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A Capsule Cayman History

Recorded Caymanian history begins, not with Grand Cayman, but with the Sister Islands of Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. These islands were spotted by Christopher Columbus on his last journey to the New World on May 10, 1503. The explorer was actually on his way from Panama to Hispaniola (now home of the Dominican Republic and Haiti), when he was blown off course, a detour that brought him within sight of the Sister Islands.

Columbus named these islands "Las Tortugas" after the many sea turtles he found here. 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.

In the coming years, a French map portrayed Cayman Brac surrounded by crocodiles and a manuscript described the reptiles. There's no need for modern visitors to worry about those toothy lizards. In 1993 an archeological dig did discover the skeleton of one on Grand Cayman, followed by another three years later on Cayman Brac, proving the existence of the crocodiles. But no living version has been spotted.

Did You Know?

On a 1585 voyage, Sir Francis Drake reported sighting "great serpents called Caymanas, large like lizards, which are edible."

Slowly, human population rose and the first royal land grant in Grand Cayman came in 1734, marking the first permanent settlement. Through 1800, the population continued to grow with the arrival of shipwrecked mariners and immigrants from Jamaica.

Cayman Brac and Little Cayman remained primarily uninhabited, visited only by turtle hunters during season (some records show the tiny islands were settled but residents were attacked by pirates).

For years, the Cayman Islands served as a magnet for pirates. Buccaneers such as Sir Henry Morgan enjoyed its 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. In 1832 the citizens of the Cayman Islands met at what is today the oldest remaining structure on the island: St. James Castle. Remembered as the "Birthplace of Democracy" in Cayman, this site witnessed the first vote to create a legislature of representatives.

By 1835, slavery had been outlawed by Great Britain and the islands led a quiet existence, many of the population working as turtle 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 a good barter for daily staples. During this time, shipbuilding became a major industry as well. (Palm thatch played such an important role in Cayman's history it even appears on the Caymanian flag.)


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