Constitution anniversary is golden

Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the Cayman Islands’ first written constitution.

The holiday on Monday celebrates 4 July 1959, when the first written constitution in Cayman’s history came into operation.

Assembly of Justices and Vestry

This photo is a copy of a picture hanging in the Assembly Building. It shows the last Assembly of Justices and Vestry and is dated July 1959. Commissioner Allan Donald is in uniform in the front row.

The new document set the foundation for the system of government as it has evolved until now.

Today, 3 July, is the 50th anniversary of the final sitting by men who had comprised the old system, the Assembly of Justices and Vestry. Commissioner Allan H. Donald spoke to them about the changes taking place.

His remarks provide helpful context for what was happening; some also provide guidance that could be applied in July 2009.

The appointed justices of the peace and the elected vestrymen had made laws for these Islands since 1832, he noted. During that time, Cayman grew from a remote backwater to a prosperous community.

The Assembly of Justices and Vestry, Mr. Donald said, ‘has itself grown in stature, from the little parish meeting which the name ‘Vestry’ implies, to a legislature passing the complex laws and regulations that are necessary in the context of today.

‘But the best of men and the best of organisations grow old, and it was inevitable that the pressures of this age of stress and tension should be too much for a legislature which came into being to deal with the simple circumstances of those far-off days. And above all, the political strides taken in Jamaica and the West Indies generally have made the [unwritten] constitution of theses Islands obsolete.’

Mr. Donalds emphasised: ‘The new Constitution is not, and is not meant to be, the last word: but it is a big step into the mainstream of modern constitutional practice.’

With the first elections under the new Constitution set for August 1959, and with women having campaigned successfully for the right to vote, Mr. Donald spoke about that solemn obligation.

‘You may notice my emphasis on ‘duty to vote’ rather than on ‘right to vote’. I have little patience with people who are always clamouring about rights. In my experience every right implies a corresponding duty, and those who concentrate on fulfilling their duties usually receive their rights in full measure, while those who worry only about their rights too often neglect their duties,’ he said.

People should not regret the passing of the Vestry, he concluded. A faithful servant was handing over to a young and vigorous successor and was retiring ‘like an old warrior, laden with honours, who never dies, but simply fades away.’

Early days

Most schoolchildren can probably recite the significance of the date 10 May, 1503, accepted as the first mention of these Islands in recorded history, when Christopher Columbus sighted Cayman Brac and Little Cayman during his fourth voyage to the New World.

Spain ceded Jamaica and the Cayman Islands to Great Britain in July 1670.

Commissioner Donald had access to a History of Jamaica written in 1774. He quoted a section about Grand Cayman:

‘Although the island is an appendage of Jamaica, the people upon it have a chief or governor of their own choosing, and regulations of their own framing; they have some justices of the peace among them appointed by commission from the governor of Jamaica; and live very happily, without scarcely any form of civil government.’

Commissioner Hirst, who compiled Notes on the History of the Cayman Islands, wrote that, by the beginning of the 1800s, ‘we have a record of a very crude form of local administration and the establishment of courts.’

The legislature formed in 1832 consisted of two houses, just like England, and the justices met in a different room from the vestrymen.

Some of this legislature’s earliest laws were passed ‘to prevent persons from selling Spiritous Liquors without a Licence’; to regulate the cleaning of public roads; to levy a tax for the building of a parsonage and jails; to regulate the militia; to observe the Sabbath by making it an offence to have ‘any dance or Noisy Entertainment’ between 11pm Saturday and 2am Monday.

In 1863, Great Britain passed an Act of Parliament formally annexing the Cayman Islands to Jamaica. It provided for ratification by the Governor of Jamaica of laws passed since 1832 and stated that all future laws would be subject to his assent.

By 1887 problems were arising because the justices were responsible for both the administration of government and the courts. Lawrence Fyfe was sent assess the situation and his report prompted the Governor of Jamaica to come see for himself.

