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A bygone era at Pedro St. James

Step back in time and enjoy a fascinating glimpse into Cayman’s past 

I recall first visiting Pedro St. James, or Pedro Castle as it is often called, at just six-years-old. With its stone framework, 18-inch thick walls, numerous cannons, and jail cell, not to mention the word “castle” in its title, I was convinced that this 18th century “great house” was indeed a castle.

A few decades later I’m back to join a guided tour to learn more about this fascinating home, and to find out the reason behind its misleading moniker.

Pedro St. James was built more than 200 years ago and offers a fascinating glimpse into Cayman’s past. Perched on a dramatic stretch of ocean bluff with far-reaching views across manicured lawns and the Caribbean Sea, this magnificent site is the ideal spot to learn more about the island’s rich culture and heritage.

Visitors can tour the site under their own steam or enjoy a guided tour. I opt for the latter. Many of the tour guides are direct descendants of previous inhabitants, offering a rich glimpse into the home’s fascinating past.

A colourful background

Built in 1780, when Cayman’s population hovered at around 500 inhabitants, Pedro St. James was Cayman’s largest building and the only brick-and-mortar structure on island. The project was led by William Eden, an Englishman whose descendants would be just one of many to occupy the house over the years.

In 1831 the decision was made at the house to form Cayman’s first government, leading it to become known as the “Birthplace of Democracy.” Just a few years later in 1835, the house was the spot where a new era was ushered in when it was announced from the front steps that slavery had been abolished in the British Empire.

Life at Pedro St. James certainly has been colourful. The great house has served as a home, courthouse, jail, government assembly, inn and restaurant. It has also been besieged by a series of fires and hurricanes, and abandoned twice, leading many to believe the building was jinxed.

In 1991, Pedro St. James was given a new lease of life when it was acquired by the Cayman Islands Government, which embarked on an ambitious project to restore the home to its former glory.  Today, Pedro St. James serves as a spectacular showpiece of a traditional Caribbean great house and a proud tribute to Cayman’s past.

Tour the house

As you walk the windswept verandas of its comfortable, open-air floors, there’s a distinct lived-in quality about the home.

Authentic furnishings and artifacts from the 18th century decorate the halls and rooms, from a wooden rocking horse to old-time kitchenware, showcasing the unparalleled living conditions its original habitants enjoyed.

During the tour, my guide Joseph explains the quirks of 18th century upper-class life in Cayman and points out interesting details that abound from yesteryear.

“Do you feel off-balance?” asks Joseph at one point, explaining that the balcony floor is angled sideways to keep away rainwater. The slight tilt suddenly comes to my attention, subtle but now quite noticeable.

Joseph also points out the mosquito net around a bed. It’s a reminder of a very different Cayman, before the advent of pest control, when these tiny insects were the greatest threat to cattle, and no one ventured outside at night without a smoke-pot to keep the swarms at bay.

After the tour, visitors are free to explore the more than seven-acre gardens filled with cacti and indigenous fruit trees, explore the caboose, a traditional outdoor kitchen where meals were prepared, and visit Watler House, a traditional wattle and daub Caymanian cottage. 

For first-time visitors, the initial stop should be the impressive multi-sensory presentation on the history of the castle.

The story-opening cliché of a dark and stormy night has never seen such an entrancing manifestation. Rain, wind, and lightning effects enhance the tragic tale of Mary Jane Eden, William Eden’s great-granddaughter who was killed by a bolt of lightning at the entrance steps, setting the house ablaze.

But, what about the reasoning as to why it’s called a castle?

The name stems from the early 1960s when American citizen Thomas Hubbell purchased the building and renovated the house so as it looked like a castle. It operated as an inn and restaurant from 1967 until 1970, when it caught fire. But, the moniker stuck.

Whether you are young or old, and whether you choose to view it as a castle or simply the grandest Caymanian house of its time, Pedro St. James remains an indisputable national treasure.                                                          Visit www.pedrostjames.ky

Words by Ian Swaby

Photos by Janet Jarchow