Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Man from Snowy River (Aussie bush life)

In my Town and Country blog-post of 18th December 2011, I noted some of the cultural differences between townies and country folk, from my own experience. The post was prompted by an English newspaper report of a speed-castration contest (of lambs, of course; what else would it be?). Two of the contestants had become sick, and I marvelled that my father had never gotten sick whenever he pulled lambs’ balls off with his teeth.

To put food on the table, Dad killed a sheep every ten days, and we ate mutton three meals a day every day. I remember the violence of the killing – SAS-style, I guess: head jerked up from behind to expose the throat to the knife and allow the blood to gush out. The body was hung upside-down on a hook to let the rest of the blood leak out. In town, we bought from a butcher. Nowadays, meat is pre-packaged by supermarkets. (And sometimes it probably isn’t meat at all!)

In towns, dogs are either house-pets or yard-dogs; pets have no duties except to love their human gods, yard-dogs have to keep the neighbours awake all day and as much of the night as they can manage. Country dogs’ terms of employment require them to be slave-drivers – the slaves being the sheep and cattle belonging to the boss. The same distinction applies to horses. In towns, they’re pets. In the country, they’re house-slaves, duty-bound to accompany their masters whenever called upon.

Only once in my life was I allowed to ride my Dad’s horse. She was a huge beast, who accepted only one master. She shuddered with shame when I hit the saddle, aged nine and small for my age. Dad held her head and gently explained the circumstances to her. The dog and I were deputised to escort a few hundred sheep to the railway siding a few miles away, to be shipped off to the butcher.

The dog could have done it by itself, and pretty much did. My control of dogs was severely handicapped by my inability to whistle. What an embarrassment for a country boy! On this occasion I shouted instructions, which the dog cheerfully ignored as it went about its familiar business. I just sat and prayed that Big Bess would forget I was up there; and maybe she did forget, at that. 

If I’d been on my own horse I’d have cantered up and down the mob pretending to know what I was doing, which would have mucked up the dog’s agenda. I’d have been no less use if I’d galloped up and down the road behind us. 

Actually, one never did gallop much, strange to say, because in our part of Australia the land was pock-marked with depressions large and deep enough to be dangerous to galloping horses. Even dingo-hunts (adults only) were done at nothing more than a fastish canter.

Occasionally, after school, some of us would pretend we were The Man From Snowy River and charge headlong through copses with fallen trees underfoot. That was fun, until Bryan broke his arm trying to squeeze between two trees that were too close together. The Man From Snowy River was the hero of our favourite action poem, a role-model for Australia’s bush horsemen. 

Through the stringy barks and saplings, on the rough and broken ground,
Down the hillside at a racing pace he went;
And he never drew the bridle till he landed safe and sound
At the bottom of that terrible descent.

It’s an exciting description, and impossible to recite properly without bending your body to the rhythm of the ride. My Dad knew all the words, but would never recite it in public. It was an unrealistic description, anyway. Galloping downhill over fallen trees would be suicide for both man and horse, on a loose rein.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Aiding and abetting adultery in the South Pacific

The New Hebrides (now the independent nation of Vanuatu) was an Anglo-French condominium in the Pacific Ocean – and a Franco-Britannique one called Nouvelles Hebrides, to the French. It had a bizarre constitutional set-up – the result of a strange episode in its history as a European protectorate.

By the late 1800s, most of the islands in the Pacific had fallen under the control of the European empires of the day, plus the USA. The native peoples of Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia had no weapons to match those of the Western powers, who simply divvied up the territories among themselves.

France claimed New Caledonia, Britain claimed Fiji. Germany wanted the New Hebrides, but neither Britain nor France wanted a German presence in the region; they also didn’t want the Islands themselves. The logical thing to do would have been to split the entire archipelago down the middle; but logic has never featured strongly in Anglo-French intercourse over the centuries. What they did was agree to run the Islands jointly, as a “condominium”. It was referred to, by one and all, as a pandemonium.

