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Speech

Going to sea was a way of life back then; it was also a rite of passage for young men who more often than not started their careers in their mid-teens.

Premier Hon. Alden McLaughlin

Published 25th January 2021, 10:0am

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls; good morning.

I thank you for joining us as we continue to celebrate our National Heroes and honour our Seafaring Heritage.

We started our celebrations in Cayman Brac on Saturday where we paid tribute to the seafarers from Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. Yesterday we were at Pedro St James celebrating seafarers from the districts of Bodden Town, East End and North Side. And today we pay tribute to our great seafarers from George Town and West Bay.

There was a time when every Caymanian male was expected to go to sea. Going to sea was a way of life back then; it was also a rite of passage for young men who more often than not started their careers in their mid-teens. Being called to join a ship was a time for leaving boyhood behind and starting the journey to becoming an adult, making an honest living and helping provide for your family. Equally important, it was also an opportunity to make something meaningful of your life. I grew up in a time when it was still considered that a life at sea would make the poorest of boys a good man.

And so, from time immemorial, Caymanians from all three Islands looked to the sea for a livelihood and sustenance and also for enjoyment.

We have a rich seafaring heritage of which every Caymanian today is still justly proud.

Caymanians were not only renowned seafarers but also excellent builders of magnificent schooners, ships, and boats of all sizes. These were all incredible sailing vessels. Two that instantly come to mind for many Caymanians are the CIMBOCO, built in 1927, and the Goldfield, built in 1930. There were many more.

There was a time when Caymanian boats with Caymanian captains and crews plied the waters - fished, ranged for turtles and carried goods and people to and from our Islands, and sailed across the western Caribbean to Jamaica, Cuba, Central and South America and the southern United States.

Some have surmised that it was our relative isolation, when we were considered the Islands that time forgot, that drove the need for our forebears to become such excellent shipwrights, master mariners and sailors. Whatever the reason, undoubtedly our great seafaring heritage is intrinsically linked to the Caymanian pioneering spirit.

To my right, here in Heroes Square, is a sculpture of the famed Caymanian Catboat, that in my view, can be considered the epitome of that pioneering spirit and our boat building craftsmanship. As many may know our distinctive Caymanian catboat was designed and built in 1904 by Capt. Daniel Jervis on Cayman Brac, but in no time at all the design was copied and in use throughout all three Islands.

So excellent was the maneuverability of the humble Catboat that it became the vessel of choice for Caymanians during the first half of the 20th Century - not just for turtling or fishing but also for transport of goods and people. Indeed, I have heard the catboat referred to as the pickup trucks of yesteryear.  Given the role they also played in getting people ‘to and fro’ I would add that they were the minibus of yesteryear as well.

The presence of the sculpture of the Caymanian catboat on these grounds is an affirmation of the significance of that vessel to Caymanian life and livelihood during the first half of the 20th Century.

I commend Kem Jackson, Jerris Miller and Ned Miller III, and all members of the Cayman Islands Catboat Club, for their important work keeping the Caymanian catboat tradition alive.

It is said that over 300 schooners and ships were built in these Islands during our glorious shipbuilding years.

But by the end of World War II, fewer Caymanian schooners and boats were being built and our men took to working onboard foreign ships.

In the late 1940s, the 1950s, 1960s and up until the early 1970s many hundreds of Caymanian men left home for better pay on merchant ships, particularly the large bulk carriers and tankers owned by National Bulk Carriers. The increased income earned on these vessels not only supported the needs of families at home but also greatly improved their lives and in so doing boosted the development of all three Cayman Islands.

We cannot recall our Seafaring Heritage without paying homage to Miss Gwendolyn Bush, the matriarch of Cayman seafarers. Miss Gwen worked for Pan Carib Agencies, which was the agent for National Bulk Carriers and other shipping companies.

It was Miss Gwen who received the telegraphs from the shipping companies stating what seafarers were needed and it was she who told the ‘men’ that they had gotten 'the call'.

She made sure that passports and all the necessary documents were in order for the men to sail. At any given time, there were hundreds of Caymanians at sea and to Miss Gwen, they were all her boys; boys because most of them were 16 when they joined their first ship.

