None of the Cayman Islands shows any evidence of pre-European settlement. The islands likely remained three unknown, small specks in the Caribbean Sea until the morning of May 10, 1503, when a sailor gave the cry that he had sighted land.
This anonymous man, sailing with Christopher Columbus’s fourth and final voyage, is the first person known to have seen the Cayman Islands—the Sister Islands of Little Cayman and Cayman Brac, to be precise. Columbus did not make landfall, but named the islands “Las Tortugas,” a reference to the sea turtles abundant in the local waters.
As the great seafaring powers of Europe explored, conquered, and settled the West Indies in the coming centuries, the islands that came eventually to be known as the Cayman Islands grew into a useful wayfaring point as well as a source of provisions, most notably in the form of sea turtles. The growing knowledge and use of the Cayman Islands is charted in their increasingly sophisticated depiction by European cartographers.
The Cayman Islands have a much-celebrated mythology as a pirates’ haunt. That a significant treasure remains buried on Little Cayman remains a prominent part of the island’s lore. Some older residents used to recall stories of a “Spanish castle” in the center of the island, or tell of pirate gold buried near Owen Island.
Certainly, pirates knew of the Cayman Islands. They likely visited on occasion, using the islands to rendezvous; re-supply with turtle, wood, and water; and careen and repair their vessels. But there is no evidence that Cayman was ever used as a pirate base on the scale that the Bahamas were. The islands were too small, too close to the English outpost in Jamaica, and too sparsely settled to be attractive or useful to those wishing to skirt the law.