small British Colonial cannon at Little Bluff Lookout The cannon at Little Bluff Lookout, Salt Cay.
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Turks and Caicos History

A Brief History of the Turks and Caicos Islands

the Grand Turk Lighthouse in the Turks and Caicos at sunset
The most-recognizable of the structures in the Turks and Caicos, the century old Grand Turk lighthouse today serves as the most popular historical site in the country.

The Turks and Caicos Islands has had a varied and truly fascinating past. The known history of the islands is of recent occurrence, comparatively speaking, with the first human habitation commonly accepted as occurring about 1000 years ago.

The Turks and Caicos Islands is a tropical archipelago of eight large islands and many small islands and cays, with a total of about 100 named islands, cays, and rocks. As our nation’s name suggests, the country consists of two island groups: the Turks Islands, which includes Grand Turk and Salt Cay, and the more expansive Caicos Islands, which includes Providenciales, West Caicos, North Caicos, Middle Caicos, East Caicos, South Caicos, and Ambergris Cay. Only eight of our islands are currently inhabited.

It’s thought that the first peoples to have permanently inhabited the islands that now make up the Turks and Caicos were the Lucayans, a subset of the Taino language peoples that migrated north through the Caribbean from South America, likely settling in our islands sometime around the years 700-1000 AD.

After the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492, the Lucayan peoples rapidly disappeared from the Turks and Caicos and greater Bahamian Archipelago, primarily due to Spanish slavery for gold and silver mining in other regions in the Americas, and the pearl diving industry.

Into the 1500s and early 1600s, the Turks and Caicos was largely uninhabited, and only experienced the occasional visit by explorers, salt gatherers, and vessels driven off course by storms. Several famous European explorers, including Martin Alonso Pinzón, Juan Ponce De Leon, Sir Richard Grenville, and Captain John White made stops in the islands.

Exhibit of the Molasses Reef Wreck at the Turks and Caicos National Museum
Artefacts from the Molasses Reef Wreck at the Turks and Caicos National Museum. This wreck is the oldest excavated European shipwreck in the Americas.

In the latter 1600s, the scourge of piracy became established in the Caribbean, Bahamian Archipelago, and eastern North America, and pirates and privateers began to frequent the Turks and Caicos, and especially the Caicos Islands, where there were sources of fresh water and countless places to hide and prey on passing vessels.

In the late 16th century and into the mid-17th century, Bermudians began to regularly visit Salt Cay and Grand Turk to rake salt, and the foundations for the organized sea salt industry were laid. For the following three and a half centuries, salt exports were the primary source of income to the islands.

Into the early 18th century, control of the Turks and Caicos was claimed by a few European powers, with control being contested by the Spanish, French, and British. Horatio Nelson suffered one of his few defeats attempting to retake Fire Hill on Grand Turk from the French. Control of Grand Turk was later returned, which was ratified by the 1783 Treaty of Versailles. The Turks and Caicos after which was a colony of Great Britain.

After the American War of Independence, displaced British Loyalists from the American Colonies migrated to the Turks and Caicos starting 1783, many of which went on to form cotton plantations. At the time. African slaves were brought in by the Loyalists to work in the cotton fields.

The 19th century saw quite a bit of economic change and social development in the Turks and Caicos. The cotton industry essentially failed due to disease and hurricane damage, the salt industry wealth brought cultural and civic improvements to Grand Turk, Salt Cay, and South Caicos, and the Caicos Islands saw the emergence of new industries including sisal planting, guano mining, and sponging. The capital city of Cockburn Town developed, churches, schools, and the Grand Turk Lighthouse were built.

the Victorian-era Burrell steam traction engine at Yankee Town in the Turks and Caicos
The Burrell Traction Engine at Yankee Town.

Due to the financial failures of the local presidency at the time, the Turks and Caicos was annexed to the British colony of Jamaica.

In the mid-1800s, the Caicos Islands also an influx of African peoples and heritage independent of the slaves brought by the Bermudian salt rakers and the Loyalists, when the Spanish slave ships Trouvadore and Esperanza wrecked at East Caicos, and some of the survivors were freed in the islands. Settlement names such as Bambarra and Nongatown on Middle Caicos may have been a reflection of this later African era of culture.

Into the later 20th century, the Turks and Caicos saw the decline and essential collapse of the salt industry and agriculture due to the poor international competitiveness of the local small scales of production. In the 1950s, the United States built Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard bases in the islands, which brought some much-needed income to the economy. Change was occurring with governance as well. Due to the impending independence of Jamaica from the United Kingdom, the Turks and Caicos transitioned to a British Overseas Territory, with elements of self-rule.

In the mid-1980, the island of Providenciales and by extension the country as a whole began its transformation into a tourism destination, with the construction of the Third Turtle Inn, the Club Med Turkoise resort, and the Providenciales International Airport (PLS). World famous Grace Bay Beach was accessible to international tourists, and word begun to get out of the crystal clear water, exquisite reefs, and white sand beaches.