We also must remember Rosingdell Bodden, better known as Capt. Dell, of George Town. He was a bit older at 35 when he joined National Bulk, but he started going to sea with his father, a mate on the Webster cargo ships, at the tender age of 15. Capt. Dell had a storied career working on ships owned by Texaco Oil, the Standard Fruit Company and the United Fruit Company. He also served in the British Royal Navy, serving on minesweepers. By 1944 he attained the position of Chief Petty Officer and he is thought to be the only known Caribbean-born Commissioned Officer to serve in the British Royal Navy during World War II.

It is said that while sailing with National Bulk Carriers as a Chief Mate he befriended Captain Merrill Southwell and Daniel Ludwig, the owner of National Bulk. He told them about Caymanian seamen and their staunch work ethic. They were impressed, and as they say, the rest is history.

In 1998 Capt. Dell was cited by the Cayman Islands Seafarers Association for his contribution to our economic development through seafaring.

As part of our celebrations, we are looking to discover the names of all Caymanians who today still carry on our seafaring tradition. Two that we are aware still working are Capt. Radley Scott, our last known captain who is still at sea, and Gentry Lee Tatum who is sailing on articulated tug barges in the United States.

Both Capt Scott and Gentry are from Cayman Brac.

Though we no longer have hundreds of seafarers still active at sea, the Cayman Islands still plays a pivotal role globally on the maritime stage with our Cayman Islands Shipping Registry, which provides flag-state services to ship owners and their vessels.

The registry was begun in 1903 and from its records, we are able to learn a great deal about the history and tradition of the Cayman Islands' seafaring and maritime industry. Through the early schooners such as the Explicit, built and owned by Joseph Taylor Ritch of Cayman Brac in 1916 to the Armistice, built in 1918 and others that were involved in the turtle trade that, alongside thatch rope, were our first real means of international commerce. Turtles and thatch rope were for many years our chief exports.

Those boats, along with the names of Nunoca, Cimboco, Lady Slater, the Arbutus, Clara C. Scott, Goldfield and many, many others found in our shipping registry, remind us not only of the incredible numbers of boats built in our Islands but also how significant they were to commerce and the vital sea links for transporting people and freight.

Few may be aware that the Lady Slater, because of her size, today could be classified in the same category as a superyacht - she was used to run the Kingston, Cayman and Tampa route to carry people as well as freight.

In recalling these great ships, we are reminded of our famed Caymanian boat builders such as James Arch, Rayal Bodden, Joseph Ritch, Keith Tibbetts, John Miller and many others. They are all being honoured and remembered this weekend.

We must remember and honour the history of our great ships and shipbuilders as well as our brave seafarers – they are an integral part of our proud history. A history that reminds us how much we owe to that great generation of Caymanian men and women.

It has been reported that during the so-called Southwell Years, over 2,000 Caymanian men sailed every sea and ocean in the world.

The Cayman Islands Government Report for the Years 1953-54 provides good insight into the number of Caymanian men at sea in the 1950s when it noted, Quote "The business of the Dependency nowadays is the export of seafaring men". Unquote.

Succinct but true.

So important was the economic activity created by our seafarers and the allotments that they sent home that our first commercial bank, Barclays Bank, started operations here. As our economy grew, and as tourism and the construction sectors were beginning, our seafarers were able to use the skills learned aboard ship to get work at home, or to start businesses, and so the need to go to sea for a living dwindled.

Seafaring that served as the backbone of the Cayman economy well into the late 20th Century increasingly became unattractive as a way of life. It was a tough and dangerous job that left fathers separated from their families for many months, and at times for years. And so, our seafaring way of life gave way as opportunities at home increased.

Nonetheless, the seafaring period of our history remains stitched into our very being. We are reminded of it everywhere, in the stories still repeated at family gatherings; and even in our national symbols.

Our Coat of Arms with three stars, representing our three Islands, resting on blue and white 'waves' above the words from Psalm 24 "He Hath Founded It Upon The Seas" remind us of it.

