While the history of the Cayman Islands, like many Caribbean countries, includes both pirates and slaves, the country has a quiet past that began just about 500 years ago. Today, the Cayman Islands remain one of the most peaceful and relaxing Caribbean vacation destinations.
Unlike the great majority of Caribbean islands in the Antilles and elsewhere, there is no known evidence of an Amerindian or indigenous presence on any of the Cayman Islands. The first account of the Cayman Islands comes from that ubiquitous explorer of the New World, Christopher Columbus. On his fourth voyage in 1503, Columbus, en route between Panama and Hispaniola, was blown off course and sighted the islands of Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. The large population of tortoise visible on the island compelled Columbus to label these islands "Las Tortugas."
The islands did not receive much historical exposure again until 1585 and 1586, when Sir Francis Drake made a stop here. It was during this visit that the Cayman Islands ultimately received their name, as Drake observed the 10-foot land crocodiles, known by the Caribs as Caymanas, that populated the islands. For the first several hundred years of their history, the Cayman Islands were used as a stopping point and supply base for both pirates and European colonial powers. The turtles found on the islands, now rare, were used as a source of food for sailors.
The armies of Oliver Cromwell took control of Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655. In the 1670 Treaty of Madrid, the Cayman Islands came under the control of the British. The first settlers were British soldiers from Jamaica who came to the island in the late 1660s. Small settlements began to emerge on the islands in the 18th century, although the population remained under 1,000 in 1800.
Settlers harvested cotton and tortoises for export and grew many of the indigenous starchy vegetables and fruits that are grown on other Caribbean islands, such as corn and melon. The first democratic elections were held in 1831. Slavery, abolished in 1835, was never widespread on the island. Piracy and privateering are part of the folklore of the Cayman Islands, although historical evidence for this practice in this area is somewhat lacking. Island residents used to make a practice of salvaging wreckage from ships that ran into the local reefs. In 1794, the most famous of these wrecks occurred: the Wreck of the Ten Sails. Island folklore insists that for their assistance during this wreck, the Caymanians were reportedly granted their tax-free status by the Crown.
The Cayman Islands remained a dependency of Jamaica until 1962, when Jamaica gained independence from Britain and the islands chose to remain a colony of Britain. The islands' constitution was formulated in 1972. Since 1950, tourism has steadily been on the rise. The tax structure has drawn hundreds of international financial institutions to the islands.
The history of the Cayman Islands is relatively sleepy. However, this adds to their appeal, as tourists migrate to the islands each year to experience a peaceful and unhurried vacation.
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