The clerks at the imperial headquarters of the British and French expatriates composed two legal Codes, one for each set in its own language. Expats of other nationalities were obliged to choose which Code they would be bound by. Additionally, there was a Condominium Code, applicable to all residents – British, French, all other foreigners, and all natives.

A fourth collection of rules comprised a Native Code that applied to all natives and all native-white affairs. This was published (as was the Condominium code) in both English and French, by a printer in Montreal. The translations did not always correspond exactly, but that’s life. C’est la vie, in fact.

Finally, there was a fifth set of laws that the natives had to cope with, and that was their own “Custom Law”, analogous to England’s Common Law. It was unwritten, and little known among expats. It didn’t vary much from village to village – although, with seventy Melanesian and four Polynesian languages spoken in the archipelago (none of them written), there existed some scope for disagreement.

When I had nothing better to do at the office, I waded my way through the Islands’ constitutional laws, Custom Law excluded. I was intrigued by one odd law in the Native Code that prescribed six months in prison for the crime of “aiding and abetting adultery”. The mind boggled. Surely there wasn’t a travelling cheer-squad that attended each adulterous mating, that the European powers were trying to abolish, like suttee in India? One expat old-timer explained it to me, amused by my indignation.

Marriage was taken very seriously by the Melanesians, newly converted to Presbyterian Christianity. Unfortunately, boys will be boys, and the more attractive of the young bachelors did not always resist the temptation to seduce married women, when the opportunity arose.

An unfaithful wife would be beaten by her husband; Custom Law allowed that. Her partner in infidelity might be killed by the husband; Custom Law allowed that, too. But the Native Code forbade murder, and it took precedence over Custom Law. How could the murders be stopped?

The chiefs came in a delegation to the European administrators. If the white rulers really wanted to be helpful and stop the killings, would they please amend their Native Code and outlaw adultery? Perhaps it could carry a penalty of six months in pokey, to allow tempers to cool. Well, the administrators would be delighted! However... By legal definition, the lawyers said, “adultery” could only be committed by a married person. Outlawing adultery would catch an erring wife, but not her unmarried paramour.

“Aiding and abetting adultery” was not the most elegant of terms, but it served the purpose.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Cayman’s political impasse – and its solution

There is a strong desire here to vote out all the present MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) at the next general election. It won’t happen, of course, but it makes for some interesting speculations.

The people we have now comprise two political factions of our sole political force: namely, the unofficial Protectionist Party. The UDP and the PPM are not distinguished by anything that can be called a policy. They differ only in the personalities of their leaders. The only political promises our candidates make are 1) “We will do the same things as our opponents, only better!” and 2) “We will stick it to the expats harder than our opponents would!”

Both factions are fiscally incompetent. Both are in thrall to Cayman’s special-interest lobbies – the beneficiaries of our protectionist and indentured-labour system, and the beneficiaries of our ever-expanding central government.

There are regular calls for independent candidates, not members of the usual gangs of egotists. Those of us with Cayman’s best long-term interests at heart are desperate to persuade businessmen of proven ability and trustworthiness to do their civic duty.

Unfortunately, “trustworthiness” at election time means “can be trusted to protect all native-born Caymanians against better-qualified and better-motivated foreigners, in commerce and the workplace”. The protectionist system that has kept wages low for the unskilled and uneducated, and productivity low for everybody, must continue. That is not up for negotiation with people who would vote as a bloc to protect their permanent affirmative-action program.

“Proven ability”, in prospective candidates for public office, means “proven ability to succeed within the protectionist program”. Sigh. What can you do?

The problem is this. The prospects best qualified to run our Islands’ government include expatriates. Yet the thought of having expats in the Legislature and on Statutory Boards is abhorrent to the bulk of the electorate. It’s not expats’ birthplaces that handicap them: it’s their ancestry.

Individuals born in Cayman of non-Caymanian parents are and always will be regarded as expats; persons born overseas with even one native-Caymanian parent are and always will be regarded as Caymanian. “Real” Caymanians inherit their qualifications, which out-rank all other qualifications. It’s like the Church’s doctrine of apostolic succession.