Our National Song, 'Beloved Isle Cayman', written by Mrs Leila Ross-Shier of blessed memory, speaks poignantly to being in far off lands and longing for home.

I am sure in many ways the words in that great song express how our seafarers must have felt on board ship, far from home and counting down the days until returning to their beloved islands 'set in blue Caribbean Sea'.

Cayman Brac's own, and indeed the Cayman Islands own, Andy Martin also summed up these feelings in his popular song 'Letter from Sea' and I look forward to hearing from him shortly. "Letter from Sea was not only a hit song in our islands but was also very popular in the jukeboxes of seaports from Honduras and Nicaragua through the Southern USA.

I thank all of you who took time out on this holiday Monday to be with us here today to honour our Seafaring men and women.

I thank those whose hard work has made these celebrations possible – Minister Seymour and Acting Chief Officer Nellie Pouchie and the staff in the Ministry responsible for Culture, Cabinet Secretary Samuel Rose, the Protocol Office, the Celebrate Cayman Committee, and the many others on Cayman Brac and in Grand Cayman who have given of their time and talents.

I also thank the members of the Cayman Island Seafarers Association in Grand Cayman as well as the members of the Veteran's and Seafarers Association of Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, for not only helping make this Heroes Day a success but also for the work you do every day to keep our seafaring heritage alive and to provide assistance and camaraderie to our seafarers. I thank the members of both organisations for your service.

I have two important announcements to make regarding two aspects of our year-long celebration of our Seafaring Heritage that will help to permanently memorialize the seafaring heritage that these islands are so proud of.

The first is that in the coming months we will rename Harbour Drive to Seafarers Way to celebrate and highlight our seafaring heritage and the points of significance along the George Town harbour front.

The second is that we will develop Seafarers Park with groundbreaking next month. The park, to be located on the site of what was known as the Tower Bulding, will create a downtown public space where the community can gather, play and be inspired by our Seafaring Heritage through design and installations. These will include a bust of Miss Gwen Bush in recognition of her contributions to our seafaring legacy.

Later in the programme today we will also add new busts of our National Heroes to Heroes Square. We will memorialize Mr Ormond Patton, Mr William Warren Connolly and Ms Evelyn Wood.

And this year I am also very excited to let you know that the Cabinet has decided to name a new National Hero – Leila McTaggart Ross-Shier.

This honour recognizes the significance of her contributions as a patriot and nation builder. Not only was Mrs Ross-Shier renowned for our national Song Beloved Isle Cayman, but she was also the author of many poems that reflected the Caymanian people, our spirit and our life.

She first penned Beloved Isle Cayman in 1930 and the song was recognized as our official song in 1993. It is treasured as our national song not only because of its unique style but the words also engender much pride, emotion and patriotism in the hearts and minds of all Caymanians and everyone who calls our beloved Isles home. I know that I am filled with a sense of pride every time I hear our national song.

I am pleased to name Mrs Ross-Shier our newest National Hero.

As we honour and celebrate the efforts and achievements of those who have gone before us and those still with us contributing to the well-being of our Islands, let us also acknowledge the blessings of the present and look to the promise of the future with excitement, expectation and optimism.

Before I close, I wish to read a few words that in my view speak eloquently of our glorious seafaring heritage. These words are from a document titled "Vessels Built and Owned in the Cayman Islands" that is part of an interview in August 1988, of Mr Heber Arch as interviewed by Mrs Arthurlyn Pedley.

I quote: "The days of sailing are long past for most of these proud ships – but their memories will live on in the chronicles and in the hearts of the people who remember the thrill of sighting a gleaming white sail on the horizon … a tiny speck, which promised the return of men long at sea, husbands, fathers, sons or friends.

"The ships still come and the men still return, but seldom can you see the stately beauty of ship under full sail, her sticks thrusting skyward, and her sails straining to move her homeward… and the cry, which still could bring a thrill to the stoutest seamen in this snug Cayman harbour, 'Sail Ho'."

May God bless you all and may He continue to bless these Cayman Islands that He hath founded on the seas and established upon the floods.