In 1989, Matthew Forbes was about three months into his first posting with the U.K.’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office in Beijing, China, when the Tiananmen Square massacre happened.
“We had just been [in the square] a few days before talking to students involved in the protest,” said the FCO career man, who just this month took up his latest job as head of the Cayman Islands governor’s office. “Then the troops moved in.”
The incident ended in the killing of at least several hundred Chinese student demonstrators who were trying to block the military’s advance toward the square.
Mr. Forbes survived his first job and – about two decades later – ended up back in China, Shanghai this time, as the FCO Deputy Consul General supervising an office of more than 100 employees.
One might think going from the metropolitan megalopolis of 24 million people to Grand Cayman (population 60,413) would be a shock to the system, but Mr. Forbes said he had a greater shock moving to Shanghai from the Seychelles (population 93,000) off the eastern African coast, where he served as high commissioner to Victoria, the capital city.
“I did it the other way around that time, that was a shock to the system,” he said. “Small island living is something my wife and I are quite familiar with.”
He’s talking really small. During an earlier FCO posting, Mr. Forbes covered the remote Pitcairn Islands in the Pacific, with a population fluctuating between 50 and 80 inhabitants.
He has some experience in crisis/disaster management, starting off with the Tiananmen Square massacre and moving to the perhaps lesser known Pitcairn sexual abuse trial where seven men were alleged to have committed dozens of offenses, some involving underage girls, on the remote island. Another six were prosecuted in New Zealand over the alleged crimes.
In fact, it was then-Pitcairn Deputy Governor Forbes who argued against legal challenges filed by island residents that Pitcairn was not actually a British territory, in what was seen as an attempt to avoid trial over the local sex abuse accusations. Six of the seven suspects were convicted at the end of the trial Pitcairn hosted.
In the Seychelles, then-High Commissioner Forbes had to deal with ongoing Somalian pirate activity and subsequent trials that have since led to 138 convictions for piracy in the 115-island archipelago over the past six years.
From there, it was on to Shanghai, managing 110 employees in what amounted to an ambassadorial-type role, attempting to support British business interests in one of the world’s largest metropolitan areas.
Mr. Forbes, 50, acknowledged that he has seen and heard comments since being appointed to the Cayman governor’s office that have questioned why someone like him has accepted that post.
He does not look at it that way.
“It’s not the size of the country or city you’re serving in,” he said. “[In Cayman], you have to deal with lots of separate elements in government. [The appointment] is also a reflection of the importance that London put on their relationship with the overseas territories as well.”
From the perspective of the governor’s office, it’s a busy time for Cayman. A May 2017 general election, a new police commissioner to nominate, a new ombudsman’s office to create, and policing and general governance matters will likely keep Mr. Forbes occupied during his tour here, expected to last between three and four years.
There’s also the ongoing Brexit negotiations with the European Union, in which he insists the overseas territories “must be part of the process.” No one knows just how Britain’s pending departure from the EU will affect the territories yet, but Mr. Forbes said its important “they’re listened to during the negotiations.”
This is Mr. Forbes’s first posting in the Caribbean, although he has worked in London as head of the FCO’s Mexico, Central America and Cuba team.
He is also a licensed pilot and a diver. Of his four children, three are “gainfully employed” in the workforce, but he’ll reside in Cayman with his wife and youngest child, a 13-year-old son.