The first inhabitants of the islands were probably a group of Dutch colonists who made their home on Providencia toward the end of the 16th century. In 1631 they were expelled by the English who effectively colonized the islands. They brought in black slaves from Jamaica and began to cultivate tobacco and cotton. The Spanish, irate at the English success on the islands, unsuccessfully invaded the archipelago in 1635.
Because of their strategic location, the islands provided convenient shelter for pirates waiting to sack Spanish galleons bound for home laden with gold and riches. In 1670 legendary pirate Henry Morgan established his base on Providencia and from here he raided both Panama and Santa Marta. Legend has it that his treasures are still hidden on the island.
Shortly after independence, Colombia laid claim to the islands, although Nicaragua fiercely disputed its right to do so. The issue was eventually settled by a treaty in 1928, which confirmed Colombia's sovereignty over the islands.
Geographic isolation kept the unique English character virtually intact, though things started to change when a flight service connected the islands to the mainland in the 1950s. In 1954, a government plan to make the islands a duty-free zone brought with it tourism, commerce, and entrepreneurs.
In the early 1990s, the local government introduced restrictions on migration to the islands in order to slow the rampant influx of people and preserve the local culture and identity. Yet, Colombian mainlanders account for two-thirds of San Andrés' population.
The tourist and commercial boom has caused San Andrés to lose much of its original character; it's now a blend of Latin American and English-Caribbean culture. Providencia has preserved much more of its colonial culture, even though tourism is making inroads into the local lifestyle.
Although the political status of San Andrés and Providencia are unlikely to change, Nicaragua continues to press the issue of its sovereignty over the islands at the International Court of Justice in the Hague. The latest chapter in this saga saw Bogotá threatening military action if Nicaragua's oil prospectors crept into Colombian maritime space. In 2004 a Colombian frigate and submarine were sent to patrol the maritime borders, but analysts put the naval exercises down to mere 'saber-rattling.'