Intriguing indigenous cultures, seafaring explorers and European colonialists are part of the historical fabric of destinations visited on Western Caribbean cruises.
Christopher Columbus discovered the Cayman Islands during his last voyage to the New World in 1503, naming them Las Tortugas after the many sea turtles he saw here. Eventually the name changed to Caymanas, derived from the Carib word for crocodiles, which Sir Francis Drake spotted during his visit in the 1580s. For the next couple of centuries, the Caymans were a supply center for European ships sailing the Spanish Main route. England gained control of this outpost in 1655, and for 300 years it was administered as a dependency of another British colony, Jamaica. Though Jamaica gained independence in 1962, the Caymans have remained a British overseas territory.
Arawak-speaking Tainos were the first inhabitants of Jamaica. They called it the “land of wood and water.” Columbus in 1494 described it as the “fairest isle mine eyes ever beheld.” More than 460 years of European governance followed, with England snatching Jamaica from Spain in 1655. By the 18th century, the island produced about one-fifth of the world’s sugar, but at great cost to the Africans brought to Jamaica to work the plantations as slaves. As anti-slavery movements grew in Europe, full emancipation was granted in 1838 to the slaves, who were later replaced by indentured workers from Asia and India. These newcomers remained on the island after their indenture, contributing to a diverse cultural makeup that today also includes Spanish, English, Irish, German, Lebanese and Syrian influences, among others. Jamaica has been a self-governed nation since its 1962 independence.
The Mayans were the earliest inhabitants of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, whose shores also are visited on Western Caribbean cruise itineraries. Passengers who disembark in Cancun, Tulum and Costa Maya can travel to archaeological sites that reveal the architecture, art, religion, mathematics and astronomical systems of the ancient civilization. Spanish explorers arrived in 1519, followed by Catholic missionaries. Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821.