The Turks and Caicos Islands are a group of eight large islands and a few dozen smaller ones. Only five of the large islands and a few of the smaller ones are actually populated, the rest are only inhabited by wild birds and lizards, plus a few have wild cattle. If you rent a boat, you can easily travel to your own uninhabited island.
The islands are lumped into two groups: the Caicos islands, which include Providenciales, East Caicos, West Caicos, North Caicos, South Caicos , and Middle Caicos. Of these, East Caicos and West Caicos are not inhabited.
The Turks Islands only include two: Grand Turk , and little Salt Cay, both of which are settled. The capital of the Turks and Caicos is Cockburn Town on Grand Turk, an ancient settlement on Grand Turk.
The indigenous inhabitants of the Turks and Caicos were Tainto Indians, who settled several of the Caicos islands . Their largest settlement was on Middle Caicos. There was also interesting wildlife, including a species of crocodile, iguana, and a cat-sized rodent (prized eating by the Tainos). Unfortunately, of the above, only the iguanas were able to survive the Spaniards. Today, even the iguanas are endangered and only found on the small uninhabited islands. Seeing large wild iguanas in their natural habitat is a rare treat that's not to be missed!
In 1492, Christopher Columbus landed in the New World . Although contemporary thought says that he landed on San Salvador in the Bahamas, some scholars believe that he actually landed on Grand Turk.
At any rate, no one paid much attention to the islands until the 1700's. This is when the low-lying nature of the some of the islands was utilized to produce salt. For the next few hundred years salt became the backbone of the economy. Bermudians in particular would arrive each year during the salt harvesting season. The ships they sailed in were copied and became the Caicos Sloops which were the only means of transportation between the scattered islands and the world.
During the American revolution, Turks Island salt was in high demand by the Americans for preserving meat. Legend says that George Washington himself specifically requested it from the Continental Congress due to its high quality.
After the British lost the war, displaced royalists were granted land on the uninhabited Caicos Islands. Plantations were established on several islands, including Providenciales, to grow cotton. The islands soil were unable to support cotton for long, and combined with insects, drove most royalists away again. Their slaves, however, remained and are the ancestors of the native inhabitants today.
In 1898, the London - Jamaica telegraph was completed, with Grand Turk in between. This led to the firm entrenchment of the communications industry by Cable & Wireless. It was only in 2006 that the final remnants of C&W's (now LIME) monopoly were finally untangled.
It was still the Turks Island salt that kept the Turks and Caicos going. In the late 19th century, attempts were made to grow sisal for rope fibres and harvest sponges from the Caicos Bank. These failed too.
Curiously, there was one non-salt related success. A cattle ranch was established on West Caicos in the 1890s that successfully supplied Grand Turk with meat for a few years.
The last scheme was put to sleep in the 1970's. A large oil company wanted to build a large oil refinery on West Caicos. Fortunately for the environment, they only were able to bulldoze an airstrip before the project was cancelled.
World War I dawned on an impoverished Turks and Caicos, still depending on the salt raking industry to survive. Nevertheless, the islanders were able to scrape together enough to pay for an ambulance in WWI, that was used on the western front.
During WWII, the Turks and Caicos partially funded the Royal Navy frigate HMS Caicos, which was the only aircraft-detection frigate in use during the war. HMS Caicos was used in the North Sea to detect German V1 flying bombs aimed at London . The islands also managed to buy a Spitfire, and weaved mittens and other articles for the soldiers.
The Turks and Caicos also managed to be involved in a German spy operation. Shortly before the war, a group of American investors approached the Islands' commissioner with plans to build a resort. The Islanders eagerly wined and dined the investors and showed all the details of the islands. The investors left, never to be heard of again. That is, until detailed maps and information were discovered in the possession of a German spy ring by the FBI. This information led to several ships being sunk by U-boats near the islands.
After the war, salt was still the only income producer and the islands were struggling economically. It wasn't even worthwhile to govern the islands separately and the UK grouped them with first the Bahamas and then Jamaica. It wasn't until Jamaica became independent in 1962 that the islands received a dedicated government and governor.
It was also in 1962 that American astronaut John Glenn stepped onto Grand Turk after the first space flight. Today, a replica of his spacecraft can be seen outside the Jags McCartney international airport in Grand Turk.
The 60's were also the decade that first put Providenciales onto the map.
Up until the 60's, Providenciales was inhabited by less than 500 people! There were no cars and few roads. In 1966, Provident Ltd secured an agreement with the government granting them thousands of acres of Providenciales land in exchange for roads and an airstrip. Provident Ltd then sold lots and built the Turtle Cove marina.
Providenciales remained a low-key destination until 1984 when Club Med built a new resort on the then-deserted Grace Bay beach. This sparked the continuing surge of development that has carried Providenciales into one of the prime vacation destinations worldwide.