Travel Report: May Hen, Grand Cayman

May 09, 2014

May Hen, a Master's student in Communications, received a Graduate International Research Travel Award to further her research in the Grand Cayman. Her report:

In September 2013, I began conducting field work in the Cayman Islands. The Cayman Islands is a British Overseas Territory with a population of approximately 54,000 people. Located in the western Caribbean, the Cayman Islands is positioned 150 miles south of Cuba, 460 miles south of Miami, and 167 miles northwest of Jamaica (Cayman Islands Government, Location and geography). The Cayman Islands are made up of three islands: Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. The three islands have a total population of 56,732 (Economics and Statistics Office, “End of Year Population…”). Grand Cayman is 76 square miles or about 22 miles long and 4 miles wide. The other two islands, commonly referred to as the sister islands, are Little Cayman and Cayman Brac. The sister islands are substantially farther and smaller in size than Grand Cayman.

During my fieldwork in Grand Cayman, I conducted interviews across an extensive landscape of occupations, industries and nationalities on the island in order to understand the social and political make-up of the island. As a fiscal anthropologist, my aim was to study the formation of values of Cayman Islanders in the context of an Offshore Financial Centre (OFC). I studied how social and political values are perpetuated to the world primarily through their largest industry: Finance. I spent several weeks at the Cayman Islands National Archive and uncovered original documents unavailable anywhere else in the world. I found transcriptions of primary interview recordings from cassette tapes. Many recorded histories of the island have been destroyed by past hurricanes. They may not exist for much longer should another devastating hurricane pass through Cayman. A Category 5 hurricane passes through the island, on average, every seven years. These cassette recordings contained interviews of late Caymanians who were considered pioneers in the development of the now infamous financial industry.

As a result of being able to situate myself in Cayman, I was able to interact with the world, as they came to Cayman. Cayman hosts a large number of conferences, international workshops and networking events as a result of its international appeal to the financial industry. Being stationed here for a prolonged period of time allowed me to experience how these actors moved through the island and amongst one another. I was able to observe their interactions much more intimately in social and professional circle. This provided me original primary data I would not have been able to obtain without the assistance of GIRTA.

Unanticipated benefits included active academic and community involvement in my host-institution’s conference on values, morality, and ethics towards a corruption-free Caribbean (see: I was also invited to discuss my research on the local radio station alongside a panelist of academics and practitioners of anti-corruption commissions including Joseph Kamara, Anti-Corruption Commissioner of Sierra Leone. I also acted as a liaison to a foreign national, the Contractor General of Jamaica. This type of networking and access to influential government officials would not have been possible in Canada.

The biggest challenge to conducting prolonged field research in a foreign country is obtaining the permission to extended stays. As my time was coming to a premature end, I was able to connect to the local university: The University College of the Cayman Islands to become a visiting researcher. This was the first application of its kind to the University and therefore I had to create my own position and design a research-position proposal that would benefit the College and contribute to Caymanian society.  The University accepted my proposal and was able to make an application to immigration on my behalf as a visiting faculty researcher and therefore facilitated my continued stay in Grand Cayman. This move made history and set a precedent, as I was the first visiting researcher at the university. I am grateful for the support and warm hospitality of the faculty and staff at the University College of the Cayman Islands and have created many close connections as a result of my time in Grand Cayman.

You can follow May Hen’s personal website at
Her linked-in profile is at

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