The Governor appointed Edmund Parsons Sr. as Custos or custodian. Mr. Parsons did a good job, but in 1898, with the responsibilities of the office growing, it was decided to appoint someone full time and from outside the Islands. Frederick Shedden Sanguinetti became Cayman’s first Commissioner.

Meanwhile the Assembly of Justices and Vestry continued to meet, with elections of vestrymen every other August. The number of persons sitting in this legislature ranged between 48 and 56.

Not until the 1950s, when a Federation of the West Indies was being formed, was there strong impetus in Cayman for some form of constitutional advancement.


An article in the Daily Gleaner in November 1956 reported that Cayman’s legislators were sending a delegation to Jamaica to secure self-government.

The article pointed out that Jamaica could amend or repeal any laws passed in Cayman. It continued:

‘For a long time now, however, the Assembly has been allowed to exercise its powers without any interference whatsoever from Jamaica; so long, in fact, that the majority of the Assemblymen came to believe that their local autonomy was a right conferred by a written constitution, rather than a privilege generously conceded by the Jamaica Government.

‘So for the past few months this misunderstanding sparked a public debate that set the 7,000 Caymanians cock-a-hoop with lively spirit.’ The debate concerned the Federation of the West Indies and how Cayman would be affected.

The Gleaner article said Caymanians feared taxation might be introduced; that other West Indians would break into their ‘protected preserve’ as seamen with American shipping companies; that Federal stamps might replace Cayman postage stamps and thus affect revenue. At the time of the article’s publication, no proposals had been finalised for Cayman’s relationship with the Federation.

The article described the Assemblymen as ‘practical politicians, not theorists; and they prefer to concentrate on the immediate job to hand, weight the results of their efforts afterwards, and then go on to the next job with drive and resolution….(T)hey are a steady, thrifty, diligent people, with an unbending pride and natural dignity that counts no material cost when they are aroused.’

Meanwhile, after Commissioner Donald took up his post in 1956, he established an Advisory Executive Council to assist him. The group was given the task of putting into writing the customs and conventions by which these Islands had been governed, then put them in a rough draft of a proposed constitution.

Modern government.

The 1959 Constitution provided for an administrator – the new name for commissioner; a single-house Legislative Assembly of 12 elected members plus two or three nominated members and two or three more by virtue of the office they held; and an Executive Council.

In 1962, when Jamaica went independent, the Cayman Islands became a direct dependency of the British Crown and the constitution was revised accordingly.

In 1965 it was discovered that the 1962 revision had not been laid before Parliament in the UK and was therefore not legal. A new Order-in-Council was laid before Parliament on 4 November 1965, coming into effect the next day.

In 1972, a new constitution – the one in effect now – did away with nominated members and gave Members of Executive Council specific responsibilities for various subjects.

An amendment in 1984 provided for the Cayman Islands Court of Appeal to replace the Jamaica Court of Appeal.

An amendment in 1993 made it possible to old a referendum and provided for a Speaker to preside in the Legislative Assembly instead of the administrator – whose title had changed in 1971 to governor.

Executive Council was renamed Cabinet in a 2003 amendment.

Other changes over the years pertained to qualifications for voting and standing for office.

On 20 May 2009, Cayman’s first referendum was held and voters chose to support an advanced constitution, which has not yet come into effect.

Most of the material for this article was taken from the writings of National Hero Sybil McLaughlin, who was Cayman’s first Speaker of the House, and Mrs. Mary Lawrence, the present Speaker. Mrs. Lawrence provided a copy of Commissioner Donald’s 1959 address.

Dates to remember

10 May 1503 First record of the Cayman Islands, after sighting by Christopher Columbus.

8-18 July 1670 Treaty of Madrid by which Spain cedes the Cayman Islands to England.

2 January 1832 Inauguration of the Assembly of Justices and Vestry.

1863 Cayman is formally annexed to Jamaica.

4 July 1959 Cayman’s first written constitution comes into effect.

1962 Cayman becomes a direct dependency of the British Crown and the constitution is revised accordingly.

1972 Cayman receives a new constitution.

20 May 2009 In their first referendum, Cayman voters accept a proposal for an advanced constitution.

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