Christopher Columbus first sighted Cayman Brac and Little Cayman on 10 May 1503. On his fourth trip to the New World, Columbus was en route to Hispaniola when his ship was thrust westward toward "two very small and low islands, full of tortoises, as was all the sea all about, insomuch that they looked like little rocks, for which reason these islands were called Las Tortugas."
A 1523 map show all three Islands with the name Lagartos, meaning alligators or large lizards, but by 1530 the name Caymanas was being used. It is derived from the Carib Indian word for the marine crocodile, which is now known to have lived in the Islands. Sir Francis Drake, on his 1585-86 voyage, reported seeing "great serpents called Caymanas, like large lizards, which are edible."
It was the Islands' ample supply of turtle, however, that made them a popular calling place for ships sailing the Caribbean and in need of meat for their crews. This began a trend that eventually denuded local waters of the turtle, compelling local turtle fishermen to go further afield to Cuba and the Miskito Cays in search of their catch.
The first recorded settlements were located on Little Cayman and Cayman Brac during 1661-71. Because of the depredations of Spanish privateers, the governor of Jamaica called the settlers back to Jamaica, though by this time Spain had recognised British possession of the Islands in the 1670 Treaty of Madrid. Often in breach of the treaty, British privateers roamed the area taking their prizes, probably using the Cayman Islands to replenish stocks of food and water and careen their vessels.
The first royal grant of land in Grand Cayman was made by the governor of Jamaica in 1734. It covered 3,000 acres in the area between Prospect and North Sound. Others followed up to 1742, developing an existing settlement, which included the use of slaves.
On 8 February 1794, an event occurred which grew into one of Cayman's favourite legends -- The Wreck of the Ten Sail. A convoy of more than 58 merchantmen sailing from Jamaica to England found itself dangerously close to the reef on the east end of Grand Cayman. Ten of the ships, including HMS Convert, the navy vessel providing protection, foundered on the reef. With the aid of Caymanians, the crews and passengers mostly survived, although some eight lives were lost.
The first census of the Islands was taken in 1802, showing a population on Grand Cayman of 933, of whom 545 were slaves. Before slavery was abolished in 1834, there were over 950 slaves owned by 116 families.
Though Cayman was regarded as a dependency of Jamaica, the reins of government by that colony were loosely held in the early years, and a tradition grew of self-government, with matters of public concern decided at meetings of all free males. In 1831 a legislative assembly was established.
The constitutional relationship between Cayman and Jamaica remained ambiguous until 1863 when an act of the British parliament formally made the Cayman Islands a dependency of Jamaica. When Jamaica achieved independence in 1962, the Islands opted to remain under the British Crown, and an administrator appointed from London assumed the responsibilities previously held by the governor of Jamaica
The constitution currently provides for a Crown-appointed Governor, a Legislative Assembly and a Cabinet. Unless there are exceptional reasons, the Governor accepts the advice of the Cabinet, which comprises three appointed official members and five ministers elected from the 15 elected members of the Assembly. The Governor has responsibility for the police, civil service, defence and external affairs but handed over the presidency of the Legislative Assembly to the Speaker in 1991.
Last Updated: 2005-10-13