About Turks & Caicos
History of Grand Turk & the Turks and Caicos Islands
Eight hundred years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, the Taíno and Lucayan native peoples colonized the Caribbean. Among the places they called home was a small archipelago of sand-rimmed islands that dotted a transparent, turquoise sea – two island groups today known as the Caicos Islands and the Turks Islands, or collectively as the Turks and Caicos.
The Taíno and Lucayans: Grand Turk’s Pre-Columbian Peoples
For centuries, the Taínos and Lucayans were the sole residents of the islands. Both tribes originated in South America, slowly expanding north through the Windward and Leeward Islands, and spreading west into the Greater Antilles and Bahamas. Today, the Bahamian Archipelago, which includes the nations of the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos, is also known as the Lucayan Archipelago – an homage to the islands’ first residents.
The Taínos and Lucayans settled primarily on Middle Caicos and Grand Turk, living peacefully and surviving off the land and sea. Their culture and society were highly developed and quite advanced, encompassing a distinct religion, language, government, traditions, arts, and developed trade routes.
Christopher Columbus & A New World
Fast-forward more than seven hundred years to the late 1400s – and the arrival of Christopher Columbus and European settlers. Locals (and an island monument) report that Grand Turk’s Guanahani Beach was Columbus’s very first landfall in the New World (est. 1492).
European arrival signaled the unfortunate end of the Taínos and Lucayans, who within a half-century were either enslaved or fell victim to foreign-borne illness. For the next 30 years, only a sprinkling of settlers and natives populated the Turks and Caicos – an island chain unquestionably beautiful, but considered of little worth to Europeans: without gold, too far off central trading routes, and lacking sufficient rain to support sugarcane cultivation.
The Salt Industry
In the mid-1600s, an ancient resource – island salt – became new industry, and began to flourish on Grand Turk. Salt was an important commodity, used not only for flavoring but also to preserve food in the absence of refrigeration. Beginning in the 1670s, Bermudans flocked to the Turks and Caicos and claimed it as their own, raking salt to take back to their native Bermuda.
Interestingly but tragically, the very conditions that made the archipelago perfect for salt-making were a Catch-22, also making the island treacherous for exporting the final product. Grand Turk’s shallow waters were easy for salt-raking, but created dangerous conditions for nautical navigation. The salt industry claimed more than 1,000 ships during its tenure in the islands.
International Fight for the Turks and Caicos
The 1700s passed in a flash of international clashes over the provenance of the salt-rich Turks and Caicos. In 1706, the French and Spanish battled the Bermudans, briefly snatching the archipelago away from island rule. In 1710, the mighty British Empire fought the French and Spanish, recapturing the Turks and Caicos on behalf of British Bermuda. Between 1765 and 1783, the French returned to occupy the island, and officially recaptured the Turks and Caicos during the Battle of Grand Turk in 1783.
Curiously, the fate of the Turks and Caicos was decided far away from the islands themselves – in the newly formed United States of America. The second Treaty of Paris, which was signed in 1783 and ended the American Revolutionary War, ultimately returned the Turks and Caicos to British rule. Today, the islands are a British Overseas Territory still under British governance.
Cotton on Grand Turk
Throughout the 18th century, the Turks and Caicos had served primarily as a haven for pirates and British Loyalists who were fleeing the political unrest leading up to and during the American Revolution. In 1799, the British integrated the Turks and Caicos into the Bahamian government, gifting land to the first British settlers.
These colonial loyalists brought to the islands cotton, a crop they knew well from their time in the United States. The settlers also brought with them the plantation lifestyle, including slaves to work the cotton fields. But plantation life was short-lived on the Turks and Caicos. By 1807, the British Empire had prohibited the slave trade and by 1833, slavery was outlawed throughout the Turks and Caicos. The former slaves relocated to nearby islands or stayed behind to rake salt, which remained the most important and successful industry of the islands.
Self-Governance and Annexation
In 1799, the Turks and Caicos had officially become part of the British-governed Bahamas. But by the mid 1840s, locals were clamoring for self governance. In 1848, the British government responded to local petition and declared the Turks and Caicos to be self-governing, under the guidance of Jamaica.
In 1872, the Turks and Caicos were annexed to Jamaica. Less than a century later, in 1962, the archipelago was returned to Bahamian governance. In 1973, the Turks and Caicos were given official status as a separate Crown Colony of Great Britain. For the last 50+ years, the Turks and Caicos have remained a peaceful, quiet, and spectacularly tropical British Overseas Territory.
Rise to Tourism Superstardom
Though the Taínos and Lucayans discovered the Turks and Caicos in 750 A.D. and Columbus touched down in 1492, it wasn’t until the late 20th century that the islands were truly “discovered.”
From 1950 to 1981, the United States operated a missile tracking station on sleepy Grand Turk. In 1962, astronaut John Glenn successfully landed just offshore, garnering international publicity for the tiny Caribbean island. It was during this same period that American millionaires – the DuPonts, Teddy Roosevelt III, and others – also became enamored of the picture-perfect Turks and Caicos, leasing land to build private airstrips and to anchor their luxurious yachts.
At the same time, Europe’s Count Ferdinand Czernin, son of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s final prime minister, built a beautiful resort on tiny Pine Cay; his property later became the exclusive and opulent Meridian Club. In 1984, Club Med opened its first resort on Providenciales (Provo), and Turks and Caicos tourism was born.
Living History on Grand Turk
Today, the Turks and Caicos is comprised of eight populated islands and many small, uninhabited cays. Located 575 miles south of Miami and just over 100 miles north of the Dominican Republic, the archipelago is a tropical paradise in the exotic West Indies.
In many ways, old-world island charm survives on Grand Turk – the pastel homes and outdoor cafés and whitewashed porches of Hemingway’s storied and utterly romantic Caribbean. And unlike more touristed islands, where throngs of visitors overrun the beaches and ocean and streets and sidewalks, it’s not hard to find an isolated corner of Grand Turk – a slice of island life that even the Taínos or Lucayans would recognize.
And as for living history, we’ll refer back to Shakespeare, for what’s in a name? In the Turks and Caicos, it’s the past and its culture and its life: Turks for the indigenous Turk’s head cactus (Melocactus communis) and Caicos from the Lucayan phrase caya hico, meaning island chain.
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