Cayman celebrates its piratical past

Corsairs, picaroons and swashbucklers are besieging the Cayman Islands.

That can only mean one thing: It’s the beginning of Pirates Week, our national festival.

After launching in Cayman Brac this weekend, the festival officially begins Thursday in Grand Cayman, kicking off two weeks of activities involving families, food, drinks, music, dancing and culture.

This year’s Pirates Week features the annual mainstays, such as heritage days in the individual districts, fireworks on the waterfront and, of course, the Landing of the Pirates downtown.

For better or worse, Cayman’s place in historical and popular culture is inextricably linked to the exploits of adventurers, sea dogs and cutthroats in the nebulous fields of piracy and privateering.

Permanent and sustainable settlement of the islands took place long after the real-life buccaneers had faded into legend. However, Cayman was never able to rid itself completely of its reputation for piracy, at least according to the sensibilities of our colonial overseers.

Indeed, rumors of Caymanians burying large quantities of gold were taken seriously enough by British authorities for them to include that information in 20th century colonial reports.

So persistent is the idea of Cayman as a haven for rogues that in 1994 Prince Philip infamously asked a local businessman if it were true that most Caymanians were descended from pirates.

Often in the international media, the term “Cayman Islands” functions as a sensational, eye-grabbing byword in stories about any number of rich, exotic and lawless locales, regardless of whether the comparison is apt or not. Historically, our country has been home to more than its fair share of entrepreneurial, somewhat unscrupulous and otherwise colorful characters. In the 1970s and 1980s, the lack of restrictions on and oversight of Cayman’s booming financial services sector did attract significant investments from unsavory types seeking to hide their proceeds of crime.

Still today, Cayman is seen as fertile ground for flimflammers, sophisticated scammers and professional organized criminals. That’s part and parcel of being a relatively wealthy and free society, though, and is not substantially different from the reality in most all places anywhere, at any time.

In bygone days, the U.K. and other imperial powers outsourced their duty to protect sea trade to privateers, who basically were given the authority to commit acts of piracy on foreign vessels. Today, we see mighty nations such as the U.S. outsourcing their duty to collect tax revenue to foreign financial institutions, who under the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act are being coerced to collect and report information on their U.S. clients. We shall see in what ways the current exercise echoes the abuses and outcomes of the former.

In 1977, MLA Jim Bodden announced that Cayman would attempt to capitalize on its piratical image by establishing Pirates Week. In the years since, the festival has entertained locals and attracted many tourists who are enchanted by the lifestyle and lore of the old-time sea dogs.

Adorned with eye patches, scabbards and tricorn hats, these visitors have descended upon Cayman’s shores like the notorious English pirate Edward Teach, AKA Blackbeard, and his companions.

The difference between then and now is that today’s “tourist pirates” come to purchase, not to plunder. Those are the kind of pirates we can get on board with.