The islands were first sighted by Columbus in May 1503 when he was blown off course on his way to Hispaniola. He found two small islands (Cayman Brac and Little Cayman) which were full of turtles, and he therefore named the islands Las Tortugas. A 1523 map of the islands referred to them as
, meaning alligators or large lizards, but by 1530 they were known as the Caymanas after the Carib word for the marine crocodile which also lived there. The first recorded English visitor to the Caymans was Sir Francis Drake in 1586, when he reported that the
were edible. But it was the turtles which really attracted ships in search of fresh meat for their crews. Generations of sailors stocked up on turtle meat here, keeping the creatures alive on board ship for later use. The islands were ceded to the English Crown under the Treaty of Madrid in 1670, after the first settlers came from Jamaica in 1661 to 1671 to Little Cayman and Cayman Brac. The first settlements were abandoned after attacks by Spanish privateers, but British privateers often used the Cayman Islands as a
base and in the 18th century they became an increasingly popular hideout for pirates, even after the end of legitimate privateering in 1713. In November 1794, a convoy of 10 ships was wrecked on the reef in Gun Bay, on the East End of Grand Cayman, but with the help of the local residents there was no loss of life. Legend has it that there was a member of the Royal Family on board and that in gratitude for their bravery, King George III decreed that Caymanians should never be conscripted for war service and Parliament legislated that they should never be taxed.

From 1670, the Cayman Islands were dependencies of Jamaica, although there was considerable self-government. In 1832, a legislative assembly was established, consisting of eight magistrates appointed by the Governor of Jamaica and 10 (later increased to 27) elected representatives. In 1959 dependency ceased when Jamaica became a member of the Federation of the West Indies, although the Governor of Jamaica remained the Governor of the Cayman Islands. When Jamaica achieved Independence in 1962 the islands opted to become a direct dependency of the British Crown.

The first three families of settlers arrived on Cayman Brac in 1833, followed by two more families in 1835. These five families, Ritch, Scott, Foster, Hunter and Ryan, are still well represented on the island today. They made a living from growing coconuts and selling turtle shells and from the 1850s started building boats to facilitate trading. In 1886 a Baptist missionary arrived from Jamaica and introduced education and health care.

The first inhabitants of Little Cayman were turtlers who made camp on the south shore. After them, at the beginning of the 20th century, the population exploded to over 100 Caymanians living at Blossom on the southwest coast and farming coconuts. Attacks of blight killed off the palms and the farmers moved to the other two islands. In the 1950s, some US sport fishermen set up a small fishing camp on the south coast known as the
Southern Cross Club
, which is still in operation today as a diving/fishing lodge. A handful of similar small resorts and holiday villas have since been built but the resident population remains tiny.

In 1991 a review of the 1972 constitution recommended several constitutional changes to be debated by the Legislative Assembly . The post of Chief Secretary was reinstated in 1992 after having been abolished in 1986 and members of the executive committee are called ministers.


A Governor appointed by the British Crown is the head of Government. The present Constitution came into effect in 1993 and provides for an Executive Council to advise the Governor on administration of the islands. The Council is made up of five Elected and three Official Members and is chaired by the Governor. The former, called Ministers from February 1994, are elected from the 15 elected representatives in the Legislative Assembly and have a range of responsibilities allocated by the Governor, while the latter are the Chief Secretary, the Financial Secretary, and the Attorney General. The Legislative Assembly may remove a minister from office by nine votes out of the 15. There is no Chief Minister. There have been no political parties since the mid-1960s but politicians organize themselves into teams. There are three teams, the National Team, Team Cayman and the Democratic Alliance Group. The Chief Secretary is the First Official Member of the Executive Council, and acts as Governor in the absence of the Governor.


The original settlers earned their living from the sea, either as turtle fishermen or as crew members on ships around the world. In 1906 more than a fifth of the population of 5,000 was estimated to be at sea, and even in the 1950s the government's annual report said that the main export was of seamen and their remittances the mainstay of the economy. Today the standard of living is high, with the highest per capita income in the Caribbean. The islands' economy is based largely on offshore finance and banking, tourism, real estate and construction, and a little local industry. Apart from a certain amount of meat, turtle, fish and a few local fruits and vegetables, almost all foodstuffs and other necessities are imported. The cost of living therefore rises in line with that of the main trading partners. The economy is highly dependent upon the fortunes of the US economy, with interest rates rising and falling according to those of US instruments. Tourism revenues have risen sharply in recent years although income still fluctuates according to the strength of the US economy. In the 1990s cruise ship visitors soared with the introduction of calls by the cruise liner
which carries 2,500 passengers. Cruise ship passengers outnumber stayover visitors by two to one, but the latter account for 90% of revenues. Nearly three quarters of all stayover visitors are from the USA.


