The Cayman Islands were first sighted by European explorers on 10 May, 1503, owing to a chance wind that blew Christopher Columbus’ ship off course. On his fourth trip to the New World, Columbus was en route to the island of Hispaniola (now Haiti and the Dominican Republic) when his ship was thrust westward toward “two very small and low islands, full of tortoises (turtles), as was all the sea all about, insomuch that they looked like little rocks, for which reason these islands were called Las Tortugas.”
The two islands were Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. A 1523 map showing all three Islands gave them the name lagartos, meaning alligators or large lizards, but by 1530 the name Caymanas was being used. It is derived from the Carib Indian word for the marine crocodile, which is now known to have lived in the Islands. This name, or a variant, has been retained ever since.
An early English visitor was Sir Francis Drake, who on his 1585-86 voyage to these waters reported seeing “great serpents called Caymanas, like large lizards, which are edible.” It was the Islands’ ample supply of turtle, however, that made them a popular calling place for ships sailing the Caribbean and in need of meat for their crews. This began a trend that eventually denuded local waters of the turtle, compelling the local turtle fishermen to go further afield to Cuba and the Miskito Cays in search of their catch.
The first recorded settlements were located on Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, during the 1661-71 tenure of Sir Thomas Modyford as Governor of Jamaica. Because of the depredations of Spanish privateers, Modyford’s successor called the settlers back to Jamaica, though by this time Spain had recognised British possession of the Islands in the 1670 Treaty of Madrid. Often in breach of the treaty, British privateers roamed the area taking their prizes, probably using the Cayman Islands for replenishing stocks of food and water and careening their vessels. During the 18th century, the Islands were certainly well known to such pirates as Edward Teach (Blackbeard), Neal Walker, George Lowther and Thomas Antis, even after the Treaty of Utrecht, in 1713, was supposed to have ended privateering.
The first royal grant of land in Grand Cayman was made by the Governor of Jamaica in 1734. It covered 3,000 acres in the area between Prospect and North Sound. Others followed, up to 1742, developing an existing settlement, which included the use of slaves.
On 8th February 1794, an event occurred which grew into one of Cayman’s favourite legends, The Wreck of the Ten Sail. The convoy of more than 58 merchantmen sailing from Jamaica to England found itself dangerously close to the reef at Gun Bay, on the east end of Grand Cayman. Ten of the ships, including HMS Convert, the navy vessel providing protection, foundered on the reef. With the aid of Caymanians, the crews and passengers mostly survived, although some eight lives were lost.
The court martial of the fleet’s leader, Captain Lawford, revealed that a current had unexpectedly carried the fleet 20 miles north of its course. The incident underscores how common shipwrecks have been in the history of the Islands, and how much Caymanians themselves have depended on the sea.
The first census of the Islands was taken in 1802, showing a population on Grand Cayman of 933, of whom 545 were slaves. Before slavery was abolished in 1834, there were over 950 slaves owned by 116 families. Emancipation paved the way for development of a homogeneous society.
Though Cayman was always regarded as a dependency of Jamaica, the reins of government by that colony were loosely held in the early years, and a tradition grew up of self-government, with matters of public concern decided at meetings of all free males. In 1831 a legislative assembly was established comprising two houses: the eight magistrates appointed by the Governor of Jamaica and ten elected representatives or vestrymen.
The constitutional relationship between Cayman and Jamaica remained ambiguous until 1863 when an act of the British parliament formally made the Cayman Islands a dependency of Jamaica. When Jamaica achieved independence in 1962, the Islands opted to remain under the British Crown, and an administrator (in 1971 the title became Governor) appointed from London assumed the responsibilities previously held by the governor of Jamaica.
Cayman Islanders have a tradition of hardiness and independence of spirit, which sustained them through many difficult years when their home was sometimes referred to as “the islands time forgot.” In those years, they earned a livelihood at sea, either as turtle fishermen or as crew members on foreign-owned ships, or by working in North and Central America. In 1906 more than a fifth of the population of 5,000 was estimated to be at sea, and even as late as the 1950s the government annual report said that the main “export” was seamen whose remittances were the mainstay of the economy.
Since those days the economy has grown in remarkable fashion, to be a model envied in other parts of the region. Over the last 30 years, governments have pursued policies aimed at developing the infrastructure, education, health and social services of the Islands, fostering the stability which is an important factor in the continued growth of Cayman’s two main industries, tourism and financial services.