The Lucayans and Pre-Columbian Settlement

Taino pictograph in a cave in the Turks and Caicos
This Taino pictograph was documented by explorer Theodore de Booy in the 1800s, but the whereabouts of this inscription was unknown until it was recently discovered by local writer and photographer Kim Mortimer.

The first known inhabitants of the Turks and Caicos were the Lucayans, (also referred to as Tainos, or Lucayan Indians). It’s thought that these peoples migrated to the islands through the southern Caribbean from South America, as early as the year 700 AD.

Evidence suggests that initially life was simple for the Tainos, yet by the 1400s, more complex agricultural practices were developed, and regular trade took place between what is now the Turks and Caicos and neighboring Hispaniola (the island that is home to Haiti and Dominican Republic) and Puerto Rico. Salt and perhaps dried conch was likely traded for honey, fruit, tools, and possibly canoes.

Hunting and fishing were probably the main sources of food, yet limited planting of maize and manioc for food and cotton for textiles also helped to sustain daily life. New evidence is emerging from a Lucayan settlement site on Providenciales that may suggest that hutia and possibly iguanas were raised for food, as hutia bones recovered show a heavy dietary influence of maize!

There’s not enough evidence to be certain, yet it’s possible that several terrestrial animals, including a large iguana, land tortoises, possibly the hutia, and possibly a dwarf crocodile, were previously extant in the islands and were hunted to extinction by the pre-Columbian peoples. The Turks and Caicos Islands rock iguana is the largest indigenous land animal still remaining.

Lucayan structures in the Turks and Caicos were primarily small to mid-sized huts, typically organized in small villages in favorable coastal locations. Evidence suggests that caves were used for shelter during storms and for ceremonial purposes.

Small artefacts, mainly Palmetto Ware pottery shards and stone and shell tools, are the primary evidence of these aborigine peoples that still remains today. Some of the finest Lucayan artefacts that still exist from the islands include wood duho seats, of which less than ten were known to have been found, and the North Creek canoe paddle. The Turks and Caicos National Museum in Grand Turk houses the paddle and a duho, and perhaps the best collection of artefacts still preserved is held by the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC.

The Lucayan populations were decimated after the arrival of Columbus due to combination of Spanish slavery and disease, and it’s thought that the last of the Lucayans in the Turks and Caicos disappeared by the early 1500s.

The Landfall of Christopher Columbus

Replicas of the Niña, Pinta, and Santa María made in the late 1800s.

The point of first landfall of Columbus in the New World is a contentious issue, with many contemporary historians believing that it occurred somewhere in the Bahamas, yet the vague accounts from the historic voyage do match with Grand Turk and the Caicos Islands. In any case, if the Turks and Caicos wasn’t the first point of landfall, it was discovered by European explorers shortly after 1492.

Several famous Spanish, English, and Portuguese explorers did make stops in the Turks and Caicos, either on voyages of discovery, transits to Roanoke Island, or on slaving expeditions. Such visitors include Martin Alonso Pinzón and his brother Vincente Yáñez Pinzón who respectively commanded the vessels today known as the Pinta and the Nina from Columbus’ first trip, Juan Ponce De Leon, and English explorers Sir Richard Grenville and Captain John White.

One historical mystery in the Turks and Caicos is the Molasses Reef Wreck. This ancient European caravel shipwreck was found on Molasses Reef near West Caicos in the 1970s by treasure hunters, and was initially thought to be La Pinta from Columbus’. Artefacts from this amazing find can be seen at the National Museum. Further research carried out suggests a date circa 1513, and a vessel outfitted as an adventure and investment venture.

Salt Raking and the Bermudians

Barring the occasional visit to the Turks and Caicos by explorers on their way North America or South America, not much attention was paid to the islands until the late 1600s, when the low-lying marine wetlands on Salt Cay and Grand Turk began to be developed to facilitate efficient salt production. Colonialists from Bermuda were the first to see the potential of the shallow salt ponds in the Turks and Caicos, and the trade started with seasonal visits to rake salt, yet progressed to a more serious year-round focus.

Initially, the infrastructure was simply to add ocean water into salinas, and block normal tidal inflow, yet eventually the improvements led a complex system of ponds with progressive stages of brine to control consistent output, gates and channels to control water, and pumps to move brine between ponds.

Grand Turk, Salt Cay, and South Caicos all supported extensive and organized sea salt production, with South Caicos eventually being the major producer. By the start of the 20th century, exports reached 2 million bushels (about 140 million pounds), with around 800 acres (324 hectares) of developed salina, fractured by over 80 miles of (129 kilometers) stone salina walls.

