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Then and Now: From the sea to offshore

Cover Stories 16 Sep, 2019 Follow News

Then and Now: From the sea to offshore

Our new series takes us back in time to appreciate how far we have come as a nation. This week we focus on the development of industry in the Islands.


By Lindsey Turnbull


Living on a tiny island in the middle of the Western Caribbean Sea, the only way Cayman’s early settlors could envision their fortunes being made was by sea. According to records, Caymanians began building boats for both trading and fishing as Cayman headed into the 19th Century. Mahogany was prolific on the island so boat builders turned to that medium for boat building. The first ship commercially built on Grand Cayman was the ‘Hennen’ built by James Page around 1860. Cayman-built boats were renowned for their quality throughout the region and were used for carrying cargo, mail and pleasure, but the majority were used as turtling schooners. The industry died in the late 1940s when Caymanians went to sea with big shipping companies that paid much more. According to various records, famous local ship building family names included Bodden, Arch, McTaggart, Foster, Ritch, Kirkconnell and Miller and in Cayman Brac the Scotts and Tibbets.


Cayman was also renowned for the strong rope it was able to make from the Silver Thatch tree that grew here (and is Cayman’s National Tree). Caymanians exported the rope to Jamaica in particular and according to Cayman Islands National Archives’ records, in 1907 515,000 fathoms were exported at five pounds a hundred fathoms, going up to 15 pounds per hundred fathoms just two years later. The sale of rope provided the only income for many families at the time.


A natural progression from the boat building industry, and also as a result of Cayman’s plentiful supplies, was the catching of turtles, to be used and consumed locally or to be sold to passing ships. But by the late 19th century Cayman’s stock of turtles was depleted and turtlers had to go to the cays and banks of Central America in search of turtles, an often-perilous voyage that was made even more dangerous by the prevalence of hurricanes in the Caribbean.


Industry takes a new route


In 1966 the passing of the Banks and Trust Companies Regulation Law was to make the most profound impact on industry that the islands had ever experienced, and would pave the way, in just a few decades’ time, for a massive shift in careers for local people. This law allowed the licensing and supervision of institutions looking to carry out general banking or trust business (Category A licenced) or offshore business only (Category B licenced).


In 1953 the first commercial bank opened its doors in Dr Roy McTaggart’s dental parlour on South Church Street, a sub-branch of Barclays Bank of Jamaica.


Cayman has since gone on to develop into one of the world’s most successful offshore financial centres, excelling at the establishment of investment funds and captive insurance companies. According to statistics from the Economic and Statistics Office, in 2017 there were 40,856 people in employment in the Cayman Islands, the vast majority (just over 29,000) were employed in some kind of clerical, service or professional capacity and only just over a thousand employed in skilled fishery/agriculture positions.


Tourism in Cayman was tremendously boosted by the development of the Owen Roberts International Airport in 1953 on Grand Cayman. The industry was officially recognised in the Cayman Islands in 1965 with the passing of the Tourist Board Law, creating an entity designed to promote Cayman as a vacation destination. According to CINA records, Commissioner Sir Alan Cardinall who served in Cayman from 1934 to 1941, thought “Grand Cayman has what is probably the most perfect bathing beach in the West Indies”, while Commissioner Andrew Morris Gerrard (1952–1956) was recorded as stating that Grand Cayman’s greatest asset after its “invisible export of seamen, was the stretch of white sand on Seven Mile Bay”.


Cayman’s tourism industry has grown tremendously since the early legislation as passed, with Seven Mile Beach being voted one of the best beaches in the world in recent years, proving those early commissioners correct in their assessments. Some of the world’s top hotels and resorts have accommodation in Cayman, with both the Hilton and Hyatt brands slated for development here in the near future. The more than two million visitors to Cayman (as at the end of 2017) would most certainly also agree.


In 2017 there were 63,415 residents in Cayman, 35,878 of whom were Caymanian and 27,537 of whom were not, indicating the high level of immigration that has occurred over recent years to accommodate Cayman’s growing industries of both financial services and tourism.

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