In Pursuit of Authenticity: Globalization and Nation Building in the Cayman Islands

By Amit-Talai, Vered | Anthropologica, January 1, 1997 | Go to article overview

In Pursuit of Authenticity: Globalization and Nation Building in the Cayman Islands


Amit-Talai, Vered, Anthropologica


Abstract: Over the last decade, a number of publicly funded institutions have emerged in the Cayman Islands charged with the discovery, exploration and promotion of a Caymanian national identity and historical consciousness. They have emerged in the midst of a period of dramatic and very rapid economic transformation in which Cayman moved from a labour-exporting, small-scale maritime economy to become a major offshore financial as well as tourist centre, with increasing dependence on the inflow of foreign capital and imported skilled and professional contract labour. That dependence has produced both affluence and anxiety among many Caymanians about their ability to maintain a primary share of the opportunities arising in these new economic industries. The work of the cultural sector, while limited in popular appeal, has responded to these widespread anxieties by seeking to establish and reaffirm the status of one category of residents as rightful inheritors of Cayman and as such legitimately accorded special residential, electoral and employment entitlements. But it too has been dependent on the expertise, ideas and support of expatriate personnel and enthusiasts. In an important sense, Cayman has contracted out its nation building.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Michelle Fitzgerald, whose keen intellect, insight, wit and friendship is sorely missed by many who knew her both in the Cayman Islands and in Canada.

Introduction

In the three tiny Cayman Islands, there is no local manufacturing to speak of. A small and, until recently, declining agricultural sector provides only a fraction of required foodstuffs. Most of Cayman's consumption needs are therefore met through foreign imports. The economy relies almost entirely on the inflow of foreign capital generated by the tourist and offshore financial sectors. Nearly 40 percent of the 32 000 residents are contract foreign workers and their dependents. It would therefore be quite easy to conclude that over the last 25 years, the Cayman Islands have been wholly assimilated within the global economy. This article however concerns itself with the converse trend of nation building. In less than a decade a number of institutions have been established to preserve, promote and interpret Caymanian "heritage" and "identity." I will argue that, far from being an independent development, the growth of this cultural industry has been a direct outcome of Cayman's incorporation into the world economy. The Caymanian case provides an important illustration of the way in which the opportunities afforded by international flows of capital and investment become associated with access to particular places. How these places and its citizenry are characterized can therefore take on critical political and economic implications.

A Little Background

The Cayman Islands are situated in the Northwest Caribbean. They are one of six territories in this region which still retain their jurisdictional status as British colonies.(f.2) Between 1863 and 1959, the Cayman Islands operated as a dependency of Jamaica (Yearbook 95, 1995: 433-434). However, when Jamaica moved to sever its ties with Britain first as a member of the West Indian Federation and then as an independent state, Cayman opted instead to remain a British colony. Colonial status then, and even more so now, has been viewed by many Caymanians as an important international icon of stability in a region which has experienced its fair share of political turbulence. The symbolic utility of colonial affiliation is commonly cited as a key element in foreign investor confidence and hence of Cayman's successful transformation over the last 25 years from a maritime economy to a financial and tourist centre.

Dependence on external economic markets, beyond colonial links, is however by no means new. In contrast to many other Caribbean islands, the history of Cayman was dominated not by a plantation system but by a nautical tradition. …

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