West Caicos, Providenciales, East Caicos, and Middle Caicos all had experienced limited salt production at various times in history. A couple of salinas on Middle Caicos and Providenciales, at natural ponds such as Armstrong Pond, were likely worked by the Lucayans prior to the arrival of Columbus. Small ponds in the Caicos Islands produced salt that was gathered by visiting explorers and early settlers as well. From the early 16th century until the mid-20th century, salt exports were the backbone of the Turks and Caicos economy.

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. In 2020 US dollars, a pound of salt could fetch as high as $260.

European Struggles for Control

British cast iron cannon at Little Bluff Lookout on Salt Cay
Cannon at Little Bluff Lookout, Salt Cay. Found buried at this location in 1996, this gun was probably part of a battery that was placed to defend against French invasion.

After the initial Spanish presence at Hispaniola, the Turks and Caicos was initially largely ignored by the European powers in the 16th century, as they pursued more lucrative regions. Eventually, the English, French, and Spanish all at various times claimed the Turks and Caicos Islands.

From the initial settlement of the salt producing islands by the Bermudians and due to their control of the adjacent Bahamas, Great Britain maintained claim to the Turks and Caicos from the later 1600s, yet there were squabbles over which territory (Bermuda or the Bahamas) the Turks and Caicos fell under, which ultimately ended up in favor of the Bahamas.

Into the mid-1700s, the French tried to stake claims on the Turks and Caicos, with occasional incursions and intrusions until the 1783 Treaty of Versailles, which ratified with France the islands as part of the British Empire.

Pirates and Privateers

colonial graves on The Island at Grand Turk
Graves on Grand Turk. Until about the start of the 1900s, waterborne pathogens took more European lives during the colonial expansions than all other causes combined. Land surrounding these graves also served as a place to isolate the sick to limit the spread of disease. Many are children's graves.

No history of the Turks and Caicos is complete without discussions of piracy, buccaneers, and privateers. In fact, the name Turks and Caicos essentially translates to 'Pirate Islands'. Turkish corsairs and slavers were once a scourge on Europe, the Mediterranean, and northern Africa, and thus Turk was once used as a synonym of pirate. Early mapmakers combined Turks with a variant of the Lucayan word cayo hico (which meant archipelago, or islands), as a warning to avoid the 'pirate islands'.

Several famous pirates are thought to have operated in the Turks and Caicos, including Françoise L’Olonnois (Jean-David Nau), Captain “Calico” Jack Rackam, Anne Bonny, and Mary Read. Parrot Cay was thought to have served as a base for pirates, and it’s believed that the island used to be known as Pirate Cay, until its name was changed to be more socially acceptable.

The American Revolution, and the Loyalists

After the American War of Independence, displaced British Loyalists from the American Colonies were granted land on the uninhabited Caicos Islands. These settlers established plantations on several islands, including Providenciales, North Caicos, and Middle Caicos, to grow cotton. The cotton grown in the Turks and Caicos and Bahamian Archipelago by the Loyalists was referred to as Sea Island Cotton, and may have been derived from plants introduced to the islands from the Yucatan by the pre-Columbian Lucayans.

Initially, the attempts at growing cotton were quite successful, which led to the expansion of plantations such as Cheshire Hall, Wade's Green Plantation, Increase Plantation, and Haulover Plantation. The profitable times weren’t to last, as diseases, the boll weevil, and hurricane damage put an end to the cotton industry. The slaves brought by the Loyalists, however, remained, and were one of the ancestor groups of the people of the Turks and Caicos today.

Failures of the Cotton Plantations, and New Industries

vintage photo of the American Consulate building in Cockburn Town on Grand Turk
The American Consulate, Cockburn Town, Grand Turk. This consulate was built in the early 1800s.

After the decline of the cotton planting, sea salt exports were still going strong. The Caicos Islands, however, needed new forms of income, which came in several unique ways.

Guano (bat excrement) mining and export, primarily for chemical and fertilizer uses, occurred on both Middle Caicos and East Caicos, which saw caves such as Conch Bar Cave and Indian Cave being completely emptied of all guano, soils, and Lucayan artefacts.

Sisal planting also took place on North Caicos, Middle Caicos, East Caicos, and West Caicos. East Caicos and West Caicos, after not being inhabited for centuries, saw small railroads and the settlements of Jacksonville and Yankee Town being built to facilitate the production of sisal. The Burrell Traction Engine, now the main sight at Yankee Town, was actually sent to the Turks and Caicos by mistake. It was intended to be shipped to sisal plantations in British West India, yet ended up at West Caicos in the British West Indies!

Sponging, which was the harvesting and cleaning of sea sponges for export, also took place, until over collection and disease depleted natural stocks, after which sponge farming was attempted in Chalk Sound on Providenciales and at Bell Sound on South Caicos. Sponge farming which had limited returns, was carried on until the advent of synthetic sponges in the mid-1900s. During the decline of the sponge trade, the canning of lobster and turtle was also tried, with mixed results.

