The first recorded English visitor to the Caymans was Sir Francis Drake in 1586, when he reported that the caymanas marine crocodile (after which the islands are named) were edible. But it was the turtles which really attracted ships in search of fresh meat for their crews. The islands were ceded to the English Crown under the Treaty of Madrid in 1670, after the first settlers came from Jamaica in 1661-71 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.
In 1991 a review of the 1972 constitution recommended several constitutional changes to be debated by the Legislative Assembly (see Government & Economy). The post of Chief Secretary was reinstated in 1992 after having been abolished in 1986. Three teams with a total of 44 candidates contested the general election held on 20 November 1996: the governing National Team, Team Cayman and the Democratic Alliance Group. The National Team were returned to office but with a reduced majority, winning nine of the 15 seats. The Democratic Alliance won two seats in George Town, Team Cayman won one in Bodden Town and independents won seats in George Town, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. The next election is in late-2000.
A British Government White Paper on the future of its overseas territories, released in March 1998, caused a stir in financial circles and pricked the national conscience. The White Paper called for tighter regulations for tax havens which should be brought into line with EU standards. It also called for the country to reverse the law prohibiting homosexual activity in private between consenting adults, to conform with human rights legislation worldwide. In 2000 an opinion poll was to be conducted among a sample of residents to gauge their views on the reforms. These will then be forwarded to the parliamentary select committee.