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From the Vestry to the Premier: The Evolution of Modern Caymanian Politics

Local News 17 Feb, 2021 Follow News

J. A. Roy Bodden

By J. A. Roy Bodden


About the Work

This book is another volume in my continuing study of Caymanian society. The aim of the series is to create a comprehensive volume of work on all aspects of Caymanian society and to create a record of the evolution of the modern Cayman Islands while simultaneously trying to determine how, we as a people see ourselves. This work is a purely political tome and while some of the material covered in the work can be found in two of my previous works viz. “Patronage Personalities and Parties: Caymanian Politics from 1950-2000” (Bodden 2010) and “From Guard House to the Glass House: One Man’s Journey through the Maze of Caymanian Politics” (Bodden 2018), this account begins with the phasing out of the Assembly of Justices and the Vestry on July 3, 1959. This institution was not only peculiar in its membership but also by the prescience, foresight and dedication of those who were members of this foundational institution. From December 5, 1831 when it first met as a law giving body at Pedro, St. James in the district of Bodden Town, this august assembly made up of “representatives” and “magistrates” (Craton 2003: 98), representing the interests of the landed oligarchs, had by the time of its phasing out on July 3, 1959, transformed itself into a “bi-cameral assembly concerned with maintaining the interests of the merchant establishment” while presiding over a mainly orderly society. It was modeled off the Jamaican Assembly prior to the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865, and like that institution it was controlled by the oligarchs in the upper chamber (the Justices). By the time of its phasing out, this Assembly had taken on a slightly more modified representative role. It has not been described in the work as a “democratic” institution, this is by design, since a political system which denied women the right to vote and which disenfranchised a vast majority of the male populace, could not accurately be labeled as “democratic”.

That having been said, the members who sat in this bi-cameral assembly though, in spite of their shortcomings are deserving of a special place of honour on the pantheon of those who laid the foundation of the modern Cayman Islands. This is so not only because of their role in charting the early political development but also for their efforts in preventing these islands from being overrun by outside elements whose interests they saw as inimical to those of the Caymanian people. And while they (the Justices), were taken up with their own survival they were not completely oblivious to the concerns of the Vestrymen who were the conscience of the Assembly, nor were they totally oblivious to the rank and file Caymanians. The men of conscience and decorum (the Vestrymen) did what little they could to insulate the rank and file against the monopoly of the merchant class and it was through their perseverance and advocacy that democratizing relief eventually came. It is important to underscore that the relationship which existed between these two groups was for the most part symbiotic rather than adversarial. Symbiotic in the sense that many of the Vestrymen were small time merchants and traders in their districts and as such relied upon the wealthier Justices (larger business and ship owners), for credit and sponsorship. This was a kind of patronage system not unlike that which existed in other jurisdictions where the wealthy ‘padrons’ exerted influence over their more modest compatriots. Patronage then, was not an uncommon political phenomenon in early modern Caymanian society. While expecting to pay fealty to their more influential external patrons in the Assembly of Justices, these Vestrymen wielded considerable power and influence within the communities in which they resided.

Predominantly men of colour in a racially nuanced society, they (the Vestrymen), took it upon themselves to advocate for an education system which they believed would trump the caste and classism perpetuated by their counterparts the Justices of the Peace. Men like A. B. Bodden of Bodden Town who were visionaries of a future Cayman Islands and who advocated for the education and enlightenment of young people, realized that education would trump colour and privilege. Legendary in their decision to support the building of schools over a prison, they railed against the status quo which they saw as the system which was the greatest contributor to the stagnation of the vast majority of Caymanians.

Later, men like the late Ormond Panton, occupying positions of political importance, not only advocated for a broader and more participatory style of politics but used their positions as respected political leaders to ensure that Caymanian seamen could have access to opportunities to benefit from employment on the international scene. Although much is known of his reputation as a political visionary, informed Caymanians also credit his initiative with procuring for Caymanians the opportunity to write their own United States visa waivers, so that Caymanian seamen were granted special dispensation by the United States Immigration authorities as they awaited employment in the United States. It was the industry of these seamen which led to the internationalization of the Cayman Islands and brought importance to the economic and political soul of the modern Cayman Islands. Importantly too, in the mid-twentieth century Caymanian women joined the fight for political inclusion and in 1948 these advocates struck the first public blow for their enfranchisement as citizens.

The book posits that in many respects the battle for the political soul of the Cayman Islands continues today. Constitutional advancement leading to the premiership, and one man, one vote, has done little to emancipate the Caymanian from the “mental slavery” of colonialism, and regrettably, Caymanian women who played such an important role in the fight for Universal Adult Suffrage still have not obtained the ratio of seats in the parliament which is commensurate with their numbers and leadership ability in the society.

In the chapter entitled “Constitutional Conundrums” a detailed account of attempts at constitutional advancement from 1971 until 2009 is elaborated.

The author provides some detail on these efforts and advances an interesting account of why it took so long for the Cayman Islanders to agree to constitutional modernisation.

The recent elevation of the Legislative Assembly into Parliament has not, to the author’s mind resulted in any more informed and edifying debates. Nor has it brought any relief from the asphyxiating grip of a waning colonial power whose threat of the “nuclear option” is a stark reminder of what will happen to a recalcitrant and upstart colony. As if this were not challenge enough, there is the situation of malfeasance and indiscipline among the membership of the parliament, many of whom view their incumbency as ‘a divine right’. In 2020 several incidents involving one longstanding member cast a blight on the whole institution and as public outrage continues, only one sitting member has consistently expressed unprompted public reprehension. Not even the caustic public remarks and ‘ad hominem’ attacks registered on the Cayman News Service web site were enough to draw a response from the political directorate. The membership of the Parliament seemed paralysed and plagued by a narcissism which is symptomatic of ambitious office holders intoxicated by incumbency and unable to discern ‘moral absolutes’ from ‘situational ethics’. Public outrage notwithstanding, this attitude of arrogance and contempt toward the electors seems to be a common enough sentiment, and one is left to wonder how democracy has become so convoluted. Moral outrage and a sense of decency, it seems have been superseded by disingenuousness, duplicity and self-preservation …making for a dystopic and volatile environment in which truth is denied and justice ignored, and if the current public debate surrounding the fate of Speaker McKeeva Bush is any indication of what is to come … we may be in for a Chernobyl type political meltdown, if only because too many of the current public office holders refuse to shed ‘the arrogance of incumbency’ and hide behind ‘situational ethics’.

The work concludes with the seminal questions as to whether the current Caymanian politicians will live up to the expectations of a society which has developed an appetite for honesty and transparency and whether the ‘arrogance of incumbency’ will pay credence to true democracy by acknowledging an obligation to the electors. It offers the sobering conclusion that Caymanian politicians who think that incumbency will guarantee them relevance will have to prepare themselves for robust challenges from a growing politically literate society, and from an increasingly more educated cadre of young persons who see public life as an attractive and worthy vocation. This new type of political personality is likely to be less enamored by incumbency, more conscious of environmental issues, less influenced by ‘big money’ and high net worth investors, more aware of the roles of education and training and more prone to developing a national vision for the society based upon pluralism and transparency. If this assumption is indeed correct, then the future of Caymanian politics should bring hope and optimism that further political evolution is an inevitability.

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