Sir Vassel remembers seamen

Copy of an address given by Sir Vassel Johnson on 11 September, 2001, at a memorial service for deceased Caymman seamen. It was submitted by the Seamen’s Association for reprint.


I have been requested by the Cayman Islands Seafarers Association to present tonight a tribute to all deceased seamen of the Cayman Islands. I have great pleasure in doing so as such tribute should remind us of seamen’s active days when they built a substantial part of the infrastructure that assisted the continued growth of Cayman’s development. In presenting this tribute or testimonial to our dearly deceased seamen, we would like for it to include our gratitude and respect built in a wall of trust and clothed in kindly thoughts. 

I also want to pay special tribute to all present and passed seamen for their support in building Cayman into what it has become in the world of offshore finance. Of course seamen may not have formulated the main thrust in the building of the financial industry of these Islands following the ending of the seamen’s economy in the mid 1960s, but certainly seamen have held the fort with honour, respect and control. Eventually the professional financial forces came into being and took the lead in building Cayman as we see it today. 

I will say of our deceased seamen, I am sure they have died in the faith given to them by their heavenly Father for He alone can help all to bear what comes of joy and sorrow. 

On behalf of those attending this memorial service tonight to honour their deceased seamen, and you who may be in one way or another related to many of them, I pray God’s richest blessings upon you. 

And now I will pay tribute to the portion of contribution that seamen have made to Cayman’s development. 

The income of Cayman during and after World War II steadily improved due to shipping and the risk of war. Men engaged abroad during the war also earned much higher wages. Many of them returning home form the overseas services and those who served at home had to find new jobs after the war for they could not live for any length of time on their wartime savings. Traditionally, working on ships at sea was the main source of livelihood for Cayman’s men and so they began moving out to sea again in search of jobs in the Merchant Marines. In fact, Cayman’s seamen had for a long time held an excellent reputation for their seamanship and so they had little problem obtaining a job at sea once they could get to it. 

In the meantime, Owen Roberts International Airport was built and a small air service established. One travelling to the United States, the main job area, would need to obtain an immigration visa from the American Embassy in Kingston, Jamaica, or elsewhere outside the Cayman Islands. However, very few seamen going in search of jobs in the United States Merchant Marine had a good case to apply for a visa. Most of them therefore just ‘signed on’ to the crew lists of boats plying between Cayman and American ports. If during the limited time in US ports a job was not found, then the job seekers would return home. 

The struggle to get employment on ships or on shore in the United States at the time was quite frustrating and discouraging and there were few alternatives for those hunting jobs. Even if other countries were able to assist, the fact remained that none offered such job opportunities as the United States. However, Providence provided a way that was to be a true blessing. During the early 1950s, Cayman government was successful in negotiating with the United States Government permission to grant non-immigration waivers, which would permit local residents to enter the United States. 

The waiver was issued in Cayman by the head of government then known as commissioner and later changed to administrator: It is now know as governor. The waiver was valid for one entry into the United States. Once a traveller entered the United States by waiver, American Immigration could extend his stay if requested. Such a facility was considered a tremendous breakthrough for seamen and other residents seeking medical aid. Shortly after, the waiver facility was established, its effects reflected on the rising economic activities in these Islands. 

Cayman’s seaman’s economy served the country well during the period leading up to the mid-1960s, a time when the Islands economy certainly strengthened. Local seamen were endowed with the tradition of the sea and seamanship from the days of early settlers in Cayman. Many of the locals were themselves descendants of shipwrecked survivors. Those men knew the art of manning ships of any size and class and made their livelihood as sailors. They developed an international reputation for being world-class seamen, having sailed the seas of the world and undergone many hardships at times. 

Also in the mid-1960s, when the sea-going industry faced a slump and when seamen would undoubtedly miss the sea, they had no alternative but to seek employment elsewhere. Few opportunities were in sight either at home or abroad for these seamen. Returning home, with no prospects of going back to their jobs at sea, would be a near disaster to them. Under no circumstances could those seamen revert at that stage to their time-honoured economic traditions of the pre-war days, such as shipbuilding, thatch rope making and fishing at Mosquito Quays. Those industries were no longer in existence; they had passed away during and after World War II. 

Many of the seamen on the other hand had during the war acquired skills and much experience in other fields that could serve them well in the post-world period. Their ambition was to continue working either at sea or take shore-based jobs that could lead them to make contacts and acquire improved working conditions, good standards of living and increased opportunities. Now, whatever activities they chose at home, it would certainly take them quite some time to remove the sea from their blood and be entirely satisfied with a home-based life: This on the other hand was not a matter of choice, rather it was one of expediency and need. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a famous US poet, once wrote, “It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.” 

An alternative activity to sea life was for seamen to go for academic training to specialise in technical and professional fields, whereby they could in time qualify for senior positions in local industries like finance and tourism, if and when those industries developed. It was the thinking then too that, even if technical training was developed, it would likely take at least 15 years for government and the private sector to organise and develop training infrastructure to produce qualified people for the local industries. 

Of course 15 years later it all happened when Caymanians, including seamen, were holding senior positions in local institutions like banks, trust companies, the tourist industry and other related activities. At the same time, a number of qualified Cayman lawyers, accountants and other professionals were also entering the local job market. 

At this particular point in time during the 1960s, and as the financial secretary at the time, I assessed the overall situation regarding the income from Cayman seamen vs. that from economic development and termed the situation a “cross-road of uncertainties pointing in all directions”. However, fortunately for the Cayman Islands, we all selected the right path in which to lead these Islands. 

In ending this presentation, I must say that we are most grateful for the part played by our present and deceased seamen in assisting to build Cayman into a world class financial centre. 

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