Sisal Rope History

Have you ever read much on the Sisal rope history? Much has been written about the history of Sisal Yucatan but its origins come from the smaller version of the smaller Henequen plant that grows near the Yucatan, Mexico coast.

The Henequen succulent cactus plant renders strong, flexible fiber that can be, and has been woven into a multitude of uses.

Sisal Fields in Northern TanzaniaBy Joachim Huber, via Wikimedia Commons

Sisal has been used for centuries by the Mayans for strands that have been used for everything from cloth, to "hamacas" (spanish for hammocks) to Sisal rope and twine. The sisal Yucatan fiber came to be known as the “Green Gold” during the golden era of the Henequeneros of the 1800’s-early 1900’s up until the end of WWI.

Sisal products 01
By Achim Raschka (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

It is not known if the Henequen plant existed outside of Yucatan and its exportation as a plant was very restricted. Modern urban lore is that young henequen plants were smuggled out of Yucatan in the 1800’s to other countries and sisal began to be cultivated in various countries around the Caribbean, Africa and most of all Brazil where sisal exports began in the 1940’s and the finished products were exported in the 1960’s leaving production in Yucatan unprofitable.

Ultimately, the Cordemex factory outside of Merida , Yucatan closed in 1990 due to its inability to compete. Most recently, smaller operations continue to produce Sisal Yucatan products but these tend to be throw rugs and decor.

Sisal rope history is interesting and the rope is an extremely strong product that’s strength and usability lends itself to be of great use on the high seas. Sisal rope is extremely strong and, most importantly, remains pliable in the most extreme conditions found of the high seas. This characteristic made it golden in the days of sailing ships and even into modern day shipping. Sisal from Yucatan was indispensible to the shipping industry for its multiple uses for tying down cargo and mooring ships. Modern synthetic rope would freeze up and be rendered useless.

One of most interesting of stories I heard from my Yucateco Grandfather-in-law was that during WWI, the rope purchased by the US was paid by the pound. In order to increase money paid for their product, Yucatecos tore up the railings of the small gauge tracks used across Yucatan to haul the fibers to the haciendas and factories and placed them inside the rolls in order to increase the weight and their profits.

The Yucatecos expected complaints from the US but never received one. It turns out that the rails were made of high quality steel and were turned into gun barrels on the battleships that were feverishly being built during the war.

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