Grand Cayman
, the largest of the three islands, lies 150 miles south of Havana, Cuba, about 180 miles northwest of Jamaica and 480 miles south of Miami. Grand Cayman is low-lying, 22 miles long and four miles wide, but of the total 76 sq miles about half is swamp. A striking feature is the shallow, reef-protected lagoon, North Sound, 40 miles square and the largest area of inland mangrove in the Caribbean. None of the islands has any rivers, but vegetation is luxuriant, the main trees being coconut, thatch palm, seagrape and Australian pine. George Town, the capital of the islands, is located on the west side of Grand Cayman.
Cayman Brac
(Gaelic for 'bluff') gets its name from the high limestone bluff rising from sea level in the west to a height of 140 ft in the east. The island lies about 89 miles east northeast of Grand Cayman. It is about 12 miles long and a little more than a mile wide.
Little Cayman
lies five miles west of Cayman Brac and is 10 miles long and just over a mile wide with its highest point being only 40 ft above sea level.
Owen Island
, an islet off the southwest coast of Little Cayman, is uninhabited but visited by picnickers.


The total population of mixed African and European descent is estimated at 36,500, of whom around a third are foreigners on work permits. Nearly everyone lives on Grand Cayman, most of them in George Town, or the smaller towns of West Bay, Bodden Town, North Side and East End. The population of Cayman Brac is only 1,200. Little Cayman is largely undeveloped with only about 120 residents. The Cayman Islands are very exclusive, with strict controls on who is allowed to settle. Consequently the cost of living is extremely high. On the other hand, petty crime is rare and the islands are well looked after (described as 'a very clean sandbank'). Although Caymanians have considerable affection for Britain and do not seek Independence, their way of life is Americanized. Higher education and advanced health care are usually sought in the USA and their geographical proximity influences travel choices.

Flora and fauna

Around 200 species of bird inhabit the islands. These include the Antillean grackle, the smooth-billed ani, the green-backed heron, the yellow-crowned night heron and many other heron species, the snowy egret, the common ground dove, the bananaquit and the Cayman parrot. The endangered West Indian whistling duck can be seen on Grand Cayman and Little Cayman. If you are interested in birdwatching, go to the mosquito control dykes on the West Bay peninsula of Grand Cayman, or walk to the Cistern at East End. A former Governor was a keen birdwatcher and in 1993 he set up a fund to establish the
Governor Michael Gore Bird Sanctuary
on 3½ acres of wetland on Grand Cayman, where you can see 60 local species. There are nesting colonies of the red-footed booby and the magnificent frigate bird on Little Cayman. There is a parrot reserve on Cayman Brac on 197 acres of land donated to the National Trust by Donald Pennie. The
Brac Parrot Reserve
is the nesting ground for the endangered endemic Cayman Brac parrot, numbering about 400 birds. The reserve covers pristine ancient woodlands on a very rough and rocky terrain with a diversity of native trees, including species not present on Grand Cayman or Little Cayman. A 1-mile nature trail has been established through part of the reserve. The trail forms a loop which passes through several different types of terrain, from old farm land now under grass, past mango trees on red soil and through thickets and mature woodlands, a startling mixture of hardwoods and cacti. Signs and information boards are placed at strategic points along the trail and a brochure is available.

Indigenous animals on the islands are few. The most common are the agouti, non-poisonous snakes, iguana and other small lizards, freshwater turtle, the hickatee and two species of tree frog. Several animal sanctuaries have been established, most of which are RAMSAR sites where no hunting or collecting of any species is allowed. On
Grand Cayman
there are sanctuaries at Booby Cay, Meagre Bay Pond and Colliers Bay Pond; on
Cayman Brac
at the ponds near the airport and on
Little Cayman
at Booby Road and Rookery, Tarpon Lake and the Wearis Bay Wetland, stretching east along the south coast to the Easterly Wetlands.

Oncidium calochilum
, a rare orchid, indigenous to Grand Cayman with a small yellow flower about ½ in long, is found only in the rocky area off Frank Sound Drive. Several other orchid species have been recorded as endemic but are threatened by construction and orchid fanciers. There is protection under international and local laws for several indigenous species, including sea turtles, iguanas, Cayman parrots, orchids and marine life.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
Products in this Region

Grenada, St Vincent & the Grenadines Handbook

Grenada, St Vincent and the Grenadines are fantastic both on land and water. From yachting around...

Antigua, Montserrat, St Kitts & Nevis Handbook

Antigua, Montserrat, St Kitts and Nevis offer perfect sandy beaches, rugged volcanic peaks and...

St Lucia & Dominica Handbook

Lush, tropical landscapes define this area of the Caribbean. From the low-key and traditional...
PDF Downloads

  No PDFs currently available

Digital Products

Available NOW!