Gerald – Cayman Island Expedition

Gerald Harvey Thompson

OBE. MA. MSc. (Oxon). Hon. FRPS. (1917-2002)

Gerald Thompson


Cayman Islands Expedition 1938

In 1936 Gerald was awarded a County Leaving Exhibition to read Zoology at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford. The Oxford University Exploration Club held a major expedition about every eight years (1932 was in Borneo). In 1938 it was proposed to send five men to make a six month biological survey of the three Cayman Islands (Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman) in the West Indies. Apart from bringing back specimens and information on animals, reptiles and insects unknown in Britain, the aim of the expedition was to study the change in flora and fauna as rains succeeded the dry season, and by close observation of land snails it was hoped to show an affinity between the islands and Jamaica – approximately 170 miles to the east.

Gerald was secretary of the Oxford University Entomological Society and was invited to accompany the expedition as assistant entomologist to Dr C B Lewis. He was twenty years of age. The Expedition collected a mass of insect material but the outbreak of war interfered with identification. The following new species were, however, identified by various authorities and some of them were named after Gerald:

  • Lepidoptera Lycaenidae Brephidium exilis thompsoni n.var collected in South Sound Grand Cayman was a new variety of the smallest butterfly in the world.
  • Cerambycidae Protosphaerion caymanensis sp.n;
  • Eburia lewisi sp.n;
  • Leptostylus thompsoni sp.n;
  • Leptostylus lewisi sp.n;
  • Leptostylus caymanensis sp.n;
  • Derancistrus nigripes sp.n;
  • Derancistrus nigriconis sp.n;
  • Derancistrus caymanenosis sp.n;
  • Eburia caymanensis sp.n;
  • Eburia concisyspiris sp.n;
  • Elaphidion lewisi sp.n;
  • Elaphidion thompsoni sp.n;
  • Elaphidion truncotipene sp.n;
  • Stizocera caymanensis sp.n;
  • Hemiptera Lygaeidae Ochrostethus nigriceps sp.n;
  • Ozophora fuscifemur sp.n;
  • Ozophora pallidifemur sp.n;
  • Ozophora minuscula sp.n;
  • Carabidas Callida caymanensis sp.n;
  • Colliserus tetrastigma caymanensis sub sp.n;
  • Neuroptera Myrmeleonidae Psammoleon reductus sp.n;

Types and paratypes are held in South Kensington Natural History Museum, London, the Hope Department of Entomology, Oxford, London Zoo and American Zoos. Quote from The Telegraph, 31.8.38 under the heading GREEN TURTLES AND IGUANAS ‘Animals and reptiles rarely, if ever, seen in Europe, were landed in Liverpool today on the return, after a six month absence, of members of the Oxford University expedition to the Cayman Islands in the West Indies…….some of the specimens will shortly be seen at the London Zoo, which is to have the choice of the collection………’

The collection included 19 iguanas or spine lizards up to four feet in length, two green turtles, four hawksbill turtles, 16 land turtles, several lizards and land crabs, 27 black snakes and nine wood snakes as well as spiders, scorpions and centipedes.

The following is Gerald’s account of the expedition as it appeared in The Griffin, The Lawrence Sheriff School Magazine, in 1938: ‘It was my good fortune to accompany this expedition, which went out under the auspices of the Oxford University Exploration Club. The three Cayman Islands are situated two hundred miles north-west of Jamaica. The two lesser Caymans were discovered in 1503 by Columbus, who named them Tortugas because they swarmed with turtles. In 1670 the islands were ceded by Spain to Great Britain in whose hands they remained as a Dependency of Jamaica under the guidance of a Commissioner. The expedition was in acceptance of a long-standing invitation by Commissioner Cardinall to make a biological survey of these islands.

The party comprised:-W.G.Alexander – Leader and Organiser; C.B.Lewis (Wadham College) – Biologist; W.N.Paton (Magdalen College) – Marine Biologist; and W. Kings – Botanist and myself as the other Biologist.

Leaving England on March 22nd, our fourteen days voyage to Jamaica passed fairly uneventfully. I was in quarantine in Jamaica for two weeks owing to an attack of mumps, and the remainder of the party went on ahead to the Caymans.

In late April I boarded the mailboat Cimboco for Grand Cayman. The distance is approximately 200 miles to the island, but we went out of our way to call at the Lesser Caymans, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. Of this two and a half days’ journey I could speak at great length, but lack of space forbids. Suffice that the eleven year old Cimboco, built as a schooner with a round bottom and second-hand four-cylinder Swedish engines, fully lived up to her reputation. She rolled scuppers under most of the way, and I spend two days of quiet resting and fasting in my bunk.

Arriving at Georgetown, the capital of Grand Cayman, I was quickly introduced to our headquarters – a very substantial house in a large garden in which there were fruit trees of the following varieties: Sweet Orange, Sour Orange, Sour Sop, Sweet Sop, Tangerine, Guinip, Naseberry, Spanish Plum, Starapple, Breadfruit and Mango. The latter yielded a bumper harvest this year, and the Caymanians have a saying that this forecasts a hurricane – a true prediction, as future events were to show.

