One of the Network’s objectives is to connect historians working on similar topics or geographic areas. Our Researcher Map documents where our members have carried out archival research and here on the blog members write about their archival work, drawing attention to important archival resources, providing helpful advice, or discussing how the preservation of and access to archival material is often linked to broader social, political, and economic issues. So if you’ve been somewhere interesting for archival work, whether in the U.K., Europe, the U.S. or further afield, then we want to hear about it.
In the first of our blogs on this topic Dr Daniel Spence discusses how social and economic changes in Cayman Islands have contributed to a drive to preserve the islands’ heritage through the creation of an impressive oral history collection.
It’s fair to say that most people’s view of the Cayman Islands probably resembles something from a Duran Duran video; a Caribbean playground for sun-kissed nouveau-riche playboys on private yachts, smoking Cuban cigars and quaffing champagne bought from hedge funds, tax evasion, and shady financial dealing, while the rest of us (impoverished historians), a layer of dust coating our archival pallor, are shamelessly left to self-promotional blogging in the forlorn hope that someone with real power and money might actually notice and give us a job! Yet, these two worlds are not quite as disconnected as they may seem. Historians actually have a lot of reason to thank the bankers (begrudgingly) because it was the seismic social and economic changes they helped usher in that indirectly stimulated efforts to preserve Cayman’s cultural heritage.
Local legend has it that the Islands’ tax free status originates in 1794, when on the 8 February 10 British ships led by HMS Convert were wrecked off the East End of Grand Cayman. The local residents were able to rescue all but eight of the passengers and crew, leading King George III to express his gratitude by declaring that the Islanders would thenceforth be free from conscription and taxes, or so the story goes…
No documentation, however, exists in support of this and it was not until after the introduction of the Companies and Trust Laws of the 1960s that the Cayman Islands became one of the world’s leading offshore financial centres. A population of just 10,000 in 1970 has grown to almost six times that number today, with only 50% of these residents Caymanian, and supplemented by an additional 1.5 million tourists arriving annually, often aboard cruise ships. In the wake of this social and economic transformation ‘the old ways began to be forgotten and, indeed, in the minds of some, grew the idea that Cayman did not have a culture of its own, which in turn led to a sort of cultural inferiority complex’.[i] Concerns about losing the Islands’ heritage meant a law was passed in 1979 to establish a Cayman Islands National Museum on Grand Cayman (housed in Georgetown’s Old Courthouse since 1991). Yet, many efforts were led by volunteers on the ground; inhabitants of Cayman Brac, known as ‘Brackers’, established their own small museum at Stake Bay,[ii] while other Caymanians began recording interviews with older residents on audio tape. Their efforts evolved into the ‘Memory Bank’, recognized by Government and incorporated into the Cayman Islands National Archive (CINA) in 1991,[iii] which moved to its current location a year later.
Though the CINA holds Government and legal records, locally-published newspapers, magazines and rare books, personal diaries, letters, photographs, film, and maps, arguably its richest and most unique resource is its oral history collection. 67 tapes in 1990 grew into 988 by 1998, including 874 transcriptions.[iv] This featured interviews dating back to 1978, while new ones continue to be regularly added, including those I recorded in July 2010 with three of the Islands’ last surviving veterans from the Second World War: William Harvey Ebanks, Carley Ebanks, and Thomas Ewart Ebanks (sadly only Ewart remains with us, seen below fifth from left). These meetings were arranged with the kind and passionate support of the Cayman Islands Veterans Association.
I spent three weeks on research in Grand Cayman during July 2010, though I began my preparations in January. Thankfully, the CINA’s web presence is much better than many other archives I’ve worked in (even appearing on youtube now), while an email address is listed in the Imperial War Museum’s guide for tracing West Indian servicemen – though this otherwise useful document fails to mention its oral history recordings. Impressively, I received a reply from one of the archivists within a week. Her assistance was invaluable as it became clear just how large their oral history collection was, and over several emails and weeks she produced a bespoke document of interview summaries and references directly relevant to my research. This allowed me to hit the ground running once I entered the building.
