The day Columbus discovered Cayman

Today, the third Monday of May, we celebrate Discovery Day – in commemoration of Christopher Columbus’s espying of the Cayman Islands on May 10, 1503.

As Sister Islanders may be quick to point out, the “two very small and low islands, full of turtles, as was all the sea all about, insomuch that they looked like little rocks” that Columbus dubbed “Las Tortugas” were, of course, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, not Grand Cayman.

Because of Cayman’s isolated geography, none of the three islands was inhabited by humans when Columbus passed by; indeed, no archaeological signs have yet been unearthed indicating that people ever set foot in Cayman before the 1500s.

Over the centuries, residents, visitors and investors have built the country up from three bare pieces of rock, sand and swamp, to a world-class tourist destination and powerhouse international financial center, with – we venture – more than 90 percent of the development occurring in the last 10 percent of Cayman’s recorded history.

Yet, as you can plainly see during the annual Heritage Days events, before the twin economic booms of finance and tourism, life in Cayman was one of subsistence – of canned goods and green mangos; stew plum and swanky; mosquitoes, hurricanes and heat. Cayman’s path to prosperity has not been without great hardship, and that is a key thought to keep in mind as our country endures modern conflicts amid the increasingly crowded and competitive international community.

The Discovery Day holiday is also an opportunity to remember the difficulties experienced by Columbus himself in his later years, long after the sheen of accomplishment had waned from his monumental first voyage to the New World. Columbus discovered Cayman, largely by accident, during his fourth and final voyage.

Columbus’s previous foray into the Western Hemisphere had been, by almost any measure, an unmitigated disaster: Accused by Hispaniola’s colonists and natives alike of abuse and mismanagement, Columbus (a strong supporter of slavery) had returned to Spain in 1500 from this third voyage in disgrace and clapped in irons – but nonetheless inspired by heavenly visions and a certainty that he was on the verge of discovering paradise on earth, sentiments he communicated to his sovereigns in a long letter he wrote on the return journey.

Columbus’s reputation and testimony were convincing enough to the monarchs that they set him free and, accepting that he was an unparalleled navigator, though a substandard administrator, they agreed to fund his fourth voyage – albeit a small one, with only four ships. On May 9, 1502, Columbus set sail from Spain.

In late June, he reached Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and Dominican Republic) – where sentiments against him still ran deep, and he was denied entry. He headed west, passing Jamaica and Cuba (missing Cayman entirely), before heading south along the coast of Central America. With only two worm-eaten ships remaining, Columbus determined to head back to Hispaniola, but his ships went off course, taking him northwest of Jamaica and bringing him within eyesight of the Sister Islands on May 10, 1503 – the day we are celebrating today.

As happy as this day has become for Cayman, it was not a fortunate time for Columbus. Now at too great a distance from Hispaniola, Columbus was forced in June 1503 to beach the ships on the coast of Jamaica, where he and his men remained for a full year before being rescued. As testament to Columbus’s ingenuity, during this time he was able to impress the natives – with whom he maintained an uneasy armistice – by correctly predicting a lunar eclipse from his astronomical tables, frightening them into providing food to him and his crew.

Columbus eventually returned to Europe in November 1504, arriving to find that his main supporter, Queen Isabella, was dying. His reputation damaged, though financially comfortable, Columbus died in May 1506.

As we enjoy this year’s Discovery Day, let’s not forget the failings, flaws and mistakes of Cayman’s discoverer, Columbus, which, as context for his real accomplishments, lend him greater depth and dimension as a human being, in addition to his being a historical figure with mythical stature.

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