nourishment, it sends up its flowerstem, known to cultivators as the "mast" or "pole." This is from twenty to twenty-five feet high, and about six inches in diameter near the base. On the upper two thirds branches are developed, converting the pole into a huge panicle, covered with innumerable greenish-yellow flowers. A peculiarity of the sisal plant is that it seldom or never sets a seed. The flowers fall, carrying the ovary with them, then on the ends of the branches young plants develop, so that the pole presents a rather odd appearance, with the small plants growing out in the places usually occupied by the flowers. When these young plants have attained a height of from three to four inches, they fall to the ground and take root. The old plants also reproduce themselves by means of suckers, and hence, when old and neglected, are often seen surrounded by numerous smaller ones, as in the common houseleek (Sempervivum).

PSM V38 D627 Agave rigida var sisalana in blossom near nassau n p.jpg

Agave rigida, var. sisalana, in Blossom, near Nassau, N. P.

Such is briefly a general description of the plant that seems destined to occupy the capital and energies of the people of the Bahamas; for it was this plant that was introduced there a few years ago by Sir Henry Blake,[1] then governor of the colony. Although, the plants were neglected, they throve and increased to such an extent that finally the people looked upon them as troublesome weeds, and as such they were often destroyed. Their usefulness, however, was evidently appreciated by a few; for, as Sir Ambrose Shea, the present Governor of the Bahamas,

PSM V38 D628 Branch of the pole of the sisal plant.jpg

A Branch of the "Pole" of the Sisal Plant.

told the writer, he was one day passing the house of a native, when a piece of rope attracted his attention. On inquiring where he obtained it, the negro replied that "it growed in de yard" and showed the governor the plant, and explained the way in which the rope had been made. Now, Sir Ambrose happened to be a native of Newfoundland, and hence knew a good rope when he saw it; so inquiries were at once made, and the value of the plants was learned.

The people, however, were slow to realize the importance of the subject, but the governor evinced great energy and enthusiasm in keeping it before them, and when some of the fiber obtained from old plants sold in London at the rate of fifty pounds per ton, and was declared to be superior to that produced in Yucatan, sisal in the Bahamas had somewhat of a "boom," and people carefully guarded the very plants that formerly they would have destroyed as weeds. Everybody became enthusiastic, and sisal plantations were everywhere started, not only by the people of the colony, but also by outsiders, as the following facts show.

A company from St. John's, Newfoundland, has obtained a grant of 18,000 acres of crown land at Abaco; another tract of 20,000 acres on the same island has been allotted to a London company; 2,000 acres have been taken on Andros by a gentleman from Edinburgh; 1,200 are in process of cultivation on Inagua; but the largest application has been lately made by two London companies, who together ask for 200,000 acres. Besides the large plantations mentioned above, many small scattered areas go to swell the total. Indeed, there have been so many demands for crown land, that the governor has recently advanced the price from one dollar and twenty-five cents to four dollars per acre.

Now as to the character of the land. In Andros, which, as above stated, is the largest of the group, and where most of the writer's time was passed, the land is locally described by one of three terms: it is either "coppet," "pine-yard," or "swash." The coppet, which occupies, as a rule, the more elevated parts of the island, is composed of small angiospermous trees, often only two or three inches in diameter, and so close together as to make an almost impassable thicket. Back of the coppet, which is mostly a fringe along the eastern coast, nearly the whole interior is one vast "pine-yard," made up of the Bahama pine (Pinus bahamensis). The trees are generally small, and from ten to twenty feet apart. Under them is very frequently a dense undergrowth of a tall brake, which is often six or seven feet high, and is known by the natives as "May-pole."

"Swash" is a very expressive term to denote the low, swampy ground, of which there are thousands of acres on the west coast. Here the soil is soft and is composed of comminuted calcareous particles; it supports no vegetation except innumerable small mangroves (Rhizophora mangle), here and there small "button-woods" (Conocarpus erectus), a few "salt bushes" (Avicennia nitida), and in some places palmettoes. So far as sisal cultivation is concerned, the "swash" is utterly valueless; but the "pine-yard" and coppet are both available. In neither of these, however, is there what we recognize here as "soil"; and at first it was a source of wonder to the writer that anything at all could grow there, for the surface is very largely the bare coral rock. However, it is rarely smooth, but is rough and jagged with innumerable points and crevices, so as to resemble somewhat the appearance of a well-thawed mass of snow-ice. In most places, also, there are numerous holes, from a few inches to many feet in diameter; and it is in these holes, cracks, and crevices that what little earth there is can be found—still, this little seems sufficient to support the dense vegetation. Some of the other islands—Eleuthera, for instance—have considerable depth of soil; but it is when growing on the bare, rocky ground described above that the sisal is said to produce fiber of the best quality.

