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Cayman Brac and Little Cayman were spotted on May10, 1503 by Christopher Columbus during his last journey to the New World. Actually on his way from Panama to Hispaniola (now home of the Dominican Republic and Haiti), Columbus was blown off course. This detour allowed him to sight the sister islands.

He called these islands Las Tortugas after the many sea turtles he found there. In his notes, the explorer wrote “... we were in sight of two very small islands, full of tortoises, as was the sea about, inasmuch as they looked like little rocks.” Later maps referred to the islands as Lagartos, probably a reference to the large lizards (possibly iguanas) seen on the island.

Later, the name became Caymanas from the Carib Indian word for caymans, the marine crocodile.

Continue Cayman Islands History

Cayman Islands First Permanent Settlement

Grand Cayman Wreck of the Ten Sails - End of Taxation!

Cayman Islands Birthplace of Democracy

Cayman Islands Outlawing of Slavery

Cayman Shipbuilding - Caymananians Go To Sea

Cayman Islands First Airfield


Modern Times

The jump into the 20th century was aided by commissioner Sir Allen Cardinall, who served on the island from 1934 to 1940. Linking the public buildings of Grand Cayman with a network of roads, the commissioner was also the first public figure to recognize the tourism potential, even noting that one beach was “the most perfect bathing beach in the West Indies.”


By 1957, dive operator Bob Soto began the islands’ first recreational diving business and introduced the world to these pristine waters. The islands continued as a dependency of Jamaica, with both as protectorates of Great Britain, until 1962 when Jamaica became independent.

The Caymanians had a far different view of the Union Jack than their Jamaican neighbors, however; in 1962 a vote overwhelmingly favored the islands’ remaining a British dependency.


1503 – Discovery by Christopher Columbus.
1586 – Sir Francis Drake’s ships stop on Grand Cayman for two days.
1670 – Islands ceded to Britain (along with Jamaica) under the Treaty of Madrid.
1672 – First settlers arrived near Bodden Town.
1708 – Great Britain renamed islands Cayman Islands.
1790 – Fort George constructed.
1794 – Wreck of the Ten Sails.
1831 – Pedro St. James hosts Assembly, which decides to form democracy.
1835 – Emancipation of slaves.
1863 – Cayman becomes dependency of Jamaica.
1937 – First cruise ship visits.
1954 – First airfield.
1957 – First recreational diving business.
1962 – Cayman Islands vote to remain British Crown Colony.


On a 1585 voyage, Sir Francis Drake reported sighting “great serpents called Caymanas, large like lizards, which are edible.” A few years later, a French map showed Cayman Brac with crocodiles in its waters, along with a manuscript that described the reptiles.

No modern residents had ever seen the toothy lizards, but in 1993 an archeological dig on Grand Cayman (and three years later on Cayman Brac) proved the existence of the crocodiles. But it was the turtle that continued to bring sailors to this region. For years, the isles served only as a pit stop on these maritime runs.

In 1655 the islands came under British control when Jamaica was captured from the Spanish by Oliver Cromwell’s army. Tucked near Jamaica and Spanish-ruled Cuba, the British thought that the Cayman Islands were strategically located.

According to legend, some deserters from Cromwell’s army fled Jamaica with escaped slaves and arrived in Cayman Brac and Little Cayman in 1658. Allegedly, their names were Watler and Bowden, and today some of those islands’ oldest families, theWatlers and the Boddens, may be their descendants.

The possession of the islands by the British Empire wouldn’t be official until 1670, when they were ceded to Britain along with Jamaica by the Treaty of Madrid. The Brits tried to settle the formerly uninhabited island of Grand Cayman, but continuous problems with Spanish pirates sent the settlers back to Jamaica just a year later.

A Permanent Settlement:

Slowly, the population increased and the first royal land grant in Grand Cayman came in 1734, marking the first permanent settlement. Through 1800, the island continued to grow in population with the arrival of shipwrecked mariners and immigrants from Jamaica. Cayman Brac and Little Cayman remained primarily uninhabited (some records show the tiny islands were settled but residents were attacked by pirates), only visited by turtle hunters during season.

For years, the Cayman Islands served as a magnet for pirates, and buccaneers such as Sir Henry Morgan enjoyed their sunny shores for at least brief stopovers. During the American Revolution, American privateers challenged English shipping, aided by the war ships and merchant ships of France, Spain, and Holland. By 1782, peace came to the seas and buccaneering drew to a close.

Wreck of the Ten Sails:

According to the latest research, in 1794, a great maritime tragedy took place off the east end of Grand Cayman. The Wreck of the Ten Sails is still legendary on Grand Cayman, recalling the tragedy of the Cordelia, part of a convoy of merchant ships headed to Britain from Jamaica. Cordelia ran aground on the reef at the east end and frantically sent a signal to the other ships in the convoy to warn them off the dangerous coral.

Sadly, the signal was misunderstood and, one by one, they all ran into the reef. East End residents were credited with their quick actions that saved many lives, an act that King George III later recognized.

Various stories explain that the King granted the islands freedom from conscription and other versions say that the king gave the islands freedom from taxation.

Birthplace of Democracy:

In 1832 the citizens of the Cayman Islands met at what is today the oldest remaining structure on the island, Pedro St. James National Historic Site. Remembered as the “Birthplace of Democracy” in Cayman, this site witnessed the first vote to create a legislature of representatives. This historic building has been renovated and is now open to the public.

Outlawing Of Slavery:

By 1835, slavery had been outlawed by Great Britain and the islands led a quiet existence, many of the population working as fishermen or building turtling boats. The sea provided a livelihood for most residents, who then traded for agricultural items that couldn’t be grown on the island. Palm thatch was transformed into marine rope and offered in barter for daily staples.


Shipbuilding and Taking to The Seas:

During this time, shipbuilding became a major industry as well. For the next century, the Cayman Islands remained relatively isolated. Residents continued their old traditions, but hurricanes, tidal waves, and a depletion of the green turtle supply forced some residents to sail to Cuba, Honduras, and Nicaragua to earn a living. The merchant seamen navigated the waters and this sustained the economy of the islands until tourism and finance rose to prominence in the 20th century. During this time, the islands were not only cut off geographically, but they also lacked much communication with the outside world. The first wireless station wasn’t built until 1935.

Cayman Islands First Airfield:

In 1953, the first airfield in the Cayman Islands – the Owen Roberts International Airport on Grand Cayman – was completed. A year later, an airstrip opened on Cayman Brac. Within three years tourism began taking hold on Seven Mile Beach.


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Cayman Islands History - Complete Guide to History of the Cayman Islands