Christopher Columbus discovered Little Cayman and Cayman Brac during his fourth and last voyage to the New World, on May 10, 1503. While sailing from Panama to Hispaniola, severe winds pushed his ships off course west.
The ship's log reported "... we were in sight of two very small islands, full of tortoise, as was the sea about, inasmuch as they looked like little rocks." Consequently, Columbus named the islands Las Tortugas after the abundant sea turtles he sighted. The islands were later renamed Lagartos, meaning alligator or large lizard and finally, the name Caymanas was applied around 1540, derived from the Carib word for marine crocodile. This name, in a modified form, has remained since the late 16th century.
Sir Francis Drake visited the islands during a voyage between 1585-86 and reported sighting "great serpents called Caymanas, like large lizards, which are edible." An anonymous author in Drake's fleet also described 10-foot long crocodiles. According to the Cayman Islands National Archive, there are written accounts of Cayman dating back to the 1830's which describe the shooting of crocodiles as a Sunday sport.
During the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, the islands were replenishment centres supplying abundant fresh water and food, including sea turtles and wild fowl, for English, Dutch, French and Spanish explorers and buccaneers plying the Spanish Main route.
The Cayman Islands came under British control in 1655 when Jamaica was captured from the Spanish by Oliver Cromwell's army. They officially became part of the British Empire under the Treaty of Madrid in 1670, after which Spain recognized British possession of "all lands, islands, colonies and places situated in the West Indies." For almost 300 years after that, the islands were administered as a dependency of Jamaica.
The first recorded settlement was of Little Cayman and Cayman Brac between 1666-1671, while Sir Thomas Modyford was Governor of Jamaica, comprising descendants of emigrants from the British Isles.
An interesting historic reference provided by the C.I. National Archive confirms details of the earliest settlers of Grand Cayman and their lifestyle. The following is an excerpt from a transcript of George Gauld's remarks, contained in a H.M. Royal Navy survey dated 1773, on the Island of Grand Cayman :
"The Island was originally settled by one of Oliver Cromwell's soldiers named Bodden, who had been at the taking of Jamaica. Old Isaac Bodden, his grandson, a native of the Island, now upwards of 70 years of age, remembers when there were only five families; but at this time, there are 21 at the South Side, which we have called Bodden Town, 13 at the West End, commonly called the Hogsties, 3 at the East End and 2 at Spot's Bay; in all 39 families, consisting of at least 200 white people and above same number of Negroes and Mulattoes."
"The Island produces a great quantity of cotton, which is their principle article of export besides Turtle; but for their own consumption, and to supply the vessels that pass by, they raise Indian corn, yams, sweet potatoes, pompions, plantains, melons, limes, oranges and most kinds of the fruits and vegetables that are to be found in Jamaica. The Sugar Cane likewise grows very well. There are plenty of goats on the Islands, but neither sheep nor black cattle, and only two horses, which were lately brought there from Jamaica by accident."
The first royal land grant in Grand Cayman, signalling the beginning of permanent settlement, was recorded around 1700, covering 3000 acres between Prospect and North Sound, and others followed until 1742. These settlements included the use of slaves, although slavery was limited and never reached the harsh and oppressive conditions which existed in plantocracy societies elsewhere in the Caribbean. About this time the population of Grand Cayman was around 400.
Legends of Cayman's occupation by pirates during the 18th century, including treasure caches left behind by Edward "Blackbeard" Teach, Neal Walker (in Little Cayman) and Henry Morgan, continue to be a romantic but historically questionable part of the folklore of this Western Caribbean country.
One of the most colourful historic legends, The Wreck of The Ten Sails, was recently "rewritten" in an accurate account uncovered through detailed research by Dr. Margaret Leshikar Denton. On February 8, 1794, not November 1788 as long thought, 10 merchant vessels went aground in rough seas off Grand Cayman's East End, led by the HMS Convert. Contrary to an enduring popular legend, the convoy did not carry Prince William, the future King William IV, or any member of the Royal family, whose courageous rescue by Caymanians was said to be rewarded with the granting of the Cayman's freedom from taxation by King George III.
Another important historic event is the "Birth of Democracy" in the Cayman Islands. Pedro St. James great house in Savannah was the site of a historic meeting of residents which took place on 5 December 1831, during which it was resolved that representatives should be appointed for the five different districts for the purpose of forming local laws for better Government. The elections took place on 10 December in each of the five districts of Grand Cayman and on 31 December the newly appointed representatives met in George Town as the Cayman Islands' first Legislative Assembly .
Another historic event took place at Pedro in May 1835, when the proclamation declaring the emancipation of all slaves throughout the colonies was read at Pedro St. James and at a number of other prominent places in the Cayman Islands.
During the next century, with limited natural resources to sustain them, Caymanians became known for their resourcefulness and independent spirit. They turned to the sea for their livelihood, and Caymanians' reputation as outstanding sailors and turtle fishermen grew throughout the early 20th century. Many Caymanian men joined the merchant marines and earned reputations as some of the finest ship's captains and seamen in the world.
When Jamaica attained independence in 1962, the Cayman Islands chose to remain tied to Britain as a British Crown Colony. In 1971, the Islands received their first Governor and the present constitution was adopted in 1972. Its most recent amendments were adopted in February 1994.
Today, tourism and the international financial services industry form the basis of Cayman's strong economy and prosperity. The Cayman Islands is recognized as the "birthplace" of the modern sport of recreational scuba diving.
The legendary Bob Soto opened the Caribbean's first dive shop on Grand Cayman in 1957. The country's Tourist Board was formed in 1966, launching the country's earliest serious efforts at tourism promotion overseas. It set a precedent for the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism, which was created by the Tourism Law of 1974.
The country's successful offshore financial services industry dates back to 1966 when the first banking and trust laws were passed, laying the foundation for the modern banking and financial services industry which exists today.
Over the last decade, we've made serious attempts to document a comprehensive and authoritative history of these islands for the past 300 years. Much important research has been conducted in the last five years, specifically through the dedicated efforts of the staff of the Cayman Islands National Archive.