Thoughts on the demise of a once vital industry 

Dear Editor,

 I thought the 175 year edition of The Nassau Guardian was most interesting and very well done.

I particularly enjoyed the “History of The Nassau Guardian” as my mother was the great granddaughter of the founder of The Guardian, Edwin Charles Moseley.

I thought the article by Rayne Morgan on how the sponging industry was wiped out was interesting, but I was disappointed because the sponging industry had several connections, past and present, to The Nassau Guardian and was a vital element of the Bahamian economy.

Morgan stated in her article that the Bahamian sponge industry was probably started by Gustave Renouard in 1841. An interesting fact in Mary Moseley’s “The Bahamian Handbook”, published in 1926 by The Nassau Guardian, was that Renouard was “wrecked” in The Bahamas.

Mary Moseley reported in her handbook that at the height of the sponge industry there were 600 schooners and sloops and 6,000 men employed in sponge gathering.

I think that the most interesting offshoot from the sponge industry was the arrival in The Bahamas of the Greek community from the Dhodhekanisos Islands in Greece and from Greek families involved in sponging on the west coast of Florida. The family of your publisher, Emmanuel Alexiou, probably came to The Bahamas to participate in the sponge industry.

After the industry was decimated by a disease in 1938, the British government sent two marine biologists to The Bahamas to find the cause and report on the expected duration of the problem.

Both biologists sent were named Smith.

They reported that the seaborne organism, similar to “red tide”, would eventually disappear, but it would take several years for the industry to come back to its previous levels.

One of the biologists sent, Dr. F. G. Walton Smith, married Florence Walker, who was Mary Moseley’s private secretary.

They moved to Florida in the early 1940s, but Dr. Smith remained a consultant to the Bahamian government until his death in 1989.

The timing of this catastrophe in the sponge industry couldn’t have come at a worse time as the use of the sponge exploded in 1939 at the start of the second World War.

The Allies couldn’t wait for the natural sponge industry to recover and this led to the invention of artificial sponges. Much of the research and most of the production of this vital resource was in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada.

The last paragraph of Morgan’s interesting article gives a list of the present users of sponge, but I think she omitted the principal use of natural sponges.

Professional janitors and window washers use natural sponges as they hold much more liquid than artificial sponges of the same size.

My wife and I were amused to find a shop in Tarpon Springs, the home of the Florida sponge industry, selling different types of sponges.

One of their largest displays of “natural sea sponges” were luffas imported from Sudan. Luffas, which are a close relative of the cucumber, grow on vines!


– John Wanklyn

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