The Cayman Islands witnessed dramatic progress from the 1940s to the 1980s, which can be attributed to the hard work of Cayman’s seaman. Known as the Southwell Years, the seaman would send their money home, helping lay the foundations for Cayman’s economy.
Looking back on her days as a young, newly married woman, Janilee Clifford recalled the heartache and excitement at being a seaman’s wife during Cayman’s Southwell Years.
“Life as a seaman’s wife was so bittersweet,” Janilee says. “Sometimes they would be gone for two or three years at a time. But, it would be such joy and excitement when they returned home. We would cook them all the treats that they couldn’t get at sea, Cayman-style fish stew, turtle stew, cassava cake. Yet there was always waves of anxiety as you knew it would soon end. But, that was our way of life.”
Janilee was one of a group of women who recollected her days as a seaman’s wife at a talk hosted by the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands. The talk was the last in a series of lectures and discussions to accompany the current exhibition, Founded Upon the Seas, which highlights Cayman’s colourful seafaring heritage.
Janilee’s husband Charles was a at sea from 1943 to 1958, working as an engineer. He later joined the newly formed Caribbean Utilities Company, where he worked until his retirement.
Her husband was among many Caymanian men who, during the Southwell Years, earned their living at sea, working on cargo ships transporting goods around the world. The resulting money sent home helped lay the foundation for Cayman’s economic success. Indeed, the Cayman Islands witnessed dramatic progress from the 1940s to the 1980s, which can be attributed to the hard work of Cayman’s seaman.
While Janilee kept the home fires burning for most of her husband’s seafaring years, unusually she did have the opportunity to join him on a six week trip.
“It was on a landing ship tank from World War II, which had been converted into a cargo ship,” she says. “I travelled by seaplane from Cayman to Jamaica, then from Jamaica to Trinidad to meet the ship. I was the only woman on the ship at the time and we would travel from Trinidad to Guyana and back again. I can safely say I am a good sailor.
“We would pick up bauxite in Guyana, and then transport it back to Trinidad. I remember we had to sail up the Moengo River, it was a narrow river, so we needed a tug boat to guide us. I recall the lives of the people being played out along that river. It was fascinating.”
She adds: “I remember once we got beached– it was for about three days. We couldn’t get off the ship, but could see the outline of the land on the horizon. We just had to wait for the tide.
“The whole experience of going to sea was very exciting. I was just 21 years old and had been married for just two years.
“Life was very different back then to what it is now. Up to his death, we always talked fondly of our times in Trinidad.”
Like Janilee, Ardyth Smith is also accustomed to the life of a seaman. A daughter and wife of a seaman, she also recounted her days at the informal talk. Her father, Henry Braggsmith, owned and sailed The Hustler cargo ship, while her husband, Ervin Smith, worked on the ships until he retired.
“I remember when I was just 11-years-old, a bunch of us children went down to the waterfront to watch a ship go out. It was picking up some Caymanian seaman who had volunteered to join the navy in World War II.”
Little did Ardyth know at the time, but on that ship was the man who would become her husband 14 years later.
With no children to tie her down, Ardyth says her experience was somewhat different to others.
“While many wives stayed behind, I actually went to ports around the world to meet with my husband,” she says. “I followed his ship around whenever I could and never missed a chance to go and join him. I did a lot of travelling.
“In the early years, we didn’t have telephones, so he couldn’t call me. He would send me a telegram telling me what port he would be in and when. I would then travel to meet him.”
Ardyth’s husband spent many years on ships which would pick up oil in the Far East and transport it back to the US.
“I met him in the US a lot - Texas, Louisiana, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. The ship would usually be in port for a day.”
Later, Ervin joined a United Fruit Company ship, which would transport bananas from Jamaica to the US. During this time, Ardyth would travel to Jamaica to meet Ervin every three weeks.
“We had a different life to others for sure, but an interesting and exciting one at the same time.”