Ethnographic and historical depictions of the Caribbean have been dominated by the impact of the plantation systems that drove the colonization of this region. The Caymanian experience, however, diverges considerably from the elements that are usually associated with this form of historical development. With limited arable land and scarce fresh water supplies, the Cayman Islands were never able to support large-scale plantations. The islands do not appear to have ever been inhabited by Amerindians, and although the first White settlers owned slaves, the numbers were very small compared to the large plantation work forces of other Caribbean societies. In 1802 the total population was 933, of whom 551 were slaves. Agriculture, therefore, was small scale and largely oriented toward local consumption; the wide variety of crops included maize, cassava, yams, and potatoes.
Seafaring formed the true backbone of the Caymanian economy until the late twentieth century. From the early stopovers of European ships during the 1600s, and well into the 1900s, turtling constituted an important marine enterprise. Indeed, it was the abundance of large sea turtles on the shores and in the local waters of the Caymans that first attracted Europeans to the islands. As local supplies became exhausted, Caymanians, in search of turtles, voyaged further afield, to the south coast of Cuba and later to the keys off Nicaragua. This voyaging was reflected in the small-scale shipbuilding that occurred throughout the islands. Among the personal recollections of the early twentieth century gathered for the Cayman Islands Memory Bank, ship launches are recounted as an exciting and important social occasion, drawing people from other districts and providing a special opportunity for interaction and communal celebration.
During the twentieth century, turtling came to be rivaled and then surpassed by another form of seafaring. Caymanian men put their maritime skills to use in service on merchant ships belonging to the United States, Honduras, and Panama. Their labor infused otherwise scarce cash into the local economy and soon became its mainstay as the proportions of men away at sea increased. It was very difficult for the men to arrange time off or passage back to Cayman, and they were often away from their families for months, or even years. Facing such obstacles, many seamen settled in the United States, contributing to the steady stream of emigration that characterized the Cayman Islands from the mid-nineteenth until the mid-twentieth century.
Unlike the plantation systems of other Caribbean territories, the limited agriculture and maritime enterprises of the Caymanian economy could not support a class of leisured landowners. The elite consisted of a small number of merchant families who based their wealth and influence on mercantile trade and ship ownership rather than on land. Apart from this small elite, however, class differences were limited. Until the development of the 1970s and 1980s, most Caymanians, of whatever racial background, had quite meager incomes and modest life-styles. This economic convergence also served to mute the impact of racial differences. Although the wealthy merchant families were White, many White islanders lived in much the same circumstances as their Black counterparts. For most of the history of the Cayman Islands, interracial conjugal unions have been very common. Thus, unlike the tendency in plantation societies toward polarization between a small White elite and a large Black proletariat, in the Cayman Islands the majority of residents were of mixed racial background and were publicly recognized as such.