The Federation fails, the party triumphs: The British West Indian Federation and Cayman’s first political parties

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This article by Dr.Livingston Smith appeared in Cayman Net News.

Joseph LaPalombara, a key student of political parties, classifies them as either formed by people working inside the established legislative process, or by those working from outside. Modern Caribbean political parties fall in the latter category

Internationally, political factions evolved into political parties. From the modern Caribbean context, they were formed in response to the disturbing socio-economic situations of the late 1930s. However, in the case of the Cayman Islands, the formation of political parties had to await the failure of the West Indian Federation.

Each country, being unique, has its own political practices, expectations and objective realities. The Cayman Islands shares much of its history with the larger Caribbean, but in many instances, it stands alone. For example, its men, traditionally geniuses at seamanship, took shipbuilding to a higher level than inhabitants of the surrounding islands.

It should be no one’s surprise that political parties were delayed in their arrival in the Cayman Islands. It is a country that has historically placed more emphasis on economic survival and development than to political maturity. It was against the context of the eventual failure of the federation that Cayman’s first political parties were formed. A discussion of the relationship between Cayman and the Federation is needed to fully understand the reasons for the formation of parties in these islands. I attempt do so in this and the following article.

In 1956 the British Parliament passed the British Caribbean Federation Act, which established the West Indies Federal Government.

Britain wanted to federate the islands to centralise their administration in preparation for the eventual independence of all 10 countries as a single unit. West Indian political leaders saw the West Indian Federation as a political avenue to gain independence. Eric Williams in 1958, for example, said that he hoped that the federation would be the instrument through which the British Caribbean colonies would achieve political independence. This was also the desire of the other local political elites in the other islands.

During the Federal Experiment, Cayman, a dependency of Jamaica, did not have a seat in the Federal legislature. However, the country was very much integrated within the British West Indian Federation by virtue of her being a dependency of Jamaica.

For example, Oneil Hall a graduate student examining the Jamaica/Cayman historical linkages, explains that in 1957, the Cayman Islands Assembly passed a resolution transferring civil appeals from the Grand Court to the Federal Supreme Court instead of the Court of Appeal of Jamaica, the latter being reserved to deal only with criminal appeals. However, by 1959, appeals from the Grand Court were sent to the Federal Supreme Court in both criminal and civil matters. Federal Supreme Court records show that the Cayman Islands used the Federal Supreme Court as their High court until 196 so the Cayman Islands were very much a part of the integrated judiciary that lasted for roughly four years.

He explains that another example of the Cayman Islands being integrated in the Federation was through the Federal Agriculture Department. There was a visit from the Federal Agricultural Advisory Committee to the Cayman Islands where seeds from St Lucia were offered so as to help with the coconut disease that plagued the country’s agricultural sector at the time. Moreover, the Cayman was a part of the University College of the West Indies, which was attended by some Caymanian students.

Hall explains that in addition, the Federal Government organised several meetings to deal with the concerns the Cayman Islands had with the Federal Arrangement. During the Inter-Governmental Conference in Trinidad, it was agreed that an official Working Party be set up to examine any problems which arose with respect to the Cayman Islands which at the time had no representation in the federal Legislature. This Working Party Committee met on May 5th 1961. The meeting was a further attempt to integrate the Cayman Islands in the Federal project, though it met with some resistance.

Cayman was very much an active participant in the Federation but its overall attitude was one of caution and protection of its economic interests. It was, for example, not willing to be a part of the unification of the customs union and the postal office.

From as early as the Montego Bay Conference in 1947, the Observers representing the Cayman Islands argued that they would not federate if they “did not have a seat in the federal legislature.” While The Standing Committee recorded their concern, it was explained that Cayman could not have a representative in the Federal legislature because it was a dependent of Jamaica. Furthermore, Cayman was just 0.24 per cent of the Federal population which meant that the island was too small anyway to have a representative in the Legislature.

In addition, Caymanians were very skeptical of the Federal Project. This skepticism might have been fuelled by the constant in-fighting over federal taxation; where the federal capital city ought to be; and the number of seats Jamaica should get in the legislature. These conflicts raised the suspicions of political conscious Caymanians about the federal project.

In any event, from the outset, there were challenges with the structure of the Federation which only served to increase Caymanian skepticism and its leaders took a ‘watch and see’ approach. This attitude was reflected in the proposal by the Working Committee on 5 May 1961. The Memorandum dated 11 January 1957 highlights the attitude of skepticism. The Memo was sent from the Cayman Islands to the British Caribbean Federation.

Indeed, they did not trust the Federal project and as such, were willing to take a ‘watch and see’ approach, Hall argues.

The Memorandum notes,

The Cayman Islands wish to consider at the end of the first five years of the federation whether they should come completely within the ambit of the Federation or whether the interest of the federation and/or of the CI would perhaps best be served if they became a separate and distinct unit.

More on the Cayman/West Indian Federation and the first Caymanian political parties in the next week’s article.

Dr Livingston Smith is Chair, Social Sciences, Director, Research and Publication and Associate Professor at the University College of  the Cayman Islands.

For the original report go to

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