Autobiography and Cayman Islands history intertwine in Sir Vassel Johnson's As I See It. Soldier, civil servant, politician and businessman, Sir Vassel brings incisive personal detail to this backstage account of the making of modern Cayman.

“A young man could learn a lot just by watching,” Sir Vassel says, of growing up in 1930s Grand Cayman – watching in this case the work at a White Hall beach boatyard, near one of his many childhood homes.

During his long years at the helm of the Cayman civil service, holding positions including those of Treasurer (later Financial Secretary), Controller of Exchange and Inspector of Banks and Trust Companies, Johnson watched the Caymans grow up. In his dual memoir of himself and the islands, he brings the monumental story of what he has seen and learned from his Jamaican birth and early arrival in Cayman to the present day, with exacting detail, understated humour and some surprising island anecdotes.

Born in 1922, Johnson moved with his family to Cayman in 1934 from a Jamaica that “could have become the financial centre of the Caribbean”. Instead, it was the Cayman Islands that took those giant steps in Johnson's lifetime.

At times, the author lends his story a sense of manifest destiny: well-positioned, with flexible legislation and privacy favourable to offshore investors, the Cayman rise to prominence is sometimes reported as a shoo-in. That it attracted investment, however, while managing to control overseas entrepreneurs and its breakneck internal growth, makes the modern Caymanian story something of a parable for how to develop a small country. As Johnson concludes: “The progress we have made here is the result of deliberate policies and the result of putting those policies into effect.”

Cayman's success, as Johnson sees it, owes as much to the determination of its dreamers as it does to being the right place at the right time. It took the foresight and sheer perseverance of its visionaries to tame the island's difficult environment and steer the Caymans favourably through the unique economic conditions of its 1960s crossroads.

“I was a great believer in dreams,” Sir Vassal writes of 1945, when he contemplated committing to a career in government. Just before his father's sudden death in 1947, Johnson's temporary appointment to the Department of Treasury, Customs and Post Office “was confirmed to the permanent and pensionable establishment of the civil service”. Like his adopted home islands, Johnson was now set on the path to a radical transformation.

Cayman's rise to prominence hinges on the mid-1960s slump in its sea-going industry – a near-crisis, which, Johnson writes, “certainly led the government to think seriously of alternative activities that would provide job opportunities. It also ran across my mind at the time that the situation might present a golden opportunity to become involved in the promotion of some form of local economic activity.”

Challenge overcome
Sir Vassel, then Treasurer, was facing a crossroads of his own after a trial by fire settling Cayman's debts with the Jamaican Government. Not long after the collapse of the seamen's industry began in earnest in 1965, the US announced the 1969 abrogation of its income tax treaty with the UK – a decision that profoundly affected the future of Cayman. Unencumbered by US tax treaties, it was free to operate as an international financial services centre, with offshore investors enjoying legally-enshrined confidentiality. That financial safety had to be negotiated almost every step of the way, up to and beyond the crime-fighting Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty of 1986.

Johnson was present at, and often in the thick of, negotiations from the beginnings of Cayman's new economy. Acting Registrar of Trade Unions in 1959, Sir Vassel had a front seat at the growth of Cayman's first registered trade union, the Global Seaman Union, a proud symbol of the thriving offshore industry. His appointment to Treasurer in 1965 coincided with Cayman's seafaring slump, partly in response to an economic recession, which forced the reinvention of its shore-based activities.

It was a good time to be Treasurer: a replacement economy, the twin industries of finance and tourism, emerged from the uncertainties, with Johnson deeply involved. “Our growth at the time,” he writes, “had to be at least double that of any other country I knew about.” Along with its advantageous “political stability, excellent telecommunications, reliable air services, relative freedom in the movement of international currencies, dependable financial services, flexible laws and no form of direct taxes”, the Cayman Islands' freedom from American treaties now offered its investors the privacy and peace of mind that would be its selling point.

By 1966, the Cayman Government was already forging ahead with the Banks and Trust Companies Relations Law, new trust laws and an Exchange Control Regulations Law (EC) to assist investors. As Johnson describes his keen efforts to sell the draft EC law to London, his excited belief in that golden opportunity is again related in dream terms: looking down “an imaginary tunnel ... the estimated distance through the tunnel in terms of time representing the growth period to maturity was 20 years. The building of this industry depended too on government's full co-operation, support and action.” Both, it turns out, were dreaming in the same direction.

Selling that dream required taking risks. Favouring control of Cayman's development in the private sector, especially in the evaluation of foreign entrepreneurs, was a position that Johnson advocated from early on. But in submitting this position at a 1968 speech at Government House, he found himself so unnerved by Administrator John Cumber's apparent displeasure that he had to cut his presentation short. The idea found acceptance nonetheless, and the proposals of the British Development Division in the Caribbean team of 1969 (headed by William Bell, MBE) opened the way for Cayman's subsequent offshore metamorphosis.

1970s revisited
The 1970s chapters take the reader inside the Capital Projects Fund, the fight to keep the Cayman economy clean, the travails of its domestic banking and the toils behind its phenomenal surge in tourism, plus high-stakes moments of strategy such as the 1974 currency adjustment, bringing Cayman's currency to parity with the US dollar. All aspects of the times, from the crown colony's war on its notorious mosquitoes and sandflies, to the turtle farming industry, are exhaustively analysed.

Writing from 2001, Johnson calls his personal dream a mission accomplished. “Some have regarded it as a Cayman that has transformed beyond its natives' wildest dreams,” he writes, “while other residents have not yet realised (the full benefit of) their (enviable) position of living in a leading international offshore financial centre.”

This Caymanian story is one man's testimony to the adage, quoted by Johnson in his concluding chapter, that in business you don't get what you deserve; you get what you negotiate.

  • As I See It: How Cayman Became a Leading Financial Centre by Sir Vassel Johnson, Kt, CBE (London, The Book Guild, 2001, boards, 425 pp.)