On 15 June Stanley Gibbons Auctions will have the privilege of auctioning Graham Booth’s gold medal collection of Cayman Islands postal history; the most comprehensive collection of its kind ever assembled. Here we take a look at the early postal history of the islands...
The Cayman Islands are perhaps best known as an international banking centre and as an elite Caribbean holiday destination. But this is a fairly recent development; for much of its history it was at the edge of the map – sparsely populated, dependant on passing schooners for communication and trade, and with very limited economic opportunities. This remoteness explains the near absence of pre-stamp covers that have been recorded, and of these most are from passing military ships.
The three islands that make up the Cayman Islands sit approximately equidistant to Cuba and Jamaica. The main island, the aptly named Grand Cayman, is the main economic centre, followed by Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. Deemed too small to be administered separately, the islands fell into Jamaica’s orbit, becoming a Dependency of Jamaica. This did allow them to open a post office on Grand Cayman in 1889 with a limited stock of Jamaican stamps. As you might expect, items from this period are rare. A second post office was opened on Cayman Brac at Stake Bay in 1898, again using Jamaican stamps (Fig 2).
Unfortunately, these new postal arrangements did not include regular transport to and from the islands. Thus, mail often languished for weeks waiting for a passing schooner to take it onward. From a postal history point of view, this does mean that many covers ended up with interesting routings, often via Cuba, with the route determined by the next port of call of the schooner (Fig 5).
In a way, when it comes to collecting Cayman Islands, both postal history and stamp collecting overlap extensively. This not only applies to Jamaica stamp issues used in the Caymans (which require a Cayman cancel), but also to manuscript provisionals which by nature can only exist on cover or piece.
The manuscript provisionals of 1908 are a fascinating subject in their own right, with different formats, handwriting styles and coloured inks recorded. Overlaid with this there is the whiff of staff politics at the post office with resignations, reinstatements and the important matter of lunch breaks, all leading to varieties (Fig 7).
In terms of stamps, the Cayman Islands was a late comer, with its first issue arriving just at the turn of the 19th century, and consisting of a meagre two low values (Fig 9)
This did not deter collectors whose demand for stamps eventually led to shortages and the need to create provisionals to fill the void (Fig 10). This took the form of surcharges and the before mentioned provisionals, but rather than being a solution, these new creations only added fuel to the fire, proving to be equally popular with collectors and thus quickly selling out.