MLAs must be “of the blood”. In theory, there are plenty of independently minded bloodline-Caymanians who could unseat the present MLAs; but in practice, no there aren’t. Most of the independents have served on government committees or boards whose members are appointed by MLAs. They are thereby tarred with the brush of association with one or other of the present Parties. Government by cronies is our tradition, after all. Very, very few individuals escape such service with their reputations intact.

So here’s the thing. If we rule out all expats as inherently untrustworthy, and all bloodline-Caymanians as compromised, who is left? Nobody. Only the British FCO can help us out of this mess, though I doubt if it will make the effort.

Two years of direct rule from London would allow our system of parliamentary representation to be re-set. During those two years, some responsible and carefully selected long-term immigrants could be encouraged to become public figures by serving on important public committees – appointed by the governor, not by local politicians. Some responsible and carefully selected “non-politicals” among our bloodline Caymanians could be similarly appointed. For them, two years ought to be enough for their past associations to be forgotten, or at least forgiven.

That solution would give us hope. Nothing else will, I fear.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Cayman’s friendly expats

The headline in last Friday’s newspaper read Cayman friendliest country in the world. Beneath it, the usual braggadocio and false comparison with countries like China, USA and India that have thousands of times the population and area of our tiny Island. I scoffed at this practice in a post called Apples & Oranges in January 2011, and my comments are still valid.

The report was based on a survey by the HSBC bank of 5300 expats (not visitors) in 100 countries – including dependent territories, apparently. Cayman is “the easiest nation in the world [for expats] to make friends and integrate into the community and its culture”, the survey concluded: and that’s probably correct. Considering that two thirds of the community are expats, making friends and integrating is indeed easy. Most migrants rarely get to interact with the native-born, except individuals.

Several posts on this blog (e.g. House of Cards in September 2011) have reported on the societal schism that exists here, fostered by politicians and our Immigration bureaucracy. Many of the ethnic, native-born, Caymanians resent being outnumbered in their own tiny territory, and resent being indebted to the expat flood for all the recent comforts of life such as air-conditioning and good food.

To appease the natives, the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) in London allows them a monopoly of political power with the authority to control the foreign workforce and to exploit the lower-paid unskilled migrants.

If we ever cease to be a British colony, the mutual resentment will catch fire, and end our status as an international financial centre – which will end the prosperity that attracts so many expats. We are in the middle of a minor crisis at the moment, with our governing political party positioning itself to demand independence from Britain – the independence that would destroy us. (See A day late and a dollar short, September 2012.) We could be in deep trouble a few weeks or months from now.

Nevertheless, the HSBC survey’s finding may well be accurate: this is a very friendly place for expats. I would have answered favourably, too, if the Bank had surveyed me. Since most of the population are expats, it is expats who display the friendliness that was reported, and the ease of integration. Socially, the usual national divisions apply, though loosely, and the usual occupational divisions too. There are no racial divisions, as such, or religious ones either, except on Sundays.

We have Jamaicans and other West Indians, Filipinos and Indians from their respective different islands and regions, Latinos from all over Latin America, British and other Europeans, and North Americans galore. Most of the Europeans, Canadians and Americans are middle-class and overpaid, most of the others working-class and underpaid. To a man and woman, they are delighted to be here, and it shows in their cheerfulness and general attitude.

For further information, let me recommend a website called Expat Focus and the first report from Cayman that I wrote in it, called Cayman’s Expats – 57 Varieties and Counting. To find it, the easiest way is to Google “expat focus 57 varieties”. I’ve just done it, and it works!

Last month we had friends staying with us. (Cayman for Visitors, October 2012). Except for Captain Marvin’s sons on the Stingray City tour, they rarely encountered any true-born Caymanians. As for the nationalities, colours, races and accents of the people they did meet during the visit, it’s all a blur to me. Living here, describing an individual by colour or voice often becomes a serious test of memory. Cayman’s expats don’t all look alike, of course; but it does seem that way sometimes.