Monday, May 21, marks Discovery Day, which is celebrated as a national holiday in the Cayman Islands.

Falling on the third Monday in May every year, Discovery Day commemorates the sighting of the Sister Islands of Cayman Brac and Little Cayman by Christopher Columbus in 1503. It is a day on which Caymanians celebrate their heritage.

Residents are encouraged to demonstrate support for environmental protection, as Tree Planting Day is observed on Discovery Day. It is an opportunity to do something positive for the community and the environment by reconnecting with nature. It is also a day to celebrate with family, as schools and public offices are closed for the holiday.

Having been devastated by hurricanes in years past, the National Day of Preparedness is also observed each year on Discovery Day to encourage residents to prepare for the hurricane season, or any other natural disaster.

On May 10, 1503, Christopher Columbus and his men, on their fourth voyage to the Americas, were the first Europeans to sight and describe Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, which gave Spain a claim to the islands by right of discovery. Columbus did not stop at the islands, but he did name them, calling them Las Tortugas due to the large number of sea turtles the crew spotted as they sailed past.

A few years later, in 1523, the three islands appeared on the Turin Map – an early chart of the Caribbean and South America – but under the name “Lagartos,” meaning lizard or crocodile. By the middle of the 16th century, the islands had gained the name “Caymanas,” after a local Carib name for the crocodiles that were plentiful on the islands back then.

The first people recorded to have stopped at the islands for more than a few hours were sailors from Sir Francis Drake’s 1585-86 expedition to the West Indies, according to Michael Craton’s “Founded Upon the Seas,” a definitive history of the Cayman Islands.

Permanent settlement began on Grand Cayman at some time between 1670 and 1730.

“Legend has it that early settlements were formed by runaway white soldiers and servants from Jamaica, shipwrecked sailors and buccaneers seeking a quiet life ashore. In truth, the first permanent inhabitants were probably poor but respectable turtlers and logcutters, who settled down with their families and a few slaves to a lifestyle that was more congenial, though no richer, than they could have enjoyed in planter-dominated Jamaica,” Craton writes in his book.

England took formal control of Cayman, along with Jamaica, under the Treaty of Madrid in 1670. For many years, Cayman was also largely dependant on Jamaica. An Imperial Act passed by the Westminster Parliament in June 1863 formally declared the Cayman Islands a dependency of Jamaica.

Upon Jamaica’s independence in 1962, Cayman broke its administrative links with Jamaica, and opted to become a direct dependency of the British Crown and it remains today a British Overseas Territory.

Early settlers in Cayman gained a reputation for their seamanship and many of the men of Cayman roamed the seas in small schooners in search of turtles, logwood and wrecks. Cayman’s traditional seagoing vessel is the catboat, designed and used for many years by fishermen to catch turtles.

The legacy of the men of the islands going to sea for their livelihood continued well into the 20th century.

People can see catboats in action on Discovery Day, when the second annual Cayman Spring Regatta takes place. The catboat sailing event, organized by the Cayman Islands Sailing Club and the Cayman Catboat Club, will be held at the sailing club in Red Bay, with catboats racing for their annual Premier Cup. The racing runs from 10 a.m. until noon.

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