A tribute to men of the sea

A new exhibition at the National Gallery, being held in partnership with the National Archive, offers a rare glimpse into Cayman’s past.

The Islands Time Forgot, which recently opened at the National Gallery, in partnership with the Cayman Islands National Archive, is a rare glimpse at the life of a 1930s Caymanian fisherman, seen through the lens of renowned American photojournalist David Douglas Duncan.

These are some of the first recorded photographs of Caymanian turtle fishermen in the Mosquito Cays and they pay tribute to the crew of the AM Adams and to the twilight years of an industry once so central to life in the Cayman Islands.

Duncan is among the most influential photographers of the 20th Century. He is best known for his dramatic war images, which were first taken when he was a US Marine combat photographer and later for Life magazine.

Duncan’s photographic career began after graduation, when he headed south to the Keys and soon found himself aboard a Thompson Fish Company schooner sailing to the Mosquito Cays, with a brief stop in the Cayman Islands, a place few had heard of at the time. Duncan referred to them as ‘the Islands time forgot.’

Duncan set sail from Grand Cayman in February 1939 to photograph the lives of Caymanian turtle fishermen on the Mosquito Cays, a guest of Captain Allie Ebanks on board the Thompson owned schooner the AM Adams.

In a letter home, Duncan wrote of his experience as the “life I’ve dreamed of” sailing through the Caribbean Sea while “hunting giant sea turtles with Cayman Islanders”. Mooring off the Swan Islands, he learned to cut coconuts and discovered huge iguanas that looked “prehistoric”.

Through words and images Duncan skilfully describes the intensity of the turtling profession, while capturing the quiet stillness of the men at rest. His deep admiration for these men is apparent throughout. “For theirs was an ancient profession,” he writes, “…where a boy earned manhood upon an often empty sea.”

In 1999, Duncan donated to CINA 24 original images of the journey to the Mosquito Cays. The exhibition includes these images and 11 others from CINA’s photographic collections, which depict not only the life of the Caymanian turtle fisherman, but also provide a panoramic view of life at the time.

The exhibition’s opening, which took place last month, drew a crowd of around 200 attendees, including the family of Captain Allie Ebanks, in addition to Dinah Brooks, Duncan’s god-daughter, who had come from Kansas, Missouri, to speak at the event.

Ms Brooks spoke eloquently about the chance meeting between Duncan and Captain Allie, so many years ago, that had resulted in a life-long friendship and the intimate collection of images on display. She said that Duncan, now in his 95th year, was extremely excited about the exhibition given his long infinity to the Cayman Islands.

Education Minister Rolston Anglin spoke about the value of using authentic archival material for educational purposes and commended CINA and the NGCI for bringing the rare collection into the public sphere for all to appreciate. Culture Minister Mark Scotland spoke of the importance of photography as social commentary.

“The Cayman that he depicted so eloquently through his photographs is mostly gone today and we are therefore culturally indebted to Mr. Duncan for capturing an exceptional time in our history,” he said. “As someone once remarked, ‘Remembering the past gives power to the present.’ Through Mr. Duncan’s eyes then, we can relive our past and tap into some much-needed inspiration at a time when most of us feel that change is far too constant and rapid.”

Speaking on behalf of herself and Kimlon Seymour, director for the National Archive, NGCI Director Natalie Urquhart spoke of the increased opportunities provided by their partnership given the two entities shared mission’s to preserve and promote the arts and cultural heritage in the Cayman Islands. She went on to talk about the invaluable educational opportunities that would be generated by the exhibition through cross curricular learning packs that had been developed to accompany the photographs on display and that would be available to all school children free of charge.

Josette K. Seymour, director, National Archive says the CINA was excited to get the National Gallery on board to showcase the David Douglas Duncan Collection.

“CINA is actively working towards ensuring our more significant archival collections are available to members of the public through partnerships with organisations like the National Gallery. As keepers of the nation’s memory, CINA is delighted to have this wonderful opportunity in presenting these images to the community. This exhibit portrays the intricacies of the turtling industry and the hardships of the voyage; Duncan will be known to us as the man whose photographs captured our ‘ironmen of the sea’,” she comments

“We are delighted to be partnering with CINA to exhibit these stunning portraits for the very first time in the Cayman Islands,” says Natalie responds. “This moving collection will give visitors a direct insight into the life and work of Cayman’s turtle fishermen at a time when this way of life, once the mainstay of our existence, was beginning to disappear.”

Duncan quotes taken from Duncan, David Douglas. Yankee Nomad: a photographic odyssey. Canada: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966.