It is not known for certain who the original inhabitants of the Cayman Islands were. In 1503 Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) spotted a swarm of turtles around Cayman Brac and Little Cayman and named the islands Las Tortugas The Turtles). By the time Sir Francis Drake (?1540–96) and his band of privateers got to Grand Cayman in 1586, the islands were commonly known as Caymanas, after a Carib word for crocodiles (cayman). For the next century or so the Caymans were the territory of pirates and turtle-hunting sailors, very conveniently, since there were no permanent residents until the 1660s, when a few deserters from the British army came over from Jamaica. In 1670 the islands became possessions of the British Crown under administration from Jamaica. Britain, however, ignored the pirates’ use and abuse of the Caymans. One of the major early occupations on these islands was wrecking, salvaging the remains of ships that ran aground on the islands’ many reefs. The most famous of these disasters is the Wreck of the Ten Sails, which occurred when a ship struck a reef in 1794, causing a chain reaction involving nine other vessels. According to legend the Caymanians went to such lengths to aid the shipwrecked travelers that a grateful British King George III (1738–1820) granted the islands tax-free status in perpetuity. After slavery was abolished in 1834 most freed slaves remained on the islands. The export of cotton, mahogany, and sarsaparilla (mostly to Jamaica) emerged as the main industries until tourism and banking overshadowed them in the mid-20th century. Thatch rope, however, was the dominant land-based industry in Cayman for many years. Since the Silver Thatch Palm (from which raw material for the ropes was obtained) was extremely resistant to salt water, ropes made from it were much favored by fishermen and turtle hunters. The largest demand came from Cuba and Jamaica. Divers put the Cayman Islands on the international tourist map as early as the 1950s. The islanders, however, were slow to relinquish their isolation. By the next decade they were more receptive to foreign capital, and they began designing the tax structure that would make Grand Cayman a center of offshore banking (there are more financial institutions there than in New York City) and a sound infrastructure that would make it a capital of Caribbean tourism. The islands placed themselves directly under the British Crown in the 1960s. Since then political contests have been waged by “teams” (parties are prohibited), though there have been few major issues and little sentiment for independence. Several marine parks, bird sanctuaries, and other nature reserves were developed and maintained during this period. In 1998 tourist numbers hit the 400,000 mark for the first time. The semi-independent country is the fifth largest financial center in the world.
Grand Cayman, the largest and most populous of the three islands, and the sister islands, (namely, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman), which lie east-northeast of Grand Cayman, are separated from each other by a channel 6.8 miles wide. The total landmass of the three islands is 101 square miles. Grand Cayman occupies 47 square miles, Cayman Brac, 8.7 square miles, and Little Cayman, 6.2 square miles. The three islands are limestone outcroppings, the tops of a submarine mountain range called the Cayman Ridge, which extends west-southwest to the Sierra Maestra range off the southeast part of Cuba to the Misteriosa Bank near Belize. There are no rivers or streams on the islands because of the porous nature of the limestone rock. It is this lack of runoff that gives the surrounding Caribbean Sea exceptional clarity, often to a depth of well over 120 feet. All three islands are surrounded by healthy coral reefs, which lie at the top of dramatic walls and drop-offs close to shore, creating ideal conditions for diving and sport fishing. February is the coolest time of the year, with temperatures ranging from 64° to 73°F at night and 73° to 86°F during the day. The hottest months are usually July and August, when temperatures can reach highs of 86° to 90°F. Relative humidity varies from 68 percent to 92 percent. The rainy season starts in May and lasts through October, with May and October usually the rainiest months. March and April are usually the driest months of the year.
Despite the fact that about 90 percent of the islands’ food and consumer goods is imported, Caymanians enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world. From the earliest days economic activity in the Cayman Islands was hindered by its isolation and limited natural resources. The harvesting of sea turtles to provide supplies to ships in the area was the first major economic activity on the islands, but turtle populations were depleted by the 1790s. Agriculture, while sufficient to support the small early settler population, has always been limited by the scarcity of available land. Swifter methods of transportation and telecommunications in the 1950s led to the emergence of what are now considered the Cayman Islands’ “twin pillars” of economic development: international finance and tourism. In 2002 more than 40,000 companies, including 600 banks, were registered in the Cayman Islands. Forty-three of the world’s largest banks have a substantial presence in the Cayman Islands. Tourism represents about 70 percent of gross domestic product and 75 percent of total export earnings. Unspoiled beaches, duty-free shopping, scuba diving, and deep-sea fishing draw almost a million visitors to the islands each year. j CULTURE AND LIFESTYLE The majority of Caymanians are of African and British descent, with considerable interracial mixing. Grand Cayman has been heavily influenced by the U.S. lifestyle and values, especially the capital of George Town and the resorts along Seven Mile Beach. In the smaller villages and on the other two islands, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, the culture is more West Indian, although the British influence is clearly perceptible. English is the only language spoken on the islands, and the Queen’s birthday is celebrated every June with a parade and a 21-gun salute. West Indian traditions find expression in soca, calypso, and reggae music, which commonly emanates from clubs, bars, and local jeeps. The Cayman Islands’ most celebrated personality is the nonagenarian painter familiarly known as Miss Lassie. Born in 1914, Miss Lassie did not begin painting until encouraged by a spiritual experience in 1984. Her vibrant “markings” (as she calls them) are mostly representations of biblical scenes as envisioned in her dreams. There are a lot of churches in the Caymans, where devout Christians worship regularly. Sunday is generally meant for church going, and even casual visitors are welcome to attend the services. Straitlaced manners, politeness, and other traditional British attributes are amply evident in the islands’ culture and ethos.
Due to the Caymans’ historical connection to Jamaica it is commonplace to find an array of jerked meats among the island’s specialties. This method of grilling meats originated with the Arawaks and involves cooking heavily spiced, marinated meats by smoking them over hardwoods, notably pimento, in enclosed barbecue grills. The pimento tree is the source of allspice, a popular Jamaican flavoring. Allspice finds its way into most jerk recipes. Another popular dish is conch, served as ceviche—sliced thin and marinated in lemon or lime with bits of tomato and onion. Turtle, though not as popular as it once was, remains a part of traditional Cayman cuisine, often prepared in stews or as steaks. “Cayman-style” simply refers to any fish caught fresh from the sea and sautéed with black pepper, onions, and green peppers. Typical side dishes are plantains, yams, and rice and peas. Heavy cake is a favorite dessert. Made of a grated cassava root, it is sweetened with sugar and has the consistency of fudge. One can find an abundance of local fruits, including mangoes, grapefruits, coconuts, and breadfruit. Though most restaurants specialize in continental or international fare, items of traditional Caymanian cuisine are occasionally featured on menus.