By Lindsey Turnbull
Our latest series of Then and Now articles will take readers on a tour of Cayman’s most iconic and endearing buildings. We begin with the oldest structure in Cayman, Pedro St James, a popular attraction and culturally significant National Historic Site that sits high about the ocean in Spotts.
Legends, superstitions and stories surround the magnificent Pedro St James Great House, one of which is that it was built in 1631 by a Spanish settlor named Pedro Gomez sent to Cayman from Jamaica to colonise Cayman, hence the ‘Pedro’ aspect to its name. But the original Great House was actually built in 1780 by an Englishman called William Eden who came to Cayman in 1765 from Jamaica with his second wife, Elizabeth Clark, and, using slave labour, built a spacious home for the two of them, while farming the adjoining land as a plantation. The house was named St James Castle.
The house was three stories tall and well-fortified, built with 3ft thick walls made out of coral rock quarried nearby, along with extended verandas, large shuttered windows and a slate roof. The slate was brought to Cayman from England as ballast on sailing ships and was also used on the ground floor and upper floors. The dual flight of entry stairs was a typical design feature of stately homes of that era, while the entire plantation house-style design reflected the great houses of Jamaica and other Caribbean countries.
The ground floor was open on all sides and housed parties, games and dances and on this level the cookroom serviced the entire house with its fireside hearth and bake oven. The upper floors were used as dining or entertainment areas and bedrooms were on the top floor.
Eden passed the house on to his son, William Eden II. In 1800 he then sold the house to the Public Recorder, James Coe, for 120 pounds sterling, who used the house for official functions as well as a residence. Coe then sold it back to Eden around 1822 and in 1823 the house was used as a courthouse and jailhouse for the island. In 1824 Coe requested that the Governor of Jamaica supply Cayman with arms to protect itself against pirates, contributing to the iconic “castle” image and immortalised by the canons set in its grounds.
Birthplace of Democracy
Two major events took place at Pedro St James in the following decade, about which present day students read in their history books: the decision to form the Islands’ first elected parliament on 5th December 1831, closely followed by the issue of the proclamation to end slavery in the British Empire on 3 May 1835, cementing the site’s role as the ‘Birthplace of Democracy in the Cayman Islands’.
After William Eden II died, the house was a residence for his heirs and family, but in 1877, his granddaughter, Mary Jane Eden, was killed at the site by a bolt of lightening, and thereafter the house became abandoned with fears that it was an unlucky place in which to live. The house fell into disrepair and was only renovated again in 1914 by the Hurlston family, but then was abandoned again in 1920.
In 1959 part of the property was bought by Thomas Hubble who lived there until 1963. Hubbell carved the date 1631 on the entrance arch and promoted the idea it was built by a Spaniard who had once housed the famous pirate Henry Morgan. From 1967 it became a restaurant but fire burnt the place down in 1970. It reopened as a restaurant in 1974 until the 1980s when the restaurant went bankrupt and was damaged by a hurricane and another fire.
In 1991, the property was purchased by the Cayman Islands Government for development as an historic site, employing a Canadian firm to develop a restoration and interpretation plan for the site in conjunction with the Historic Sites Committee, which include the National Archives, the National Museum and the National Trust. That work concluded in the latter part of the 20th century at a cost of approximately $8 million and produced the historic site that exists today, opening in December 1998.
Today, visitors can enjoy the beauty of the Great House, carefully restored to its former glory, as well as a 20-minute presentation at the Pedro Theatre, complete with lighting, vapors, wind, and water effects, a multi-sensory experience that helps visitors appreciate the lives of the early settlers. A Hurricane Ivan memorial, stamp room and rum tastings all add to the enjoyment of the visit, while many important events and functions have been held at Pedro St James, including it being the site at which Prince Charles officiated at a special ceremonial evening along with his wife, Camilla, when the royals visited Cayman in March 2019.