Christopher Columbus himself did the first sighting of the Cayman Islands. Sighted in May 1503, Columbus named them “Las Tortugas” (The Turtles), because of the vast abundance of sea turtles swimming around the Islands. Specifically, the Genovese captain had found only two islands: Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, and it would be these two that he named. Archaeological investigations have found no evidence of human life before this date.
Turtles were an attraction to all sailors for their meat and the first source of an economy that aroused on the Islands. This is known to an account of Sir Francis Drake, which was the first recorded English visitor on the Cayman Islands. By 1787 it was estimated that about 1400 turtles were captured and sold at seaports in Jamaica, every year. This activity was so common that overfishing nearly extinguished the turtles that roamed local waters. Thus, turtle fishing became the principal occupation of the Caymanians, and once they reduced their population, turtles started to migrate.
Almost all of the early inhabitants who settled in the Islands had trouble with the law somewhere else. The Caymans were a lawless society during its early days. The first recorded permanent settler was named Bodden, arriving at 1658 after serving with Oliver Cromwell’s army in Jamaica. His grandson became the first permanent inhabitant of the Caymans. His name was Isaac Bodden, born in Grand Cayman around 1700. Permanent settlers started to raise the Caymanian society by 1734, and most of them were pirates, refugees from the Spanish Inquisition, sailors and slaves.
With these individuals amongst the first settlers, the practice of “Wrecking” was common for their livelihood. This manoeuvre consisted of placing interesting objects that enticed any sailor’s interests, like placing mules or donkeys tied with lanterns on their bodies while walking along the beaches, or large bonfires as if to make believe there was a town or a dock. For the sailor looking at the horizon, it might’ve seemed like a busy port, so when the vessel approached coast, it would get quickly stuck in one of the numerous reefs in the Caymans. Once this was done, the settlers took canoes to plunder the ships under the false pretense of providing assistance.
For the first settlers and pioneers that populated the Caymans, to subsist in what was an inhospitable land they had to be enterprising, crafty and hard working, maintaining themselves through their given skills and crafts. Sustaining themselves by farming, fishing and turtling, soon they started to export wood which was heavily demanded by the Europeans. This went on for a while until they became well known as boat builders and expert seamen, which they had to be, in able to exist in the Cayman Islands.
England took former control of the Cayman Islands in 1670 after the Treaty of Madrid, thus becoming a useful dependency of Jamaica. Little by little, the Caymanian population started to self govern themselves. In 1831 a Legislative Assembly was formed, elections were held, and the first legislation was passed. Independence was never a possibility because of the isolation and lack of resources the Islanders needed. Being that they weren’t the only Caribbean territory reluctant to gain independence, the UK authorities created a new government framework for these lands while maintaining formal ties with London.
Grand Cayman was the only Island that practised slavery between 1734 and 1834. In this period, the proportion of slaves was almost as equal as that of free men. In 1835, Governor Sligo ruling from Jamaica arrived at the Caymans and declared all slaves freed, under the Emancipation Act of 1833. This did not sit well with Caymanian settlers, who undermined the authorities constantly, organising resistance efforts and revolts against Jamaica and the West India Regiments.
Since the mid-1830s, inhabitants of Grand Cayman started to populate the Sister Islands. Others migrated to Central America or to the US (specifically Tampa, Mobile and Port Arthur), mainly motivated by work.
A genuinely devastating hurricane struck the Cayman Islands in 1932. People at that time were totally unprepared for this kind of emergency. Most of them still lived in simple wattle and daub structures. The first strike was in the south coast of Grand Cayman; later that year, the hurricane moved up to the Sister Islands. Cayman Brac had it the worst. Few homes survived the storm, and out of the thousand people living there, 69 lost their lives, and 39 were lost at sea.
By 1959, the political dependence which the Cayman Islands had with Jamaica ceased. The Islands became a direct dependency of the British crown. Soon an evolution of political and social order arose. The first constitution was written in 1959, which allowed women to vote. Small modifications followed, enabling and encouraging the existence of active banking industry in the Caymans.
The “heyday” of the Caymanian men started in the modern era; from the Second World War, up to the Eighties. This was the time when new generations of Caymanians started to be renowned worldwide as professional and expert seamen. They started to land jobs in the international shipping industry (cargo ships, tankers, frigates). The average inhabitant of the Islands started to earn real money, as they specialised in their respective areas and gained notoriety.
Benson Greenall is credited as the man who “discovered” the tourism possibilities that Seven Mile Beach had to offer. In 1950 he built his hotel – the first hotel in the beach – thus motivating a whole new industry that revolves around the Island, becoming a pillar of its economy and starting a new national way of life. The first cruise ships that arrived at Georgetown did it in the late ’60s, but that really took off in the ’90s with the organised tours and cruise packages. This continues to this very day.
The financial sector is also responsible for the economic stability the Islands enjoy. 1962 marks the year that Cayman Islands decided to continue its close links with the UK. This certainly helped to attract the confidence of investors and bankers overseas. Like the Bahamas or Bermuda, the Cayman Islands executed the “Banks and Trust Companies Law” in 1966, which defined the basis for offshore banking services.
The “colonial relationship” between the UK and The Caymans provided this (somewhat) young nation, a necessary political and social stability that made the country flourish economically, socially and culturally. This is why no time has been wasted on so-called revolutions, reforms or any other political deceits that could represent a waste of economic resources. The current constitution took effect in 1972 with several amendments over time. Political life within the Islands consists of your typical parties, the most popular being the “Cayman Democratic Party” and the “People’s Progressive Movement”.
For many years the Cayman Islands have enjoyed almost null unemployment. Developers, Architects, Engineers and Construction workers are always busy building homes, condos, hotels, etc. A lot of foreign labour has been used in this trade (around 20,000 workers) and of course, in the tourism business. The financial industry grows exponentially and each year, many new companies are registered. Contrary to what the exaggerated status quo might indulge in, there is strict supervision with the help of US authorities to combat illegal money activities and money laundering. Proceeds from criminal activities always end up in arrests in the Islands or abroad.
2004 was a tough year for the Cayman Islands. Hurricane Ivan struck with a category 4 storm and flood. Many buildings were damaged. But this time disaster did not arrive like the unprepared Cayman Islands of 1932. Financial services were operational in instants after the backlash, and the tourism industry quickly recovered. Buildings were now constructed with more resistance to strong winds. Nowadays, the Cayman Islands rival the infrastructure and stable economy of most large nations.