By Christopher Tobutt
Few people have contributed more to the Cayman Islands that Robert Hamaty, who sadly passed away on the morning of Saturday 13 June at the Baptist Health Center in Florida. The 72-year-old Jamaican-born businessman and former pilot, who made the Cayman Islands his home for 42 years, was a well-known and much-loved and respected public figure across the islands. The company he founded, Tortuga Rum, became an iconic feature of Cayman tourism and produced the country’s largest export, Tortuga rum cakes, with store fronts throughout the islands.
Although he was known mostly in Cayman as a very successful businessman and entrepreneur, Mr. Hamaty has filled other roles, too. He was Honorary Jamaican Consul in the Cayman Islands for many years. He supported the whole community, and was known by many a business mentor and a generous, kind-hearted friend.
Mr. Hamaty began his career as a professional airline pilot. Mr. Hamaty’s father was a prominent attorney with a large sugar plantation in Westmoreland, Jamaica, who began flying in the early 1960’s. He would take Robert along with him as he flew to his court cases. At the age of 17, Robert enrolled in the Embry-Riddle Flying School in Florida. A year later, after he received his pilot’s license, he returned to Jamaica, where he got a job flying fairly small four-engine Heron aircraft with the Jamaica Air Service.
After he had amassed 3,500 hours’ experience, Mr. Hamaty Joined Air Jamaica. After attending Montreal Ground School, he was hired as a co-pilot in one of the biggest airplanes in the world at that time, the DC-8. “Then they moved me onto the smaller airplane, the DC-9, where I became the youngest person ever promoted to captain. I was 24 years of age,” Mr. Hamaty said.
“I had knowledge that the Cayman Islands had just bought a BAC 111, so I contacted them… and asked if there was any possibility of flying for them,” he said. After a successful interview, Mr. Hamaty spent 14 years as a pilot for Cayman Airways, much of it involved with helping to train new pilots.
One day Mr. Hamaty had an idea: “I saw people coming out of Bermuda with this ‘Goslings Rum,’ but when I took off and flew over Bermuda I didn’t see any sugar factories. So when I got back to Jamaica I asked people in the rum industry where it came from and they said, ‘That’s our rum; we ship the rum from here and they bottle it.’ Mr. Hamaty then went to talk over his plans for his own brand of rum with some executives belonging to the Wray & Nephew rum company in Jamaica. After much discussion, a unique blend of rum was developed for Mr. Hamaty’s new company, and the first shipment of Tortuga Rum arrived in December 1984.
In 1991, Mr. Hamaty picked up a very severe flu virus that resulted in a damaged heart, and a lost pilot’s license. “They told me how bad the damage was and after about five year they figured I’d need a heart transplant,” Mr. Hamaty said. The transplant came in 1996, “I was six and a half weeks in Jackson Hospital. Not knowing whether I was going to live or die was a quite intense part of my life,” he recalled. The operation was a success, however, and soon Mr. Hamaty left hospital, grateful for the new life he had been given.
The one thing that everyone said about him at his 70th birthday party was that he ‘always helps others, whenever he can.’ It was a phrase you heard over and over again. Mr. Hamaty was a shining example to us all - a very successful businessman who wanted everyone around him to share in his success and happiness.