The Cayman Islands remained largely uninhabited until the 17th century.
A variety of people settled on the islands, including pirates, refugees
from the Spanish Inquisition, shipwrecked sailors, deserters from Oliver
Cromwell's army in Jamaica, and slaves. The majority of Caymanians are
of African and British descent, with considerable interracial mixing.
Great Britain took formal control of the Caymans, along with Jamaica,
under the Treaty of Madrid in 1670. Following several unsuccessful attempts,
permanent settlement of the islands began in the 1730s. The Cayman Islands
historically have been popular as a tax haven. Legend has it that Caymanians
in 1788 rescued the crews of a Jamaican merchant ship convoy which had
struck a reef at Gun Bay and that the Caymanians were rewarded with King
George III's promise to never again impose any tax.
The Cayman Islands, initially administered as a dependency of Jamaica,
became an independent colony in 1959; they now are a self-governing British
From the earliest settlement of the Cayman Islands, economic activity
was hindered by isolation and a limited natural resource base. The harvesting
of sea turtles to resupply passing sailing ships was the first major economic
activity on the islands, but local stocks 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.
The advent of modern 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, there were more than 40,000 companies registered in the Cayman Islands,
including 600 banks and trust companies. Forty-three of the worlds largest
banks are present in the Cayman Islands.
The Cayman Islands' physical isolation under early British colonial
rule allowed the development of an indigenous set of administrative and
legal traditions which were codified into a Constitution in 1959. Although
still a British Crown Colony, the islands toady are self-governed in nearly
all respects. The Constitution, or Cayman Islands Order, that now governs
the islands came into effect in 1972 and was amended in 1984.
Political parties have operated infrequently in the past, and public
officeholders tend to be independents. Since the 1970s, groups of candidates
have organized themselves into ad hoc coalitions called teams and run on
platforms of shared concerns. In November 2000 elections, voters ousted
the leader of the government and two other ministers because of legislation
enacted to weaken bank secrecy. Seven new members were elected to the Legislative