The National Gallery is celebrating the Cayman Islands’ seafaring heritage with an exhibition titled Founded Upon the Seas. Some of those who spent their youth working at sea agreed to share some of their experiences with the Observer on Sunday.
John Douglas, president of the Cayman Islands Seafarers’ Association, was 20 when he first joined a ship, with no experience. “I never considered anything else. There was nothing else to do. The busiest work here was killing mosquitoes,” he said laughing. “You could maybe get a few days work in a month on the cultivations, but that was it. At Christmas time the government would give out money for cleaning the roads so everybody would get a few days work then, to buy some meat [for the holidays].”
If Caymanian men wanted to be able to provide regularly for their families, there was no option but to go to sea. A contract on a ship would generally last a year with no leave during that time. Despite being away from home for months at a time, Douglas says he and most of the others loved the job.
Most Caymanians, he says, went to work for National Bulk Carriers so he was always surrounded by familiar faces. “The majority of the crew was Caymanian and they worked their way up so that after a time there were Caymanian captains, chief engineers and officers.” The living conditions were comfortable, they were well fed and they earned a fair wage.
A few, however, sailed on the local ships that went turtling in the Mosquito Cays. “I think that was the worst kind of seafaring you could do. The ships would leave the men on those cays and they would pitch a camp and live there until the ships returned to pick them up again, maybe two weeks later.”
Douglas began his career at sea as an ordinary seaman in 1955. “You’d be working on deck, chipping, painting and cleaning. You just did as you were told,” he recalls. It was hard work but that was nothing new to the generations who grew up in a less prosperous Cayman. “Everybody was poor then.... We used to make rope for a living to buy groceries. In the morning before you went to school or when you came back in the afternoon, you had to help lay the rope. You’d coil it up, take it to the shop and you’d get five shillings for 50 fathoms. That would buy you flour, sugar and lard and anything left over you’d get back in change.”
“I left here with one ambition and that was to build a house for my mother. That was all I had in my mind,” says Douglas. Within three years he had purchased a piece of land in North Side for US$100 and built her a house. That was the first house in the neighbourhood with jalousie glass windows – all the others had wooden windows.
Returning to the ships Douglas studied, gained the necessary qualifications and worked his way up to chief officer. Over the years he worked on everything from cargo ships to passenger liners, literally travelling the world. “On my first trip I went to Brazil, Norway, Europe and all around the West Indies,” he recalls. “When we arrived in Norway it was summer time. There, the night lasted about an hour and a half. The sun went down and came right back up. I never saw nothing like that before.”
His first experience of extreme tides also bemused him. “We arrived in St John’s, Newfoundland and tied up alongside the dock. The next morning when I woke up there was no water by the ship and people were going across from one side to the other with their buggies and horses. That was the funniest thing in the world to me.”
A life at sea is not without its hair-raising moments though. On his second ship, aged 21, Douglas was caught in a hurricane that ultimately sank several other ships. “We were going from New Orleans to Rotterdam when we were caught in this storm. Oh my God -men were crying like boys. One Caymanian [who had previously received a medal for bravery from the Queen] swore if he made it to port he would never go back to sea again. And he never did,” he says. The captain turned the ship so that the stern faced into the wind. “I remember when the waves would come under the stern of the ship it would lift the stern up and the bow would go down into the water. All you could see in front of you was blue sea, and I remember the captain saying, ‘Oh my God. I wonder if she’s going to come back up next time’.”
As an officer on a passenger liner, life was very different. There, he mixed with film stars and musicians, drank for free at the ship’s bars and enjoyed a glamorous life. “I had to pinch myself and ask ‘Is this really real, John?’” he says. It was on that ship he met his current wife and, although the two lived in Corpus Christi, Texas, for four years, Douglas never liked it. “I hated the United States from the first day I arrived,” he says. “My first trip there was from New York to Mobile, Alabama. When I got down on the dock and went to the bathrooms there was one that said ‘white’ and one that said ‘colored’. And then I saw how white Americans treated black Americans. I’d never seen anything like that, because in Cayman we were all one.”
After all the years at sea, the adventures and the numerous countries he has visited, Douglas, like so many of his fellow seafarers, chose to return to Cayman to live. He saw the world, and decided Cayman was the best it had to offer. “I love this Island,” he says simply.