The population of the island is 4,500. One third of the total is white, the largest white population proportionately of any West Indian Island. A considerable proportion of the white blood is of pirate stock, for these islands, owing to their position on the route through the Caribbean to the Yucatan Straits, were at one time popular pirate bases. Morgan himself was a frequent visitor. Their pirate connections are revealed in many of the names of places and families, but the friendliness and hospitality of the people is in great contrast to their pirate ancestry.

Immediately upon my arrival we went into camp at a remote part of the coast. We had two local boys as field assistants, a cook, and a boy to work the motorboat which we occasionally hired. The first night in camp taught us a lesson we never forgot, for our tents were pitched near a mangrove pool, and mosquitoes and sandflies rendered sleep impossible for everyone in camp that night. Sandflies are an especial curse, for no net will keep them out. Next day, having moved camp to the extremity of a sandy point, we slept moderately well for the rest of our stay, except on two nights when the wind failed completely, and consequently groans and epithets pervaded the sultry night air. The landcrabs are somewhat eerie until one becomes used to them. At night they rustle all around in the undergrowth and have a nasty habit of lingering on the paths. There are several species, and the largest measure 18 inches across the legs. I tried the strength of a male’s pincers on my boot, and was indeed surprised at their power – my toe was nearly crushed through the leather.

We also had two catboats at our disposal. These have no centre plate or keel, but are used under ballast, and with their sloping mast they can sail very close to the wind. They are extremely easily capsized and we had many thrills and narrow escapes in the water.

Soon after this the party divided – Lewis, Kings and myself boarding the Cimboco for the Lesser Caymans, whilst Paton and Alexander lived on board a schooner anchored in a large sound on the North side of the island. There they continued studying the marine fauna of that very interesting area.

The Lesser Caymans are sixty miles from Grand Cayman and four miles apart. Cayman Brac, where we stayed ten days, has a cliff 140 feet high at one end, this being the highest point of the three islands, for Little Cayman is completely flat, and Cayman Brac never rises above 50 feet. The population here is 1,500 and the people still speak with awe of the 1932 hurricane, when the wind reached a velocity of approximately 200 miles per hour. Hardly a house remained standing and the whole aspect of the island was changed by the tearing up and destruction of the majority of the coconut trees. Here we first encountered the Iguana, a large lizard reaching a maximum length of 6 feet. We were also surprised and perturbed to find exceedingly common the dreaded Black Widow Spider, responsible for so many deaths in the United States. The remarkable scarcity of fatalities on Cayman Brac and also on Little Cayman, where the spider is even more numerous, can be attributed perhaps to the spider’s nocturnal habits and to the fact that the people retire to bed about an hour before the spider becomes active. On Grand Cayman the spider is very scarce and does not occur near the settlements.

Cayman Brac is connected by wireless with Grand Cayman which has daily schedules with Cuba and Jamaica, but Little Cayman, which we next visited is completely isolated. The population is only 64. We stayed with a certain Capt. Sam Bodden, the living image of a typical pirate. His pirate resemblances were enhanced by the great affection he bestowed upon his parrot. He existed on treasure which he had found on the Banner Reef many years ago. The safe in which the gold ingots were kept was blown away in the 1932 hurricane when the sea swept over the whole island. The safe was found buried in the sand, but the key remained undiscovered, so the wily Captain, not wishing his neighbours to know the secret of his treasure, employed a deaf and dumb boy to open the safe. Nevertheless, the heaps which the lad afterwards formed in the sand convinced everyone that the Captain would not lack for gold for many a day.

Little Cayman is one of the last strongholds of the iguana, and we trapped several. Here we also caught a record number of insects for a light trap during one night – the almost unbelievable total of 100,000 specimens. We were kept busy for two days sorting the catch.

Arriving back on Grand Cayman we started almost immediately on our survey of the South Coast. Every afternoon during this period we had an electric storm with terrific thunder and torrential rain. The plantations, consisting of Banana, Pawpaw, Cassava, Yam, Sweet Potato and maize, are situated well inland and the paths leading to them, composed mainly of coral, are worn smooth by countless feet, naked, or wearing the native ‘wamper’, a shoe consisting of a piece of old motor tyre attached to the foot with thatch rope. When working out in the bush, which was very thick, we hacked our way through with the aid of machetes. The mosquitoes were beginning to appear, since it was late in June, and work in the bush was very uncomfortable at times. I should mention that the mosquitoes on Grand Cayman are more numerous than almost anywhere else in the world. Towards the end of August we experienced them at their worst, and then we spent as much time as possible indoors, for if you walk outside they will descend in a swarm and cover you in a black mass. We became considerably immune to their bites, which at first raised large bumps on our skins, but the pain remained most irritating. The malarial and yellow fever mosquito are present, but the diseases have not yet been introduced. During a long trek we made Northwards from the East end, were the first men, so the natives assured us, to cross a large marshy belt bordering the North Coast.

