The original inhabitants of the islands were Lucayans, a branch of the Taíno (West Indian) people who were present throughout the northern Caribbean up until approximately the year 1500.
Juan Ponce de León, the Spanish conquistador, is the first widely accepted European explorer to discover the islands, although some modern historians believe it was Christopher Columbus. Grand Turk is very similar to San Salvador (the first land in the New World supposedly reached by Columbus), which is a modern day island in the Bahamas. However, Grand Turk is pointed out to be a more easterly island and thus more likely to be the first land reached than present-day Bahamian San Salvador. See History of the Turks and Caicos Islands for more information on this hypothesis.
By the early 1500s, the Spanish had captured (as slaves) most of the local Lucayan Indians for work on nearby Hispaniola (the island that is home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic), with the remaining Lucayans leaving for other Bahamian islands and dying through foreign diseases (such as smallpox).
There are no remaining Lucayan Indians, the original indigenous people, in the Turks and Caicos Islands today.
The first people to settle in the islands, after over 100 years (between 1500 and 1600) of the country being depopulated, were Europeans, several of whom brought slaves with them. Indeed, the majority of people residing in the islands today are descendants of African slaves. The late 1600s saw a movement of slaves brought to the islands to work in salt ponds, which was the only industry in the country.
After the American Revolutionary War, some Loyalists fled to the Turks and Caicos, a British colony, where they were given land and brought additional slaves with them to work on sisal plantations (such as Cheshire Hall Plantation on Providenciales). Historians generally believe the slaves in the country were treated well. One such slave and plantation owner, John Lorimer, freed all his slaves upon his death in 1806. The town of Lorimers on Middle Caicos is named after him.
In 1807, the slave trade was abolished throughout the British Empire, but slavery was still legal. The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 meant that all slaves in the Turks and Caicos were now free. Slaves were given an apprenticeship to learn a trade, commonly returning to work for their former masters for a share of the plantation (or salt ponds), or for wages.
With slavery abolished, the Royal Navy, along with combating piracy, had the additional task of freeing slaves they captured aboard French and Spanish ships. One such ship, the Spanish ship Trouvadore, was sank by the British in 1841, and 192 slaves were found on-board. These people were given their freedom by the British and allowed to settle on Middle Caicos, where they formed the town of Bambarra and became the ancestors of many of the country’s residents today.
Europeans and North Americans have always been a minority in the Islands, and few were living in the country up until 1960, when serious development began. Today, they number around 5% of the resident population.
Until the early 1990s, the country was majority African Turks and Caicos Islanders (more than 90%). However, government immigration policies of the late 1990s until present resulted in large numbers of foreigners immigrating to the country, resulting in a massive change in the status quo. Today, African Turks and Caicos Islanders account for less than 35% of the population (2012 census).
Many immigrants are Haitians (from nearby Haiti), who are emigrating their impoverished country for a better life in the Turks and Caicos. Haitians speak Haitian Creole, a French-derived language, and are generally poorly integrated into the local community. Additional significant minorities are Dominicans (Spanish speaking), and Filipinos (primarily Filipino and English speaking).
The Turks and Caicos share many cultural elements with the Bahamas, as many local residents have Bahamian ancestry and have lived or were born in the Bahamas. The Turks and Caicos Islands are geographically part of the Bahamas, and a loose union was proposed in 2009 to link the two countries.
Attempts have been made to encourage the preservation of local culture, such as through cultural awareness programmes and the creation of the Chief Cultural Officer post. In 2003 the annual Conch Festival event was also created, which along with a food festival atomsphere incorporates elements of the local culture (through live music and junkanoo).
Ripsaw is a local music genre developed during slavery times. It consists of scrapping an instrument, such as a screwdriver, over a saw blade to create a scrapping sound. Playing ripsaw is called ripping the saw. Common accompaniments are the guitar, drums and triangle. Junkanoo, a Bahamian music genre, was brought back to the islands by returning Turks and Caicos Islander who left to find work in nearby Bahamian Islands.
Much of the food and cuisine in the islands revolves around seafood, in particular conch. The local dishes have been influenced by immigrants immigrants from Jamaica and the nearby Bahamas.