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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

CayHistory - The deciding factor to stick with Britain: The Applause-o-Meter

It was 1989 and I was still an impressionable lad as I headed into the new basketball arena opened in Charlotte, North Carolina - the Charlotte Coliseum. Home to the NBA's still very new Charlotte Hornets. For it's time, the Coliseum was a state-of-the-art arena complete with  jumbotron, luxury boxes, and, of course, an Applause-o-Meter. If you've never experienced the joys of an applause-o-meter it is essentially a shiny device that makes simpletons (like yours truly) happy. The louder a crowd cheers, the further right the needle of the Applause-o-Meter moves. This is no exact science. Some dude earning minimum wage arbitrarily moves it from quiet to loud to (in the case of an arena featuring Hornets) "BUZZING." People cheered, it measured the 'true' rabidness of a fan, it was cool (please remember it was 1989 and I was still in awe of Tecmo Bowl on my Nintendo Entertainment System...I always used the Chicago Bears btw). Because truth (and thus history) is normally stranger than fiction,  a virtual applause-o-meter played a pivotal role in early 1960s here in Cayman at the precipice a decision that would radically determine the country's future. 

This is the fourth of my series of blog entries on Cayman History & Culture as a way of assisting those of us less familiar with either to be thinking about the people among whom and the place in which we live. Most of this is derived directly from a book I've finally finished: He hath Founded it Upon the Seas: A History of the Cayman Islands and their People by Michael Craton. Today's topic: Deciding Upon Cayman Independence. 

I've elsewhere discussed the strong historical ties between Jamaica and Cayman. even during the 1940s and 50s, the Jamaican legislature could still, in theory, pass laws applicable to the Cayman Islands without consulting Caymanians. 

Winds of Change. In the late 40s and on into the 50s, the winds of change moved Cayman towards a choice. A proposed new federation, headed up by Jamaica, was set forth: The West Indies Federation. Through the West Indies Federation, Cayman would be slowly become independent of Great Britain and politically ally itself more closely with Jamaica and other territories of the British West Indies. Cayman wanted to join if it had direct representation in the Federation legislature. This was rejected by the Standing Closer Association Committee, which in 1949 recommended that the Cayman Islands should continue as a dependency under the administration of the Governor-General of the Federation (ie. Jamaica). Cayman would ultimately have to decided between being subject to the Governor of Jamaica (who was himself subject to Britain...similar to our situation here in Cayman) versus being subject to the Jamaican Government (ie. the Governor-General of the Federation). On July 4 1959, the Cayman Islands received their first written constitution, which exempted them from control of the Jamaican Legislature and situated them under the authority of the Jamaican Governor, who was instructed to visit Cayman at least once a year. All of this sounds nice, but something was about to change...

Jamaican Independence. In September 1961, the time had come to institute this new Federation. But what happened next, few expected. Jamaica's ruling party, headed by Norman Manley, held a referendum as to whether Jamaica would officially be part of the West Indies Federation. But to Manley's own surprise (and it was!), the Jamaican electorate voted narrowly to withdraw from the Federation - Manley then proceeded to secure from the British government an assurance that they would allow Jamaica to become an independent nation, which they did on August 6, 1962. With it died the Federation itself. All of a sudden Cayman had to make a choice. Everyone wanted some level of internal self-government. The question was: Would that be better achieved through its political ties with and under the umbrella of Jamaica or through ties and under the umbrella of Great Britain. 

In this corner. In one corner you had the National Democratic Party (NDP) who wanted, above all else, an internal self-government and thought that could be best achieved under the Jamaican umbrella versus GB. Led by Ormond Panton and Warren Conolly, they targeted the non-whites and women, who were just recently granted rights to vote. They also targeted businessmen who were hurt financially by the success of Ducan Merren. Ducan Merren was the most active member of the biggest trading company in Cayman. Governor Foot wrote in a confidential memo (1956): "They own one of the ships which brings supplies to the Caymans and and though there are one or two other traders (principally the McTaggart family) the Merrens in fact fix all retail prices in the Caymans and there is no other merchant strong enough to stand against them." He goes on to note a major reason for their success is having no income tax. So, naturally, in our other corner you have the Christian Democratic Party (CDP) led by none other than Ducan Merren, Willie Farrington, and Burns Rutty. They doggedly supported links with Britain rather than Jamaica. They tapped into Caymanians more traditional respect for British institutions and leadership as well as their commitment to Christian values. More than anything, they appealed to "Caymanians fear of being dominated by a Jamaica whose standard of living was rapidly falling behind that of the Cayman Islands, and whose population was a hundred times larger and overwhelmingly black" (Craton, 316). In January 1962, Governor Blackburne arrived in Cayman to help resolve the issue by presiding over the vote in the Assembly. It promised to be a very close vote as opinion was sharply divided. That was until the MLAS from the sister islands brought to the Assembly a petition signed by 345 of the 435 registered voters of Cayman Brac and Little Cayman which expressed that if Grand Cayman decided to remain with an independent Jamaica, the Sister islands would pursue separate Crown Colony Status under Britain. 

The Decision. I'll let Craton tell the rest as this is where history is determined, as it often is, by a bizarre moment.
When Tibbetts presented the petition to the Governor at the Town Hall, Blackburne scrupulously inquired if the petitioners were registered voters. "Yes, your Honour," Tibbetts replied, producing a registered voters list from his pocket. Turning to Commissioner Rose, Blackburne was heard to remark, "Do we need to go further?...This can't be overlooked."  At the climax of the afternoon session, the crowd avidly listened to impassioned speeches by the leading proponents of each side. Ormond Panton put the case for a Jamaican connection, and his NDP colleague spoke for the British link. In a memorable judgment that Ormond Panton was later to call one of the "most undemocratic and dictatorial steps ever taken in the British Commonwealth," Governor Blackburne wound up the meeting by announcing that, having listened to the volume of applause given by the people to the two speakers, he believed the British case had clearly been won.
 In other words, Governor Blackburne assumed the role of the dude operating the Applause-o-Meter and using his arm as a pretend applause-o-meter (like was used to do at summer camp and at Young Life) tipped the needle towards Great Britain. And so it is, in large part, that we are where we are today as the 5th largest banking centre in the world.


Does that comfort or disturb you? If the latter, recall there are other occasions in the world's history resulting in good that have hinged on items seemingly far more trivial or just far worse (for worse, see the black plague giving rise to capitalism). Sometimes you just got to lift up your hands and be grateful to Providence for using a primitive, human Applause-o-Meter. 

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