Unfortunately this was where I encountered my only real problem of the trip. If anything, it was actually disadvantageous getting everything organised so far ahead. When I did arrive four months later, I encountered what was essentially a construction site with no public access to the main entrance, no indication as to whether anyone was actually in the building, and had no phone to call them. After prowling the perimeter in the hot Caribbean sun, I finally managed to find one of the construction workers and convince him to try and contact someone inside the building for me. Eventually one of the archivists popped her head out from the top floor, somewhat surprised, and told me the colleague I’d been corresponding with was on maternity leave, there was no record of my appointment, and they were closed to general visits during the renovation work. As appealing as the prospect of having nothing to do but lie on a beach for 3 weeks was, I implored that I had spent a fortune travelling all the way from the UK to research my PhD there, and she eventually told me to return after the weekend.
Thankfully when I did, everything proceeded smoothly and productively. You need to present your passport or driver’s licence to receive a free Reader’s ticket. Usually no more than a couple of people are using the archives at the same time and often for shorter periods, not the whole day (though they have occasional school visits), so an archivist is almost always close at hand to assist and documents are retrieved quickly. You’re allowed to use laptops and can access a plug, though you can’t use a camera freely; anything you want to photograph will be charged and needs archival approval, or you can pay for a photocopy. Very conveniently, the oral history transcriptions are shelved in the main reading room, allowing you to consult them at your leisure. As the aim of the Memory Bank was to preserve the traditional ways of life for the Islanders, the majority of interviews are recorded in the form of autobiographical narratives, but specific subjects can be identified through the physical catalogue which contains summaries and keywords.
Very little academic historical study has been conducted on the Cayman Islands, despite the rich possibilities these sources offer. Geographic isolation, lack of terrestrial resources, and no significant plantation economy meant that for centuries the Caymans remained ‘the islands that time forgot’.[v] Yet, these very limitations drove Caymanians to make use of the only resource available to them – the sea. Maritime traditions evolved around boatbuilding, rope-making, turtling and sharking, with Caymanian fishermen forging transnational connections along the Mosquito Coast of modern-day Honduras and Nicaragua. These nautical skills meant Caymanians were sought-after as seamen for the Royal and Merchant Navies during the Second World War, providing the largest contribution per capita of any country in that global conflict.[vi] The professional experience and reputation gained by these men, and the wider networks it exposed them to, provided post-war employment aboard bulk carriers and tankers all over the world.
The changing political status of the Cayman Islands also offers some interesting research possibilities. The Cayman Islands were governed as a dependency of Jamaica, posing a potential study of sub-imperialism; until the dissolution of the Federation of the West Indies in 1962 saw the Islanders elect to become a dependency of the United Kingdom, which they remain today, presenting a paradoxical case of ‘re-colonisation’ at time of sweeping global decolonisation. Whilst opening the Caymans up to international finance has increased their economic status, generating the highest standard of living in the Caribbean and attracting younger immigrants, it also created a disparity in wealth for older Caymanians rooted to the Islands.
These social, economic and political transformations raise some important questions for historians of British imperialism. What has been the impact of this immigration, primarily from the US, on Caymanian identity, particularly with regard to the UK, Queen, and notions of ‘Britishness’? And how do the National Archives and other ‘local’ cultural institutions contribute to the continuation of this imperial connection?
These are important questions and could easily complement wider projects on decolonisation and post-imperial identity and connections. The Cayman Islands National Archive is therefore an enticing resource for imperial and global historians: with its largely untapped, rare and well-organised collection of primary sources, helpful archival staff (in undeniably pleasant surroundings), it’s the perfect destination for ‘academic tourists’!
Opening times and contact details:
9am – 4.30pm, Monday to Friday (last appointment at 3.30pm)
Tel: +1 345 949 9809
Fax: +1 345 949 9727
[i] Heather R. McLaughlin, ‘The Cayman Islands Memory Bank: Collecting and Preserving Oral History in Small Island Societies’, in John McIllwaine and Jean I. Whiffin (eds.), Collecting and Safeguarding the Oral Traditions: An International Conference (Munich, 2001), p.113.
[ii] Roger C. Smith, The Maritime Heritage of the Cayman Islands (Florida, 2000), pp.179-80.
[v] Michael Craton, Founded Upon the Seas: A History of the Cayman Islands and Their People (Kingston, 2003), p.253.
[vi] For more see Daniel Owen Spence, ‘“They had the sea in their blood”: Caymanian naval volunteers in the Second World War’, in Nir Arielli and Bruce Collins (eds.), Transnational Soldiers: Foreign Military Enlistment in the Modern Era (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).