Given the land, the next step is to clear it, and the method of clearing varies according to the character of the vegetation. If

PSM V38 D630 Swash west side of andros.jpg

"Swash," West Side of Andros.

it is "pine-yard" a fire is started, which burns off the May-pole; the pines are then cut down, and either made into charcoal or laid in rows across the fields and allowed to decay; if coppet, the trees and shrubs are cut down with axes or cutlasses, according to their size, and the brush is then burned.

While his land is being cleared, the planter should be getting his plants ready. As usually obtained, they are fresh from the "pole" and only from one to four inches in height. These are too small to put out in the fields, so they are set out in beds of cave earth until they get to be eight or ten inches high. When taken from these nurseries their rootlets are carefully trimmed off, and they are then planted every eight or nine feet in rows that are about ten feet apart. Thus an acre of ground usually contains from five to six hundred plants. In order to facilitate carrying the leaves out of the field, the latter is divided by roads into sections of about one hundred acres each.

After planting, it is not very long before the fields will have to be weeded, and this process is said to be necessary about twice a year, until the sisal plants attain a height of three or four feet, when weeding is no longer needed. The most troublesome enemy of the planter, in the way of weeds, is the "May-pole," as it grows very rapidly, but the roots are said to die after the third cutting. In about four years the sisal plant produces what are called "ripe leaves"—that is, leaves that are horizontal and large

PSM V38 D631 Clearing the pine yard for sisal near nassau n p.jpg

Clearing the "Pine-yard" for Sisal near Nassau, N. P.

enough to cut. The cares of the cultivator are now about over, and all he has to do is to cut off the leaves as fast as they mature, and manufacture his fiber.

The cultivation of sisal is of such recent introduction into the Bahamas that as yet none of the large plantations have begun to produce to any extent; so for a description of the next stages we will turn to Yucatan, where, as has been said, the industry has been carried on from time immemorial. There the men cut the leaves off close to the trunk, and lay them tip to butt in bundles of fifty, when they are carted to the machines. The cutting of thirty bundles, or fifteen hundred leaves, is considered a good day's work. In order to save the cost of transportation, as the leaves yield but about five per cent of fiber, there is usually a machine to every one hundred acres. The machine now in use consists of a horizontal wheel, on the face of which brass strips are transversely placed, forming dull knives. The leaf is introduced so as to bring one side in contact with the revolving wheel, which is run by a small engine. A brake then presses the leaf against the scrapers, while the butt is firmly held by a pair of pincers. The scrapers remove the outer surface and some of the soft tissue; then the leaf is taken out and turned, and the other side undergoes the same operation, until only the fibers are left. These are then shaken out and hung in the sun for a few hours to dry. The result is a rather coarse fiber of considerable strength. The finest quality is nearly white, while the inferior grades are yellowish in color. In order to produce the best quality of fiber, the leaves must be cleaned as soon as possible after being cut; otherwise the fiber is apt to be spotted.

It may be well to state here that the cultivation of sisal is also being tried in Bermuda, Trinidad, and Jamaica, but on a much smaller scale than in the Bahamas. There, as already stated, large tracts of land have been bought from the Government for the sole purpose of producing the sisal hemp. The price is now four dollars an acre, and two acres are said to produce one ton of fiber. Wages for men vary from thirty-six to sixty cents per day, according to the season and locality, as most of the negroes are spongers, and at certain times of the year labor is not easy to obtain. Women, however, are largely employed in the planting and weeding, and receive on the average twenty-five cents a day. These are the data on which it is stated that a ton of fiber can be produced for fifty dollars. As the price of the fiber is now from one hundred and twenty to one hundred and thirty dollars a ton, and has been as high as two hundred dollars, these figures look attractive.

But it may well be asked, "How about the quantity of fiber now on the market, and will the market stand the enormous increase, that the yield of the Bahamas will give?" That is, of course the very point on which the question of profit or loss will turn. The writer has been told, by one who is well acquainted with the fiber market, that if the sisal hemp could be sold for four and a half or five and a half cents per pound, in a few years the consumption would be doubled; for, when the price reaches nine or ten cents a pound, the use of the fiber for many purposes is abandoned, and is replaced by some cheaper material, as jute.

