Dark clouds loom over French Cay, threatening a squall as they move westward toward French Harbour. Walking west on the coral marl street parallel to the reef line, you notice the road occasionally meanders before gradually curving to the right near The Hill. As you continue, the impending squall begins to envelop your hometown from the east. Just before the street starts its curve, the squall overtakes you.
You dash for the nearest shelter – beneath Ms. Vera McLaughlin’s house, which is perched on short stilts. From this vantage point, you gain a clearer view and hear the commotion across the street, a scene that had piqued your interest just before the squall sent you running for cover.
The front yard of the house across the street is blanketed with halved coconuts – hundreds, maybe even thousands of them, each neatly split and mostly facing the sun. In a frantic rush, three adults and two children, all familiar faces, are flipping the coconuts to protect the white meat from the rain. You realize they could use some help, especially the two children from The Hill, who were likely enlisted by the adults simply because they were nearby.
The coconut meat was dried to create copra.
If you had been noticed earlier, you’d already be turning coconuts. But since you weren’t, you find yourself torn: return to the rain to help, or stay comfortably sheltered. Just then, Ms. Vera’s dog, Blanco, starts growling menacingly from her front porch above you. Sensing your presence, Blanco has made the decision for you. Off you go to turn coconuts.
The coconut meat was dried to create copra. Once it had lost all its moisture, shriveled, and turned a purplish color, the meat was scooped out of the shell and placed into large crocus sacks. These filled sacks were then stored in a dry location, typically a specialized ‘copra house,’ to await shipment.
Copra typically made its way to the United States, where it was processed into various products. It was shipped directly to the U.S. via large freighters operating out of La Ceiba. Copra from Roatan would be transported to La Ceiba on one of the small freight boats that regularly traveled to and from the mainland.
Two or three of these ‘copra operations’ were located in French Harbour, with additional facilities in some of the towns on Roatan’s south shore. Local harvesters would husk the coconuts and transport them by dory directly to the processing locations. In French Harbour, coconuts were primarily harvested from the ‘coconut walks’ on the Cays west of the town, including areas along the Lagoon, French Cay, and Ezekiel’s Cay—the latter of which has been the site of the Fantasy Island Beach Resort since the 1980s.
At times, for one of the French Harbour operations, coconuts were also collected at designated points around Roatan by a small motorboat making regular stops. The enduring image of this boat anchored off West Bay Beach, as locals paddled their dories out to it with coconuts to sell, has stayed with me for years.