Cayman Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands

Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

The Cayman Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands are two British dependencies in the northern part of the Caribbean. The Cayman Islands consist of three islands: Grand Cayman, Little Cayman, and Cayman Brac. The capital is George Town, on Grand Cayman. The Turks and Caicos Islands consist of some forty islands forming the southeastern end of the Bahamas archipelago. The capital is Cockburn Town, on Grand Turk Island. English is the official language of both territories.

Christopher Columbus sighted the Caymans during his 1503 voyage, naming them "Las Tortugas" because of the large number of turtles he found there. By 1530 the islands were known as the Caymanus, a name that may have derived from confusion between the iguana, which is found on the islands, and the alligator (cayman in Spanish). Ponce de Leon is generally believed to have discovered the Turks and Caicos in 1512, but some scholars still speculate that Columbus may have landed on one of the islands, probably East Caicos or Grand Turk Island, on his great voyage in 1492.

No serious effort was made to settle either group of islands in the first decades after European discovery. Ships of various nations stopped at the Caymans to get food, mainly turtles. Both groups of islands became haunts for pirates, particularly the Turks and Caicos. From there, raiders attacked Spanish galleons sailing from Cuba, Hispaniola (the island containing present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic), and Central America en route to Europe. The earliest European settlers in both territories were a mixture of buccaneers, shipwrecked sailors, and debtors.

Spain held early control over the Caymans, but the islands were ceded by Spain to the English crown in 1670 under the terms of the Treaty of Madrid. The first English settlement took place in 1734 after the first land grant. After 1734 most of the colonists came from Jamaica, and the Caymans became a dependency of Jamaica. The islands of Cayman Brac and Little Cayman were settled in 1833 by several families from Grand Cayman, but no administrative connection existed until a justice of the peace arrived on Cayman Brac in 1877. Sailing ships continued to visit the islands into the nineteenth century, but later steamships stopped rarely. Life in the Caymans was generally quiet until the middle of the twentieth century.

The Turks and Caicos, located closer to colonial territories held by various European powers, had a more colorful early history. The first permanent settlers were salt collectors from Bermuda who arrived on Grand Turk Island in 1678. They successfully defended their settlement against a Bahamian annexation attempt in 1700, a Spanish invasion in 1710, and a French invasion in 1763. The French succeeded with their second attempt, in 1764, and exiled the Bermudians to Haiti. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, the British had regained control and made the Turks and Caicos part of the Bahamas. In 1848 the islands separated from the Bahamas and briefly had their own president and council until Jamaica annexed them in 1874 and made them a Jamaican dependency.

Both the Caymans and the Turks and Caicos remained formal Jamaican dependencies until 1959, and the governor of Jamaica held responsibility for them until Jamaican independence in 1962. At that point, both territories became separate British dependencies. The Caymans created a separate constitution in 1959, and a British administrator was appointed for the Caymans in 1962 (the title was changed to governor in 1971). The 1959 Constitution was revised in 1972. The Turks and Caicos received their own governor in 1972 and established a new constitution in 1976.

In the late 1980s, the Cayman Islands were politically stable and highly prosperous by Caribbean standards. Tourism and offshore banking (see Glossary) and financial services, the latter made possible by the islands' tax-haven status, were the two main industries.

Although not as prosperous as the Cayman Islands, the Turks and Caicos Islands also relied on tourism and offshore financial services as mainstays of their economy. Economic similarities between the two British dependencies, however, did not carry over to the political sphere; politics in the Turks and Caicos was much more contentious. In 1985 these islands were rocked by a major drug scandal, when the chief minister, the development minister of commerce and development, and another member of the Legislative Council were arrested in Miami in a "sting" operation run by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The operation was carried out with the full knowledge and consent of the British governor on the Turks and Caicos and the British government in London. The governor has taken a strong stand against drug smuggling and alleged corruption, a position that has helped restore the confidence of foreign investors.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress