Book Talk: Epic tales of Caymanians at sea

Book Talk: Epic tales of Caymanians at sea

On reading "Caymanian Epics: Historical Journeys of an Island People" by Dr. Curtis Barnett, I am reminded of a quote from Vincent Van Gogh – “The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore.”

Van Gogh could have been referring to the young Caymanian boys and men whose tales are told in this book in four epic poems about life at sea and the perils encountered. As the characters set out to catch turtle and fish or to otherwise make a living on the Caribbean seas and beyond, the tales include one about a heroic young man who sacrifices his health for his shipmates, while others tell of a young boy who finds his fate as an apprentice cook; of an old captain whose choices bring his crew almost to disaster; and of the life of a master mariner.

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In the early part of the 20th century, when most of the events described transpired, there were few choices for the male inhabitants of the Cayman Islands other than to go to sea if they wanted to make a living and support their families. Boys sometimes as young as 14 or 15 years old would, out of necessity, leave their homes, often for months at a time, to earn this living. Far from the comfort of loved ones, they were thrown into a world where they were at the mercy of the ships, decisions made by the ship captains and the elements.

Being caught in tropical storms and hurricanes was a danger frequently faced by these crews, with little warning, and for some the shores of home were never seen again. Boys whose fathers had perished at sea suddenly became the breadwinners for their families.

In his book, Barnett captures not just the historical details of the lives of the people mentioned, but also the atmosphere of a different time for Caymanians, when life or death situations were par for the course. He has also made real what it was like for the families back home waiting to hear news of their children, brothers, uncles and fathers.

Acts of heroism and desperation, loss and survival are recounted here, accompanied by rich descriptions of life in the islands at that time, and the vital relationship Caymanians had (and still have) with the sea.

The islands have changed and businesses on land now keep their inhabitants closer to shore, but this book is a reminder of the livelihood won and community forged by Caymanians of an earlier era through great trial and strength of character.

"Caymanian Epics: Historical Journeys of an Island People" is available at Next Chapter.

This article was originally published in the May/June 2022 print edition of Camana Bay Times.

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About the author

Gabrielle Wheaton is a senior executive coordinator at Dart, supporting multiple teams in the company’s real estate, events and business development division. Gabrielle has worked for Dart for 10 years and has lived in the Cayman Islands for the majority of her life. A gifted artist and actress, Gabrielle holds a four-year diploma in Classical Realist Art and has been involved with the Cayman Drama Society since she was a child.

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