One of the principal obstacles in the way of cheaper fiber is the need of a good machine, as the one now in use is a crude affair, requiring the attendance of two men and a boy besides the engineer, and producing but a small quantity of fiber daily. Although much skill and money have already been spent in attempting to invent a better machine, as yet all efforts have been msuccessful; but, as inventors and mechanics are still at work, and as the recent "sisal boom" in the Bahamas will increase the demand, there is little doubt but that here, as in so many other cases, necessity will prove the mother of invention. When the fiber can be cheaply produced in large quantities, there is little doubt but that increased uses will be found for it, and that the demand will equal the supply.

PSM V38 D633 The house of a sisal planter on andros.jpg

The House of a Sisal Planter, Andros.

In 1887 Yucatan exported crude fiber valued at over $3,000,000, besides $37,862 in rope and $43,891 in hammocks. About eighty-four per cent of the crude fiber and fifty per cent of the hammocks came to the United States; most of the remaining fiber went to England, Germany, and France, while Spain took the rest of the hammocks and all the rope. In 1889 the import of sisal hemp into the United States was between $6,000,000 and $7,000,000, about 50,000 tons, on which a duty of fifteen dollars a ton was paid.[2]

Now it may be asked, "Why can not the United States produce sisal too? Is no portion of our vast territory suitable for this crop?" As we shall see, some one did ask that question over fifty years ago. It is not generally known that in 1827 the Treasury Department issued a circular to some of the American consuls, requesting them to collect and preserve seeds and specimens of such, plants in their districts as were "useful as food for man or the domestic animals, or for purposes connected with the manufactures or any of the useful arts." The American consul at Campeche, Dr. Henry Perrine, responded to this call with energy and enthusiasm, and soon introduced into Congress "a bill to encourage the introduction and promote the cultivation of tropical plants in Florida, and conveying to Dr. Perrine and his associates a township of land, on condition that every section should be forfeited if at least one fourth thereof should not be occupied and successfully cultivated in tropical or other plants within five years." These hard conditions were accepted by Dr. Perrine, and in one of his letters to Congress he calls attention to the sisal plant, and says, "He repeats his unbroken conviction that its introduction will make an era of as great importance to the agricultural prosperity of our confederation as the invention of the cotton-gin."

For nearly ten years he labored, sending to Florida plants and seeds, and endeavoring to obtain his township of land, desiring "no more honor than the power of passing the brief term of his painful existence amid the privations and exposure incident to a chief pioneer in the planting and population of tropical Florida." He finally succeeded in establishing a sisal plantation on Indian Cay. Unfortunately, Dr. Perrine was not permitted to see the result of his labors, for, during the Seminole War, the Indians set fire to his buildings, and he himself fell a victim to their merciless attack. With the death of Dr. Perrine ended the cultivation of the plants he had introduced; but one of them, that he named Agave sisalana, remained, became naturalized, and is now flourishing on some of the Florida Keys, where the young plants are now being gathered and carried to the Bahamas.

Thus we see that the plants are growing within our borders, and it is only necessary to determine the quality of their fiber; for, although the plants are the same species as those now cultivated in Yucatan and the Bahamas, the quality of the fiber may not be as good, and yet on the other hand it may be better. For instance, it is said that the Bahama fiber is superior to that produced in Yucatan; so why may not the "Florida fiber" of the future surpass that of the Bahamas? In order to determine its value it is only necessary to prepare it by hand from the plants now growing in Florida and compare it with the article now on the market. The subject is being investigated by the Department of Agriculture, and a report may be looked for in the near future.

It may be said in conclusion that, as a crop, sisal has much to recommend it. It grows best on barren, rocky land that is useless for other agricultural purposes. Drought affects it but little, if at all, as the writer can testify from his own observation. The yield is not confined to any one season, but is continual; hence the employment of labor is constant, and the planter can estimate closely what the yield will be for a given time. The old plants are easily replaced by the suckers that have been previously cut off and kept for this purpose. These advantages are shared by all the cultivators of sisal; but, in addition, the planter in Florida will have at his door a market that now absorbs eighty-four per cent of all the fiber produced. He will not only bring into use land now almost worthless, but will probably make for himself a fortune and introduce a new industry into the United States.

  1. Governor Blake is generally credited with having introduced the plants. But as early as 1854 an agave was sent by the British vice-consul Baldwin from Florida to the Bahamas. It is not unlikely that this plant was the same as those introduced by Dr. Perrine into Florida.
  2. The duty has since been removed.