Our last absence from Headquarters was to visit the only North Coast settlement, whence we made many enjoyable excursions into the wooded interior of this region. Our collection of livestock, which had been increasing steadily, was augmented by the valuable addition of fourteen water tortoises, averaging about one foot in length. I accompanied the native who caught these reptiles for us in a distant mango pool. His method was to wade up to the waist in mud, feeling around with his hand until he touched a tortoise, which he then seized and threw at me. Why he was never bitten I was unable to understand, for they certainly bite. I speak from experience, since one climbed on top of the sack in which I was carrying them, and fastened hold with a vice-like grip to the meaty portion of my leg.

About this period several visits occurred which enabled the Caymanians to show their remarkable hospitality in the form of dances and picnics which they so dearly loved. A Cuban gunboat called, and the Spaniards, although they could speak no English, thoroughly enjoyed themselves. A French barquentine, the Cap Pilar, nearing the conclusion of her two-year trip round the world, was another visitor. She presented a beautiful spectacle in Georgetown Harbour. Adrian Seligman was her Captain, and we had dinner and a very enjoyable evening aboard. HMS Orion, arriving on August 8th, was the most notable visitor. On hurricane patrol in the Caribbean, she visits Cayman annually about this time, and thereby greatly raises the morale of the people in preparation for the hurricane months, August to October. The Cimboco, on which we were departing, delayed one day to allow us to attend festivities in honour of the Commander and Officers. During this evening it was arranged that Lewis and I, who required as much extra time as possible for packing, should travel on the Orion which was leaving for Jamaica on the 10th, the others travelling on the 9th as prearranged. So the party was split up , to reunite in Jamaica as we believed, but events were to greatly alter our plans. For on the 10th, unable to finish our packing in time, Lewis and I realised that we would have to stay on Grand Cayman for another fortnight. However, the following morning a hurricane struck without warning and gave us a thrill we would certainly not have missed. A very considerable amount of damage was done to the crops and trees, and several of the more poorly constructed houses were destroyed. Two schooners broke their moorings in the harbour, one being beached around the point, the other going out to sea and having subsequently to be located by the seaplane of the Orion, who returned to rescue the vessel. The Cimboco, which lost both her steadying sails when the hurricane passed her by, had an even rougher trip than usual, and limped into Kingston, Jamaica, two days overdue. Anxiety was felt for another Cayman schooner en route from Tampa, Florida, and we gained a very vivid impression of what it means to be isolated on an island having only schooner connections with the outside world.

Eventually the Cimboco, after being further delayed on account of another very severe hurricane passing South of the Caymans, left once more for Jamaica with Lewis and myself safely aboard.

And so ended a visit rendered enjoyable to the utmost by the extreme kindness and hospitality of the people, and their great willingness to co-operate in our work. The Commissioner too helped us in every imaginable way.

It will be several years before all the reports relating to our scientific material will be completed, but it is expected that they will provide significant data regarding the affinities of the Caymans with Cuba, Jamaica, and the mainland of Central America.

The islands appear to offer considerable scope for development, and under the guidance of the present Commissioner, rapid improvements are being made. Tourist trade is being sought, and it is hoped that soon the Caymans will be in substantially closer contact with the outside world’.

Note:The National Trust produced a book on Butterflies of the Cayman Islands and mentions the 1938 Expedition and the butterfly named after Gerald. In 2011 Gerald’s daughter Patricia Harvey-Thompson received an enquiry from the Secretary of the Cayman Catboat Club, whose work is to preserve the tradition of the Cayman Catboats.

As a result of this correspondence Patricia was able to provide the Cayman Catboat Club Islands Maritime Heritage Foundation with photographs of her father Catboat sailing. She also sent various material from her father’s archive including copies of the letters Gerald wrote to his parents on his journey to the Cayman Islands, his time there and the voyage back. These letters amount to 70 pages and are a fascinating insight into the Cayman Islanders in the year 1938, their way of living, the characters met, how the people lived etc. These letters and other archive material are now in the ‘Gerald Thompson Collection’ which is accessible to the public in the Cayman Islands National Archive Reading Room.

On may 12th 1938 Gerald wrote a letter to his parents from East End where he says ‘you’ll have to excuse the pencil, but my pen has run out and where I am now, ink is almost unheard of’.  He describes in part of this letter the expedition camp at Rum Point.  They had two light traps one at camp and one on Booby Bay (an island) about one mile away from camp.  One of their catboats was with them in camp and my father and one of the other men on the expedition used this catboat to get to and from Booby Bay – ‘made possible as heavy rain had fallen making it easily transversible.’

Gerald writes: ‘ I am now quite a sailor and can manage a cat boat fairly well – they are the most unstable craft ever invented, and a sudden puff of wind is sufficient to turn them over – it was great fun sailing about.  The Caymanians talk all the time in seaman’s language, and even in a catboat all orders are repeated.  Dan Jerwis 1902 made the first catboat which I saw in a garden at Northside.  I made one trip with Neil through the reef and along the sea to Northside in a catboat.  Here over half of the people have hookworm and are hardly able to grow sufficient food to keep alive on account of the ‘rabbits’ (agouti) which swarm.

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