Former governor visits

For several weeks this past holiday season, Thomas Russell, a former governor, visited the Cayman Islands.

thomas russell

Former Governor Thomas Russell.
Photo: Eugene Bonthuys

During his stay, Mr. Russell signed and sold copies of ‘I Have The Honour To Be’, an autobiographical account of his experiences in World War II, as a district commissioner in the Solomon Islands, and as governor for the Cayman Islands.

After arriving in Grand Cayman in August of 1974, Mr. Russell’s term in office was extended three times and he became known as one of the most loved and esteemed governors to date.

‘You can earn popularity, but don’t try for it,’ he said in a recent interview.

This was one of the many lessons that Mr. Russell said he learned as a soldier during World War II, and one of the many anecdotes he relayed to the Caymanian Compass.

During his time as a soldier, Mr. Russell was captured as a prisoner of war by German soldiers.

‘I had my femur shattered by a German machine gun bullet and so I was reported missing,’ he said, ‘three months after they had taken me prisoner, my family got a German postcard…’

In this postcard, Mr. Russell tried to assure his family that he was alive and being treated well.

‘But I was trying to secretly tell her where I was wounded,’ said Mr. Russell, ‘so I wrote to Mrs L. Russell, and I signed my self E.G. Russell to spell LEG!’

Mr. Russell’s family wasn’t sure what to make of his message, however.

‘My mother told my brother when she got this … and she said ‘Young Tom is alive, he’s a prisoner of war. But the poor boy must have been shot in the head, because he doesn’t even know his own name!”

Mr. Russell is still involved with veteran initiatives to this day.

Even if Mr. Russell followed his commander’s advice not to try for popularity, however, he managed to achieve it.

Perhaps this was because of the personal approach that Mr. Russell brought with him from his years in the Solomon Islands.

‘I related my job in the Cayman Islands to being a district commissioner,’ he said.

‘If you don’t get down with the people, you get nothing done in your district.’

Though Mr. Russell came to the Cayman Islands under a similar atmosphere of financial uncertainty and constitutional reform, he declined to comment on the current situation or changes in the governor’s duties.

‘It has been 34 years since I came here as governor, so it’s like asking a first World War general to talk about the strategy on the World War II front,’ said Mr. Russell.

‘It’s just a different ball game.’

Indeed, the role of the Cayman Islands governor has undergone many changes since Mr. Russell left in 1981.

‘I was also, believe it or not, speaker for the Legislative Assembly when I was a governor,’ explained Mr. Russell.

‘I’d be sitting in there and [the politicians] would be going at it, hammering away so that it was a wonder the lid wasn’t coming off the place. We would suspend for lunch and the two sides would be as happy as ever, then they’d go back in and be at it again.’

Even though the responsibilities of the governor were more varied at that time, Mr. Russell was always known for his proactive approach to government.

‘Believe it or not, at that time the laws were published by sticking them up with a drawing pin on the notice boards at the post office and I lived in fear that some clever lawyer was going to say, ‘You prove that this law was really published’,’ said Mr. Russell.

‘So, one of the first laws I put through was the gazette law.’

Mr. Russell’s memorable experiences from his years as governor do not all revolve around his political dealings, however:

‘I’ll tell you what happened to me,’ Mr. Russell said.

‘Galleon Beach was next door to Governor’s House and … suddenly the door burst open and in comes a man with two big suitcases and says, ‘Where’s the check in?’ He apparently was pretty rude to the taxi driver, and the driver got his own back: instead of dropping him at Galleon Beach he dropped him at the Governor’s House!’

Though Mr. Russell did not go so far as to make this tourist breakfast, as one past governor did, Mr. Russell did point him in the right direction.

Even after Mr. Russell’s role as a governor had come to an end, he continued to officially represent the Cayman Islands in London for 18 years.

To this day, Mr. Russell maintains his ties to these islands, as demonstrated by his recent visit.

‘I have enjoyed my time with the Cayman Islands and interacting with the Caymanian people,’ he said.

‘I learned a lot from them.’

Those interested in learning more about Mr. Russell’s experiences in the Cayman Islands, or throughout his life, are encouraged to pick up a copy of ‘I Have The Honour To Be’ from local retailers.