How Cayman developed a seafaring identity

Christopher Williams
Guest column

As the very originators of our seafaring heritage, ancestral Caymanians deserve our undivided attention in a day and age when many of our traditions run the risk of erasure. They are deserving of such attention, in part, because although patriotic impressions of Caymanian history are frequently voiced, it has become increasingly easier, amid the contemporary hustle and bustle, to miss just how essential our forefathers and -mothers were in framing the very emotional and existential stuff on which native Caymanian identity was built.

To begin, a less known part of our seafaring heritage takes us back to the era of slavery in Grand Cayman, which spanned 1734 to 1835. Despite the widespread racial animus that typified chattel slavery, those slaveholding white and near-white Caymanian fishermen who had seafaring slaves, known as inferior mariners, were by May 1835 splitting their turtle and fish yields with the latter at a rate of 50%. Given that slavery was prematurely dismantled in Cayman, enslaved mariners, especially, were able to make the unprecedented jump from absolute subjugation to, in a manner of speaking, unequivocal freedom.

This seafaring state of affairs effectively introduced a cultural dimension in which racial considerations became ancillary to basic understandings of remunerative parity in an economy teetering on the brink of obliteration following emancipation. It is unfortunate that there is simply not enough historical information to comprehensively chronicle the palpable-enough black (and general non-white) presence in a decidedly European seafaring tradition throughout 18th and 19th century Cayman, although this presence, as I have attempted to briefly demonstrate, was bound to leave some sort of imprint on a seafaring, Caymanian cultural identity in its prototypic stage.

Implicating the continued importance of the sea and the seaman in the native Caymanian cultural imagination, Caymanian seaman Edrei McLaughlin hastens to supply a validating response for the indispensability of seamanship in shaping Caymanian culture when he provides an answer to the question of why it was that “Caymanians got this good reputation for being seamen” throughout the first six decades of the 20th century. McLaughlin’s response is confidently expressed: “We just learnt. . . . [We had] our own experiences . . . sailing boats”.

Similarly, Caymanian Tenson Scott’s understanding of himself as the consummate seaman during a time of material dearth and economic hardship, links with a great seafaring past. He tells of Jamaican fishermen being angry with him “because of [his] fishening [fishing] skills…”; according to him, he was able to catch fish between his toes “when they could hardly catch anything . . . in their pots!”

We can appreciate that the foregoing representations of the past positively reveal the experiences and behaviours of the experienced Caymanian seaman, thereby amassing a long-standing sensibility that can be embraced by younger Caymanians especially.

Such auto-definitions of the Caymanian seaman as skilled, and by extension hardworking and perseverant, have indeed compelled many contemporary Caymanians to resurrect and perpetuate their glorious ethnic past in hopes of achieving a more complete Caymanian identification that may be expressed as follows: “We understand that our convenient and progressive lifestyle means that it is not necessary for us to live as our ancestors did; however, as history is foundational to our Caymanian existence, we should strive to memorialise our ancestral past with the knowledge that it is our past and without it, we would not be who we are today.”

The survival of our heritage hinges on the passing down not only of ideas from generation to generation but, more importantly, on the passing down of emotions. According to Jean Klein et al., “[t]o be human is to be related”; as human beings, we are typically drawn to the need to associate with our familiars, notably our blood relatives. This association is, in many instances, made possible by an initial emotional contact, where emotion can be understood as a “felt experience”.

To those Caymanians who are dismayed by the possibility of a dying heritage, recognise, without apology, that you are already emotionally attached to your ancestors, and so you do not need to live as they did to safeguard your past – your past has already been lived and thus felt on your behalf. Continue to immerse yourself in the history of your ancestral making, and by so doing, your past, and by extension your heritage, will achieve conscious immortality, never to be demolished by anyone or thing.

Christopher A. Williams, PhD, is an associate professor of history and sociology at the University College of the Cayman Islands. His new book ‘Between a Past and Present Consciousness: Critiques of the Development of the Caymanian People’ is out now. For more information, contact Dr. Williams at [email protected]  

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