Holding down the fort: Women left behind in Cayman’s seafaring years

A profile on Janilee Clifford

Caymanian men’s entrenched reputation as excellent seafarers, and the resulting exodus of men to work on ships overseas in the ‘50s and ‘60s, left an island with proportionately more women. Left to keep households and raise children, these women’s experiences shaped future generations. They embodied resilience and strength, and passed down these characteristics through their family lines.

One such woman ‘left behind’ was Janilee Clifford, a stalwart in Cayman’s community, spending years as a much-loved teacher at Cayman Prep and Elmslie Sunday School, as well as secretary and hardworking volunteer at the Cayman Islands Seafarers Association. She was awarded a Certificate of Appreciation for her work with the Vision 2008 10-year Strategic Plan for the Cayman Islands.

Janilee’s husband Charles Clifford Sr. was one of Cayman’s seafarers from an early age.

Charles and Janilee Clifford on their wedding day in 1951

Family life

Bodden Town girl Janilee Jackson was born in 1932, and unlike for most Caymanian children at the time, her father remained at home.

“My father was a jack of all trades,” she told the Cayman Compass.

“He built all those houses in Pease Bay. He was very smart. He found out from very young that he could fix cars and fix any electrical thing … take it apart – a watch or a clock or anything and look inside it and find out what to do to get it going. Because of that, over the years, he always had parts of all of these things – cars, bicycles, anything – and people would always come to him,” she remembered fondly.

“Incidentally, his name was Eddison Jackson, but nobody knew him by anything else but Ford, Henry Ford.”

Janilee was well aware that her family life was different to many.

“We were brought up unlike most of the people in Bodden Town and all the districts without fathers,” she said. “Looking back, I’m thankful to those days and I’m thankful that it was like that [in our household]. It could have been different,” she said. “My uncle, my father’s brother next door, went to sea, and I and his youngest child were 14 when we both first saw him.”

The Cliffords on their 50th wedding anniversary

The Cliffords

As both grew up in Bodden Town, Janilee and Charles knew each other from when she was a child. But it wasn’t until he returned from a four-year trip to sea that his interest was sparked.

“He asked my parents, and then he came and asked me if I’d like to go to Savannah to go to a restaurant. I’d never been to a restaurant before,” Janilee recalled.

“I’ve never forgotten that evening. We went to that restaurant, a little wayside shop it turned out to be afterwards, and what a treat. I mean, I can remember Pepsi or Coke or something, some soda, I tasted soda!”

Charles Clifford then went back to sea, and the letters soon started, followed by a proposal on his next visit home.

Charles and Janilee married 1 Nov. 1951. Charles returned to sea not long after, but not before making sure Janilee had her own house on Crewe Road, where she still lives today.

Janilee then settled into marriage, but without the physical presence of her husband.

“It was the way of life. It wasn’t always easy,” she said.

Charles Clifford on his 83rd birthday

Charles Clifford

Charles worked for Suwannee Fruit & Steamship Company, a business out of Tampa, Florida, in the early ‘50s.

“Most of the Cayman boys going to sea in those days worked for Suwannee,” explained Janilee.

Thirteen years Janilee’s senior, Charles was at sea by the time he was 17 years old, preceding the famed on-island shipping agents of the ‘Southwell Years’ and National Bulk Carriers.

“This is how that would happen, not just with him but with most Caymanians,” Janilee explained. “To begin with, there were no jobs here. So [they would] get on the boat. It was always the Cimboco, the sailing boat, and the sailing boats from Jamaica to here to Tampa … not Miami, ‘cause Miami was wilderness in those days. That’s what I was told.”

Unless they were already working on the Cimboco, or the two or three other boats at the time, the men would buy their passage to go to Tampa, where they would present themselves for work with one of the shipping companies.

“They would be sitting there on the benches, I can remember [being told] that, waiting for someone to call them in the office building they were at, to sign them up to get on the boat to go from Tampa to wherever they would be going,” Janilee said.

Charles and Janilee on the deck of the Samana on the Mongo River in Guyana.

Trinidad

Charles’s Suwannee route took him between Trinidad and Guyana, and soon Janilee would join him.

“Women did not chase their husbands at sea in those days,” she said.

But her husband had other ideas. He and a Caymanian shipmate hatched a plan – why not bring their wives to Trinidad?

The plan came to fruition in 1952, and Janilee spent the next two years there, where her eldest daughter Cathy was born.

“I never dreamed I would find myself in Trinidad meeting my husband,” she said.

While Janilee knows she was lucky to have the chance to see her husband more than many women in Cayman, it was not all fun and games.

“I can’t tell you anything about Trinidad and I was there two years … It was just living from one week to the next. They’d be home one night, then the next morning they were back on the ship to go to Guyana and then come back,” she said.

“It wasn’t such an easy life. Even though we were seeing them, it was for such a short time. It was almost like anything could be better than this, so we wanted to get back home.”

The couple returned to Cayman in 1954.

“We came back on the Gulfito, a tourist boat from Trinidad to Jamaica. And from Jamaica we came back on the Cimboco I think.”

From sea to CUC

The family was ready for a change. “I was determined, and he was determined, too. When we came home, he said, ‘I have to find something to do. I’m not going back with Suwannee.’ So, he didn’t go back.”

Charles got a job with Merren on one of their ships, sailing back and forth to Tampa and Jamaica, a more local route that allowed him to see his family. Soon, however, Charles decided to end his seafaring days when he was unexpectedly offered a job on island.

“A car stopped out there by the fence. This guy called to him and when he came back, he said ‘I might get a job here in Cayman.’ I said, ‘Where?’ He said, ‘They’re starting an electric company. They’re offering me a job.’”

This electric company was, of course, Caribbean Utilities Company, and Charles was one of its first engineers alongside Selbert ‘Bert’ Jackson, Stanton Ebanks, and Otis Jackson, all prior seamen. Charles would work there until his retirement.

The men’s vast experience with diesel engines at sea was invaluable when they joined CUC. To this day, the company refers to Selbert Jackson, Stanton Ebanks, Fred Jackson, Charles Clifford, Otis Jackson, Algon E. Nixon, and Pedro Echenique as the ‘Veterans of Power’.

Janilee Clifford

Impact

Janilee believes her upbringing and the way of life of many Caymanians in those years shaped her as a person. Witnessing the resilience of Caymanian women during this time no doubt was a driving factor behind her being one of the 358 signatories of the 1957 petition that lobbied for the rights of women to vote, to be eligible for election to all public bodies, and to be on equal terms with men in public and political life in the Cayman Islands.

“We had to be here, holding the fort and running everything. We needed to have more rights,” she said.

Despite the challenges faced in the first half of the 20th century, Janilee described it simply as a “way of life”.

“That’s how we lived in Cayman in those days. Women had a hard life. But let me tell you something; a way of life when you are born into it, I don’t think, is half as bad as you [think] it might have been. It was a way of life.”