Remembering 1959 Cayman

1959. Cayman’s first written Constitution and hordes of mosquitoes. A new Legislative Assembly and bridge on Friday nights. Magistrate’s Court and thatch rope underneath.

The historically significant events of the year and the facts of everyday life hold equal prominence in the memory of Sir James Astwood, who was a witness to it all.

He arrived in April 1958 as the colony’s Stipendiary Magistrate, later joined by his wife and child, and stayed until 20 December 1959. “Those were two of the best years of our lives,” he said in a recent interview.

Sir James, who was knighted in 1982 and made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1994, has been back to Cayman several times since leaving 50 years ago. His most recent visit coincided with the holiday weekend celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Cayman Islands’ Constitution.

The timing was accidental, but fortuitous. He had come with his son David, a partner in the Bermuda office of Conyers Dill & Pearman and the only family member who had not been to Cayman before. Relaxing in their suite at the Ritz-Carlton, David was reading the Caymanian Compass when he saw the photo that accompanied an article about the 1959 Constitution.

“I asked my father if he recognised anyone in the photo. ‘Yes,’ came the reply; ‘that fellow there.’ He was pointing to himself,” David related.

The presence of James Astwood in Cayman in 1959 was also fortuitous. Commissioner Allan Donald had already given his advisory council the task of writing down the customs and conventions by which the islands had been governed. When the time came to put these into the form of a proposed constitution, Mr. Donald was able to consult the only trained attorney in Grand Cayman – Mr. Astwood.

Just 34 when he arrived to take up his post here, he had spent several years with the civil service in Jamaica after leaving Bermuda, the land of his birth. Having completed his legal qualifications at the Inns of Court in London, he was reluctant to practise law in Bermuda because of the segregation that then existed. Jamaica, his wife’s country, was by comparison well integrated.

Because Cayman was a dependency of Jamaica, service there led to the secondment here.

“Cayman was also an integrated society,” Sir James recalled. “They didn’t have any racial problems. Of course, people had their likes and dislikes. They were very nationalistic. It was a very industrious community in those days.”

A house on North Church Street, behind Henderson’s gas station, had been obtained for Mr. Astwood and his family but it was not ready when he arrived. He sent his wife, Gloria, and daughter, Karen, home, staying at the old Bay View Hotel until refurbishments were complete.

They rejoined him when the house was suitably fixed up. There was a small generator in George Town, but electricity was “an on and off thing. We depended on oil lamps and candles”.

There was no good radio reception, except from Cuba.  “I had a piece of wire strung across my yard as an antenna. When conditions were right, around noon, I could pick up a signal from Jamaica and get the news,” he said.

His Summary Court was in the upstairs of the building across from the harbour – now the home of the National Museum – and the downstairs was used to store thatch rope before it was exported. He also presided in Grand Court, which was held in the Peace Memorial — usually referred to as the George Town Town Hall.

Part of the challenge of his job was to check local laws. If there was no local law governing a particular situation, then the Jamaica law applied — making things a little complicated sometimes.

The Government Report for 1958 shows the number of persons dealt with: 242 brought to court, 28 acquitted, two bound over to keep the peace and 210 fined. Just two persons found guilty were imprisoned.

“Cayman had no real jail,” Sir James noted, “just a little lock-up. Anybody sent to jail for more than six months went to Jamaica to serve his time.”

One category of offences stood out in his mind: traffic. After the road was completed between West Bay and George Town, “Oh, Lord, the boys started speeding up on that road.” Statistics bear him out. There were 13 traffic cases in 1956; 32 in 1957; and 66 in 1958.

The work was hard and the days were long, but there was plenty of opportunity for recreation. Sir James remembers Berkley Bush’s movie theatre on North Church Street and Beach Club Colony – “the hub of social activity”.

He especially enjoyed Friday night bridge games with Desmond Watler, Vassel Johnson and Willie Bodden. On Saturdays, they might go up to Batabano, take a boat across North Sound, catch lobsters and go to Rum Point to cook them. The family also read practically every book in the George Town Library.

Other names came to mind as Sir James reminisced: Marjorie Piercy, his secretary; Warren Conolly, whom he appointed as a law agent; Truman Bodden.

Mrs. Astwood was teaching at the high school and told him about the bright fellow in one of her classes. She encouraged the boy to study law rather than go to sea as so many others his age wanted to do. The boy was Truman Bodden and his name on the side of Anderson Square and the government sports complex is testament to the success of her encouragement.

If there was any hardship, it was mosquitoes. “Take anything you’ve heard about the mosquitoes and magnify it a hundred times,” Sir James said. “The sound of them around the house at night was like bees hiving.

“My car would be 15 feet from the door of the house. When we were going out I’d burn Black Flag at the door and ask her ‘Are you ready?’ Then we would make a run for it, but the mosquitoes were all over you. You didn’t swat at them, you just wiped them away.”

After his term in Cayman, he went back to Jamaica where he eventually became an acting high court judge. In 1974 the family returned to Bermuda, where he became Chief Justice and, later, President of the Court of Appeal.

Summarising his reflections on Cayman in 1958-59, Sir James said, “You had to see it in the context of its time – very rural, but with great potential.”