History of the Cayman Islands: From the Past to the Present


Iguana on the Cayman Islands

Most countries have a colorful and vibrant history that is filled with exploration, discovery, adventure and battle and the Cayman Islands is no different in this regard. Although the Cayman Islands remained mostly uninhabited until the 17th century, there is much history preceding this time. www.travelrows.com


The highlight of the beginning of the discover of the Cayman Islands starts with Christopher Columbus’ sighting of the islands on 10 May 1503 and the emphasis in his records are the fact that the islands were full of tortoises. This resulted in the islands being named Las Tortugas with reference to these tortoises. However a name change was in store, as it was discovered that the islands appeared to be largely inhabited by alligators or large lizards, although it is not clear which exactly at the time. A map drawn in 1523 refers to the islands by the name Lagartos which mean large lizards or alligators. The name was changed again in about 1530 to Caymanas with reference to the Carib Indian word “marine crocodile”.

This use of the term was confirmed by Sir Francis Drake on his visit to t he islands during his 1585-86 voyage. His report refers to these creatures as large serpents called Caymanas, and interestingly, he refers to them as being edible!

However the reality at the time was that the islands had an abundant supply of turtles, and this encouraged ships to stop there in order to replenish the meat supply with turtle meat. Ultimately this caused a denudation of the turtle population on the Cayman Islands.

Human settlement of the Cayman Islands is recorded to have commenced between 1661-1671 by the Spanish although the British took possession of the islands in 1670 with the signing of the Treaty of Madrid.

The 1700s

The 1700s saw the occupation of the Cayman Islands, primarily by a few prominent British families, of whom the Boddens were the best known. The Governor of Jamaica made the first royal grant of 3000 acres land on Grand Cayman in 1734 and this was then followed by four other grants. The population at this time was between 100-150 individuals and the primary business was the export of mahogany and logwood, which was exported to Jamaica.

By 1773, the population of the islands had grown to about 400 people of whom half were slaves. By the 1780s, exports to Jamaica had expanded to include not only wood but also cotton, sarsaparilla and of course, turtles.

1790 saw the building of Fort George to fend off attacks by the Spanish and French and a major incident during this time, in 1794, was the Wreck of the Ten Sail. This concerned a convoy of 58 merchantmen that were sailing from Jamaica to England. Ten ships foundered on the east end reef of the Grand Caymans, causing a loss of 8 lives. The rescue operations by the Caymanians apparently resulted in King George III guaranteeing Caymanians that they would never have to pay tax ever again!

The 1800s

By 1802, the population on Grand Cayman had increased to 933 people of whom more than half were slaves, according to a census taken then. Slavery continued until 1833 when it was finally abolished by the Emancipation Act 1933 introduced by Governor Slingo of Jamaica lands, and by that time, the 116 families on the island owned almost 1000 slaves collectively. This task was performed by the first legislative assembly on the Cayman Islands which was established in 1831. For all intents and purposes, the Cayman Islands were unofficially a dependency of Jamaica until 1863 when it became a formal dependency. Jamaica was granted independence in 1962 while the Cayman Islands chose to remain under the British Crown.

From a religious standpoint, the first missionaries arrived onto the islands in the 1830s and a church was built in George Town during that time. The church was also responsible for the establishment of the first formal schools then.

The 1800s saw the continued development of the Cayman Islands from a political and economic standpoint. It is during this time that there was greater migration to the Cayman Islands from other British colonies and territories as well.

The 1900s

The history of the Cayman Islands has been colorful to say the least but what is obvious is the consistent and earnest effort for development and growth amongst its people. The 1900s saw major development in the field of education with the classification of government schools under the Education Act 1920, the development of an airfield on Grand Cayman in 1953 as well. In addition, Barclays Bank, the first commercial bank on the Cayman Islands set up offices there in the same year.

The 1950s saw the growth of the tourism industry on the Cayman Islands and in 1959, the Cayman Islands ceased as a dependency of Jamaica and enacted its first written constitution. Amongst the content of this document was the granting of the right to vote to women!

The 1960s saw legislation being enacted to develop the banking industry and in 1968, Cayman Airways was launched. The population of the Cayman Islands is a mere 10,000 in 1970 but nonetheless, a new constitution is introduced in 1972 together with Cayman’s own currency. A very short six years later, the population has soared to 16,677 people and by 1981, the Cayman Islands has its own prison.

Much aggressive growth and development takes place in the 1980s and focus is given to the arts and the development of culture. In addition, the government enacts legislation to consolidate the marine, trade and building and hotel industries so that these are better regulated.

The first major natural disaster that the Cayman Islands faced was in 1988 when the eye of Hurricane Gilbert passed Grand Cayman, causing a loss of CI$16.5 million. By 1989, the population on the Cayman Islands has grown to 25,355 people in a short space of 8 years and the Cayman Islands is alive with art, drama, theatre and music that envelopes its incoming tourist dollars.

In line with the Caymanian government’s move to development the provision of financial service on the islands, the Cayman Monetary Authority begins operations in 1997 as does the Cayman Islands Stock Exchange. In 1999 the government then establishes a Financial Services Secretariat and by this time the population ha increased to 39,410 people.

All this focus on the development of a financial infrastructure on the Cayman Islands has paid odd with more than 40,000 companies registered there as of 2002, including 43 of the world’s largest banks. In addition, the Cayman Island derives substantial contribution to its GDP through the tourism industry as well.

2004 sees another natural disaster in the form of Hurricane Ivan which leaves devastation to the tune of CI$2.8 billion.


From very humble beginnings, the Cayman Islands have developed in leaps and bounds over the last 20 years moving away from the notion of an island holiday destination, to a formidable force in international finance and financial services. All in all though, for most visitors to the Cayman Islands, it continues to be an island paradise that beckons gently with its tropical climates and the sounds of waves crashing on its endless shores.

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