History of the Cayman Islands

by Ray Roman | Last updated on January 12, 2024

Explore the rich and storied past of the Cayman Islands, a captivating destination with a narrative shaped by discovery, pirates, and transformation.

From intrepid explorers to influential changes in political governance, these islands have developed a unique identity infused with resilience and a vibrant maritime culture. Here, you are invited to journey through history to better understand the roots of this beloved Caribbean treasure.

History of the Cayman Islands
History of the Cayman Islands

The Age of Discovery

Christopher Columbus and the Naming of the Islands

On May 10th, 1503, during his fourth and final voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus happened upon the Cayman Islands.

Bound for Panama to Hispaniola, a stroke of fate led his ships off course due to strong winds, directing him to Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. The plethora of tortoises in the area was so overwhelming that Columbus dubbed these lands Las Tortugas, or The Turtles.

Changing Tides

Names, Buccaneers, and British Rule

Over the subsequent century and a half, the islands underwent several name changes, including Caymanas, reflecting the crocodile presence, rooted in a Caribbean term for the reptilian family.

Legendary figures like Sir Francis Drake and William Dampier chronicled the significant presence of “large lizards” encountered during their voyages in the 16th and 17th centuries.

In 1655, the Cayman Islands were swept under British control upon Oliver Cromwell’s army capturing Jamaica from Spain. The 1670 Treaty of Madrid further cemented British claims, ceding all Spanish West Indies territories to Britain.

Early Settlements and Resilience

Early settlers on Cayman Brac and Little Cayman braved harsh conditions, including frequent pirate attacks. When settlements dwindled from such threats, Sir Henry Morgan, among other buccaneers, frequented these islands.

As privateering gave way to outright piracy post the Treaty of Utrecht (1713-1714), the islands served as pirate hideouts. Records from 1734 mark the return of permanent settlers, and some of their descendants remain to this day.

Maritime Heritage and Cultural Evolution

The Wreck of the Ten Sails and Its Legacy

One of the most enduring local legends is “The Wreck of the Ten Sails” (1788), where purportedly ten merchant ships, led by the “Cordelia”, struck a reef. Despite the perils, East End residents heroically ensured no lives were lost.

As the story goes, their bravery – including potentially saving royalty – led to King George III bestowing tax exemption or conscription freedom, though records on these rewards remain inconclusive.

The Growth of a Seafaring Nation

Caymanians grew renowned for their seafaring prowess, carving out roles as fishermen, turtlers, and eventually, as recognized mariners on global merchant vessels.

This maritime tradition peaked in the 20th century but has since seen a decline, with newer generations remaining close to home.

Natural Catastrophes and Governance Developments

The 1932 Hurricane and Recovery

The Cayman Islands experienced the catastrophic 1932 hurricane, which caused significant loss of life on Cayman Brac and devastated infrastructure across the islands. It took years of resilience and rebuilding to recover from such immense destruction.

Political Advancements and Constitutional Milestones

In 1959, the islands enacted their first constitution, moving towards a more representative government. Following Jamaica’s independence in 1962, the Cayman Islands chose to remain a British territory, initiating an era of direct British governance and local administrative autonomy.

With the adoption of newer constitutions in 1972 and adjustments in 1993, the islands witnessed growth in legislature and executive functions.

Today, elected officials known as Ministers and their Permanent Secretaries serve a modern governmental structure, reflecting the islands’ continuous evolution and growth.