While it's likely that the Cayman Islands was first visited by the Amerindians, the Indigenous peoples of the Caribbean, for many the written history begins on the 10th of May 1503 when Christopher Columbus' son Ferdinand noted in his journal, "We were in sight of two small low islands filled with tortoises, as was the sea all about."
Columbus named the islands Las Tortugas after the profusion of sea turtles he saw along Cayman’s uninhabited shore. Read on to learn about the illustrious history of Cayman’s early settlers, who were hardy, ingenious and self sufficient.
Far from the sophisticated jurisdiction it is today, Cayman’s early environment was harsh and quite removed from the comforts of the developed world. But Cayman’s first residents not only developed a deep, abiding love for these Islands but with hard work and sacrifice, forged a steady path towards the infrastructural and societal advancements we now enjoy.
Cayman Resident details the historic highlights spanning from 1503 to the 1970s.
Years 1503 to 1670
When Columbus came upon Cayman, the explorer was on his fourth voyage of discovery when his ships, “Santiago de Palos” and “La Capitana,” sailed past Cayman Brac and Little Cayman.
The date was the 10th of May 1503, and his son Ferdinand noted in his journal, “We were in sight of two small, low islands, filled with tortoises, as was the sea all about.” However, Columbus named the islands ‘Las Tortugas’ after the large number of sea turtles he saw. Columbus and his men didn’t stop. Worm-eaten and leaking badly, their ships laboured on until they had to be beached and eventually abandoned in St. Ann’s Bay, Jamaica.
Historians question whether Columbus was really the first European to set eyes on the Cayman Islands; a full year prior to Columbus’ journey, the three islands appeared on the 1502 Cantino map. Moreover, Queen Isabella of Spain authorised four other voyages to the New World in 1499. Aside from these facts, even if Columbus was the first European explorer to set foot in Cayman, at the time of his visit, there were as many as a million Carib, Taíno and Arawak Indians (Amerindians) living in the adjacent coastal areas in the region. Archival research suggests that Cayman is a word of Carib-Indian origin (meaning crocodile).
The Caribs and Taíno were proficient mariners, known to make ocean journeys in canoes up to 80ft in length. In Jamaica, thousands of Taíno Indians were living just up wind and up current from Cayman, so it is probable that the Taíno were among Cayman’s first visitor.
In 1586, Sir Frances Drake and a fleet of 23 ships stopped in Grand Cayman for two days and recorded that the island was not inhabited, but that there were numerous crocodiles, alligators, iguanas and turtles.
In 1655, Admiral William Penn and General Robert Venables were sent from Britain by Oliver Cromwell, to take Hispaniola island from the Spanish. The so-called “Western Design” failed, as the English did not capture the Spanish stronghold; however, they did manage to seize Jamaica. Shortly afterwards, Cayman became a possession of the Great Britain, following the signing of the Treaty of Madrid in 1670.
Years 1700 to 1900
In the 1700s, permanent settlement of Grand Cayman began with a few families, most notably the Boddens. Between 1734 and 1742, five land grants in Grand Cayman were made by the Governor of Jamaica. At this time, mahogany and logwood were exported to Jamaica.
In 1780, William Eden, a mariner and early English settler, established a cotton and mahogany plantation in Savannah’s Pedro bluff, building St. James (now known as Pedro St. James Castle), a remarkable building for that period and the only house on Grand Cayman to survive the devastating hurricane of 1784.
In 1794 the ‘Wreck of the Ten Sail’ occurred and Cayman’s most popular legend (of how Cayman became tax-free) was born. In 1798, the Governor of Jamaica appointed the first magistrate in Cayman.
The 1800s saw the first census (1802) and on the 5th of December 1831, Pedro St. James was the site of a historic meeting of residents who came together to resolve which representatives should be appointed for the five different districts. The meeting allowed for local laws to be formed for better government. Cayman’s first elections took place five days later, and on the 31st of December, the first Legislative Assembly met in George Town.
The population at that time was approximately 2,000. Between 1830 and 1840, the first missionaries from the Anglican and Wesleyan churches arrived and the first schools were established (the Mico Charity and the Wesleyan school). In 1835, Governor Sligo of Jamaica landed in Cayman to declare all slaves free, in accordance with the Emancipation Act of 1833. In 1846, the Presbyterian Church was established by the Rev. James Elmslie. In 1898, Frederick Sanguinetti, a British national, was appointed by the Governor of Jamaica as the first Commissioner of the Cayman Islands.
Years 1900 to 1970s
In 1920, a major Education act paved the way for the establishment of government schools in all districts. In 1937, the first cruise ship, the ‘Atlantis’, visited the Cayman Islands and the beginnings of tourism commenced with the publication of the first tourist booklet.
However, tourism did not really take off until the 1950s when a number of hotels were opened and Grand Cayman’s first airfield was built in 1953, replacing the seaplane service that had operated in North Sound since the 1940s. 1953 was significant for two other reasons, including the opening of the first commercial bank (Barclays) and the first hospital (George Town Public Hospital).
In 1959, Cayman received its first written constitution, which also granted the vote to women, and in the same year, Cayman ceased to be a dependency of Jamaica. In 1962, following Jamaica’s independence from England, Cayman chose to remain as a Crown Colony.
In 1965, the Mosquito Research Control Unit began operating and also in that year, the Chamber of Commerce, the Caymanian Weekly newspaper (later the Caymanian Compass) began publishing and the Rotary Club of Grand Cayman was chartered. In 1966, landmark legislation was introduced to encourage the banking industry. In 1968, Cayman Airways started flying, and in 1970, the population reached 10,249 with a total of 403 visitors arriving that year.
In 1972, a new constitution was introduced under which Cayman would be governed by a Legislative Assembly, Executive Council and a Governor. In this same year, Cayman introduced its own currency. In 1973, the Bahamas became independent, and Cayman’s banking industry took off.
Ready for a swashbuckling tale of Pirates of the Cayman Islands? Then look no further than the local history books! The golden age of piracy was alive and well in Cayman from the 1650s to the 1730s with Edward Teach, Blackbeard himself, being one of the most frequent marauders. Today, we celebrate this colourful history during Pirates Week, a week-long festival dedicated to celebrating heritage days, local culture, and of course, a spirited parade of pirates, wenches and a takeover of the capital.
The first Cayman land grants by the English Crown were made in 1734 and it is likely that these first settlers brought slaves. The holdings were granted to Campbell, Middleton, Bodden, Spofforth, Foster and Crymble. In 1773, the cartographer George Gauld drew the first map of Grand Cayman for the Royal Navy. He made a note in the margin, marking the population at 400 – half free and half slaves.