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Grand Cayman Island Guide: History

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George Town Harbor Today

It’s hard to imagine that the Cayman Islands, a prosperous nation built on the success of its international tourism and finance industries, laid the foundation of its vibrant economy only 30 years ago.

The story begins with sea turtles, which played a vital role in shaping the economy and culture of the Cayman Islands. It is appropriate that the first recorded sighting of Little Cayman and Cayman Brac by Christopher Columbus, as recorded in his ship's log on his fourth and final voyage to the New World, notes "(10th May, 1503) . . .we were in sight of two very small islands, full of tortoise, as was the sea about, inasmuch as they looked like little rocks." Columbus thus named these islands "Las Tortugas" after the abundant sea turtles, and while the name stuck only briefly, it was a theme that would remain constant in Cayman history. It is fitting then, that today a sea turtle in pirate garb, dubbed "Sir Turtle," is the official logo of the Cayman Islands.

A Royal Establishment
The first royal land grant in Grand Cayman, recorded in 1734, marked the start of permanent settlement. It covered 3,000 acres between Prospect and the North Sound, and was the first of many such grants over the next eight years. Population growth was supplemented from 1750 to 1800 by the arrival of shipwrecked mariners and immigrants from Jamaica.

Often disputed by historians, there are many tales of Pirates in the Cayman Islands. Such respected writers as Sir Walter Scott wrote in The Pirates, 1724, that Grand Cayman was “a place requiring caution.” In the 1970 A History of The Cayman Islands, author Neville Williams refers to the years between 1713, following the Treaty of Utrecht, and 1783, as a "pirates' paradise."

It is known that Caymanians were resourceful and courageous; "...their lives, whether at sea or on the islands, exemplified the theory of the survival of the fittest," wrote Williams. Throughout the 18th century, despite any possible buccaneer activity, records do indicate that fertile soil produced cotton, tobacco and corn. Into the next century, small plantations were farmed. Letters and records show that schools and churches were built, while more settlers arrived from England, Ireland and Jamaica.

Shipbuilding as an industry began at the turn of the 19th century, and by 1841, Magistrate Nathaniel Glover praised Caymanian ingenuity in shipbuilding. He described the residents as "...strictly honest, harmless and industrious, moral but not religious, though they knew their Bible and kept Sunday as a day of rest from manual labour."

In 1832, the citizenry gathered at St. James Castle — recently restored as Pedro St. James, the birthplace of democracy in Cayman—and voted to create a legislature of representatives.

The next 100 years are sometimes called the century of isolation. Within Cayman, building churches and schools was a priority, accomplished with little funds and against a backdrop of adversity—hurricanes, tidal waves, cyclones, and a depletion of the local green turtle supply, forced Caymanians to sail to Cuba, then Honduras, then Nicaragua, to carry on their livelihood. Fathers continued to pass along knowledge of rocks, wrecks and reefs, winds and tides to their sons, and the heritage of the Caymanian mariner prevailed. From the late 19th century into the 1960, Caymanian merchant seamen carried on the tradition of navigating the world. The money they earned sustained the Caymanian economy until the finance and tourism industries took over in the 60s, recharging the national consciousness.  

A Champion with Vision
A visionary Commissioner who served for only six years took the Cayman Islands into the 20th century. Sir Allen Cardinall began his love affair with Cayman on Valentine's Day, 1934. By the time he left in 1940, he was responsible for building a network of roads linking all areas and public buildings of Grand Cayman for the first time. He was also the first public figure to see the vast tourism potential of the islands. A ceaseless spokesman for what he called "the most perfect bathing-beach in the West Indies," Commissioner Cardinall launched the first major regatta in Cayman, drawing craft from all over the region. Knighted in 1943, Sir Allen Cardinall is considered one of the great figures in Caymanian history, for he set in motion events that paved the way for the nation's future development.

By the time the Second World War had ended, Cayman was ready for its next, and most important leap, into the future. Weekly air service was sporadic and no airstrip existed until 1953, when, under the stewardship of Commissioner A. M. Gerrard, Owen Roberts Airport opened on Grand Cayman followed, in late 1954, by an airstrip on Cayman Brac.

It was during this same period that Commissioner Gerrard, like Cardinall before him, saw the great tourism potential of the Cayman Islands. In 1950, the Galleon Beach hotel was built with limited capacity at the southern end of Seven Mile Beach. It is no coincidence that within three years after the opening of the airport, beach bound hotel construction dramatically increased and still continues.

The Era of Tourism
While hotels were being built to accommodate visitors, Cayman’s legacy of nautical traditions could now be channeled into commercial efforts. The local captains who knew the quirks of Caymanian waters so well have since been able to utilize their skills. They’ve done so by offering the ever-increasing influx of visitors excursions to the North Sound and Stingray City, sport fishing excursions and a wide variety of nautical experiences.

In 1957, legendary dive operator Bob Soto established recreational diving in the Caribbean on Grand Cayman, and the rest is history. The Cayman Islands developed a reputation as one of the world's premier dive destinations, buoying tourism into the 90s.

While the tourism industry was gaining momentum in the 60s, and the shipping industry that had employed so many Caymanians was in decline, two important events took place in 1966. The nation's first Tourist Board, the precedent for the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism, was formed, marking the first serious effort at tourism promotion overseas; and the first banking and trust laws were passed, laying the foundation for the modern financial industry that exists today. That year, just over 8,000 visitors came to the Cayman Islands.

Currently there are 449 banks (those that have a bank or a bank and trust license); 115 trust companies (trust companies with no banking license); 521 captive (internal company- or association-owned) insurance companies; 2,892 regulated mutual funds; and approximately 59,922 registered companies in the Cayman Islands. The nation's racial harmony and strong social fabric, its decision to retain its strong links with Britain, its minimal regulation of companies and trusts, and its sound governmental policies that create an economically rewarding environment for the majority, have made the financial industry successful. It is this mix of tourism and finance that has enabled the nation to avoid the pitfalls of putting all its eggs in one proverbial basket.

In 1999, thirty-three years after the establishment of the first tourist Board, tourism figures spilled over the one million mark. A renewed vision of tourism's economic potential, coupled with a long-term tourism management plan has taken the Cayman Islands into the new millennium. This vision focuses on controlled growth and the preservation of natural, cultural and heritage sites.

Among numerous preservation projects are the Boatswain Beach Development and the Blue Iguana Conservation Programme. Boatswain Beach is a wildly popular but sometimes misunderstood tourist attraction which cultivates, literally and figuratively, Caymans’ national symbol. But it also operates a breed and release program that reintroduces green sea turtles into the wild. The creatures who first caught the eye of Christopher Columbus, who sustained seamen and Caymanians for over a century, whose pursuit took Caymanians into distant waters and taught them the craft of mariners, and whose depletion turned Caymanian eyes outward to seek new ways to prosper, will hopefully thrive and again swim freely in the safe haven of Cayman's waters. The turtle is a most worthy metaphor.

The Blue Iguana Recovery Programme is dedicated to preserving the world’s most endangered iguana, the Grand Cayman Blue Iguana; the program combines education, fundraising, and habitat enhancement to improve breeding success. The Cayman Island's National Trust is working to pull the Grand Cayman Blue Iguana back from the brink of extinction. With only 10-25 of the original population left in the wild, it is difficult to overstate the achievement of the Programme, with its successful hatching of some 87 youngsters this year alone, and steps being taken to restore the population in the wild. Given the ongoing success of this Programme, the establishment of a protected area of suitable iguana habitat is being sought to ensure the survival of these unique, colorful and charismatic creatures.


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