History & geography of the Cayman Islands

History & geography of the Cayman Islands

The first Europeans to set eyes on the Cayman Islands were Christopher Columbus and his crew, who named the islands ‘Las Tortugas’ because of the huge number of turtles they found. The turtles were an important food source for sailors because they could be kept alive aboard ship for weeks before being slaughtered for fresh meat. Later in the sixteenth century the charts began to record the islands as ‘Caimanas’, a Spanish name for the local alligators which were common in the region at the time.

The islands became British possessions under the Treaty of Madrid in 1770, although some settlers from Jamaica had already set up home in Cayman in the 1650’s. The earliest settlers were a mixture of seafarers, planters, merchants and their slaves, with records from 1800 giving the population as around 1,000 people. Still part of the British West Indies, the islands now have their own Legislative Assembly, and a chief minister or ‘Premier’, as well as a British Governor.

Seafaring, rope-making, fishing and navigating are the historic skills of Caymanians, and many islanders travelled around the world as ships’ crew over the centuries. It’s no surprise that the island’s national motto is ‘He Hath Founded it upon the Seas’. Today Grand Cayman has a thriving offshore-finance and banking industry which contributes to the highest standard of living in the Caribbean.

Cayman Islands map. Illustration by Lisa Joanes Geography
Lying around 480 miles south of Miami, less than two hundred miles northwest of Jamaica and slightly closer to Cuba, the islands form part of the ‘Cayman ridge’ a feature formed where the Caribbean and North American tectonic plates meet under the sea. The bedrock of the islands is really the remains of ancient coral reef dating back about thirty million years. Slightly fewer than sixty thousand people live in Cayman today (and they prefer you not to call it ‘the Caymans’). The local pronunciation puts the emphasis on the second syllable – Cay-man.

The great majority live on Grand Cayman which is by far the largest island (about 76 square miles in area and 22 miles long). There are fewer than two thousand people on Cayman Brac (just 15 sq. miles), while Little Cayman (10 sq. miles) has only about one hundred and fifty permanent residents. The islands are low-lying, although the Brac has a limestone cliff known as ‘The Bluff’ at it’s eastern end which rises 140 feet (43m) above sea level.

On Grand Cayman you can see an area of jagged limestone ‘ironshore which rejoices under the name of ‘Hell’. Grand Cayman has a surprising variety of vegetation and extensive stands of mangrove as well as dry, evergreen woodland. Although the islands may seem small they all have their own distinctive feel, and a strong sense of place. Even on Grand Cayman there is a big difference in atmosphere when traveling from Seven Mile Beach to George Town and then onwards to the East End. Caymanians are proud of their islands and respond well to visitors who want to know more about them.

Read about Cayman Islands beaches and nature & wildlife, or our suggested itineraries.
Responsible Travel would like to thank the Cayman Islands tourist board for their sponsorship of this guide
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