Mixed marriages in the Cayman Islands are not the same as the mixed marriages of my youth. My parents had a mixed marriage, beginning in 1938 in Dad’s mother’s home town of Toowoomba, Australia. It was always an embarrassment to his mother and her side of the family, and her friends. Dad’s cousin and boyhood chum strongly disapproved, and refused at the last moment to be the Best Man at the wedding. Twenty years after the wedding, a visiting bishop stopped Grandma after a church service and asked, “Is your son still living with that woman?” That woman never forgave the Catholic Church for the disdain that some of its prominent members displayed towards her and her Protestant children.
Later in my life, I learned that the term “mixed marriage” also described unions of light-skinned persons and dark-skinned ones. In other places, ancestry was more important than colour or religion. In the USA, a mixed marriage was between a person whose ancestry was (as far as was known) 100% Caucasian and one whose ancestry was not.In Australia, the conflict between descendants of Irish Catholics and of English Protestants was essentially ancestral; transubstantiation and fish-on-Fridays were incidental issues.
The Caribbean islands never fretted about ancestry quite so much – least of all the tiny islands of Cayman. Persons legally domiciled here in 1973 (when “Caymanian” was first defined in a law) comprised 15% more or less pure European blood, 15% more or less pure African, and 70% a mixture of those and others. Some formal social barriers existed between individuals of white appearance and everybody else up till the 1950s, but below the level of what passed for high society in this little backwater, there really wasn’t much point.
Besides the European-African mix, many Caymanians in 1973 had ancestral connections with several aboriginal American peoples (Mayans from the Caribbean coasts of South and Central America, Arawaks from the Greater Antilles and Caribs from “over east”), several varieties of Indians from what became Pakistan, India and Bangla Desh, and of Chinese from the Pacific coastal sources of labourers recruited there after the Emancipation of the slaves in 1834. And one should not overlook the fact that West African slaves were not all the same colour or ethnicity – and nor were the Europeans they interbred with in their new homes.
In recent decades Caymanians have taken on board significant numbers of expats from all the compass points of Africa, and from western and south-eastern Asia, south-western India, and every single nation of Europe. Today, we have no term to describe marriages (or non-marriages…) between people of different colours. We do have mixed marriages aplenty, but they are marriages between native Caymanians and foreign imports – and the law and much of society frowns on them.
It used to be that when an expat married a Caymanian, he or she had better stay married. That applied not just to a native Caymanian (“born and bred”, as they say) but to an expat with what was and is called “Caymanian Status” – a kind of citizenship, usually revocable. Here’s a story from twenty years ago, of an expat couple of many years’ residence who got divorced. We knew them, so I can vouch for the truth of the tale.
He had Status, but she hadn’t bothered to apply, so technically it was a mixed marriage. As the spouse of a “Caymanian” she didn’t need a Work Permit, and suffered no disadvantage in her everyday life – until the divorce. One day an Immigration Officer phoned her boss and told him her employment must cease immediately. He must apply for a Work Permit for her or she would have to leave the Island. No explanation was given. The boss angrily accused her of lying to him by falsely claiming not to need a Work Permit, and there was a bit of a shouting match until they phoned Immigration and were told that thirty minutes before the original call had been made, the divorce-court had granted the couple a decree absolute. Hah! That’s how we deal with wretched expat spouses!
Our Immigration bureaucrats have always been breath-takingly arrogant – a law unto themselves, and empowered to interpret the rules at their discretion. They embody the tribal resentment that a significant proportion of born-Caymanians feel towards expat residents of whatever national origin.
In mixed marriages, the Caymanian is always Caymanian, and the expat is always an expat. (After ten years’ marriage, today, expat spouses become eligible for Status. There is no guarantee they will get it, since much depends on what local enemies they have made. Nevertheless, they’re in with a good chance, now.)
Many unsavoury anecdotes tell of expat mothers beaten with impunity by Caymanian boyfriends or husbands and threatened with deportation without their children if they complain to the Police. Expat spouses have sometimes even been deported at the instigation of their Caymanian rivals in love. Mixed marriages may be despised in general by many of the natives, but not always in the particular!
And of course there are many happily married (and not married) mixed couples here. And, the number of native objectors is gradually declining. That’s all to the good.
Gordon Barlow has lived in Cayman since 1978. He was the first full-time Manager of the Cayman Islands Chamber of Commerce (1986-1988) – a turbulent period when the Chamber struggled to establish its political independence. He has publicly commented on social and political issues since 1990, and has represented the Chamber at several overseas conferences, and the Cayman Islands Human Rights Committee at an international symposium in Gibraltar in 2004. His blog www.barlowscayman.blogspot.com contains much information on life in Cayman, written from the point of view of a resident and citizen.