Turks and Caicos donkeys at South Wells on the island of Salt Cay
Wild donkeys on Salt Cay.

Wrecking, which was the salvaging of ships and cargos that wrecked in the islands, also provided income to the impoverished Providenciales and Blue Hills and Wheeland settlement in the 19th century. The limited wrecking industry was also supplemented by the building of Caicos Sloops, which were small derivatives of English, French, and Portuguese vessels.

During the late Victorian Era, whaling of humpback whales for oil from Salt Cay also took place, as did cattle ranching on East Caicos and Hog Cay. Both attempts brought in some income, yet were never globally competitive.

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 renamed Flow) monopoly were finally untangled.

The World Wars

the expansive concrete rainwater collection field at the U.S. Navy NAVFAC 104 base on Grand Turk
Found on the north end of Grand Turk close to the lighthouse, much of the now abandoned US Navy’s NAVFAC 104 base was dedicated to rain water collection, as the water from wells on the island proved to be a bit too brackish for use.

World War I dawned on an impoverished Turks and Caicos, still depending on what was a very limited salt raking industry to survive. Nevertheless, the islanders were able to raise money to fund an ambulance for World War I, which was used on the western front in Europe.

During World War II, 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 'doodlebug' flying bombs destined for London. The islands also managed to fund a Spitfire fighter, 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. They left, never to be heard of again, until the maps and information were discovered in the possession of a German spy ring by the FBI. This information may have led to several ships being sunk by U-boats near the islands.

After the war, salt exports were still the primary income to the islands, which were struggling economically. It was even too costly to govern the islands as its own British Crown Colony, and the United Kingdom grouped them with, at first, the Bahamas, and then Jamaica. It wasn't until Jamaica became independent in 1962 that the islands received a dedicated government and governor.

The mid-1950s saw the construction of three United States bases: the U.S. Navy NAVFAC 104 and the Air Force South Base on Grand Turk, and the U.S. Coastguard South Caicos LORAN Station. These projects brought jobs, economic income, and what become the Grand Turk JAGS McCartney International Airport (GDT) and the South Caicos Airport (XSC).

It was in 1962 that another historic event occurred in the Turks and Caicos, when American astronaut John Glenn first stepped back onto land on Grand Turk after the first space flight. Today, replicas of his spacecraft can be seen outside the Grand Turk Airport and the Grand Turk Cruise Center in Grand Turk.

The Latter 20th Century and the Dawn of the Tourism Industry

In 1967, Providenciales and the Turks and Caicos experienced a change of direction, with the arrival of Provident Limited at Blue Hills on Providenciales. This development company, headed by Fritz Ludington, negotiated a contract with the government for 4000 acres on Providenciales, on a conditional lease that included the construction of an airstrip, terminal, roads, and a hotel (the Third Turtle Inn at Turtle Cove). For the first time, Grace Bay and the other beautiful beaches on Providenciales were somewhat accessible to the international tourism market.

vintage photo of a U.S. Coast Guard Fairchild C 123B Provider at the South Caicos Airport
US Coast Guard Fairchild C-123B Provider. The island’s airstrip was built by the United States during World War II to support a submarine tracking station, and was later used by the Coast Guard. Photo courtesy of and copyright of US Coast Guard veteran Charles A. Bliley (www.bliley.net).

Providenciales remained a low-key destination until 1984, when Club Med Turkoise and a new airport opened. This sparked the continuing surge of development that has transformed Providenciales into one of the most popular tropical vacation destinations worldwide.

1968 was the year that the current Turks and Caicos flag was adopted, which is the British Blue Ensign and the Turks and Caicos Crest. The crest features a conch, Turk's Head Cactus, and lobster.

In the 1970s, West Caicos, now appreciated for its environment, clear water, and reefs, had some environmental close calls. The first was in 1972 when multinational oil giant Exxon (Esso) attempted to put in an oil transshipment station and refinery, which saw an airstrip bulldozed and some equipment brought in before the deal fell through. Around the same time, aragonite mining and a nuclear waste dump site(!) were also considered, yet fortunately for the environment and the country, the proposals failed.

The Independence Movement and Self Governance

In the 1970s and 1980s, many former British Crown Colonies (as they were then known) were granted independence. This wave of nationalism raised calls of independence in the Turks and Caicos.

In 1980, the then-Government PDM party agreed with Britain that should they be re-elected that year, independence would be granted in 1982. Thus, the 1980 election effectively became a referendum on independence. The PDM lost and independence was taken off the table.

Some talk of independence was raised in the mid-2000s, however no party has made it a campaign issue since 1980. Likewise, overtime, discussions were had on the Turks and Caicos joining Canada.

Historical Sites in the Turks and Caicos

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