The first inhabitants of the Turks and Caicos Islands were Amerindians, first the Arawak people, who were, over the centuries, gradually replaced by the warlike Carib.
Depopulation by Europeans
The first European to sight the islands was Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León, who did so in 1512, though some historians claim that Guanahani, the native name of the island Christopher Columbus called San Salvador on his 1492 voyage, is Grand Turk Island or East Caicos Island.
Spanish slavers frequently raided the islands, enslaving the Caribs of the islands. Only a year after first being discovered, the entire archipelago was completely depopulated.
European History Prior To Settlement
During the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, the islands passed from Spanish, to French, to British control, but none of the three powers ever established any settlements.
From about 1690 to 1720, pirates hid in the cays of the Turks and Caicos Islands, attacking Spanish treasure galleons en route to Spain from Cuba, Hispaniola, and the Spanish possessions in Central America and Peru.
The islands were not fully colonised until 1681, when salt collectors from Bermuda built the first permanent settlement on Grand Turk Island (thought to be so named due to the presence of cacti with, what appeared to them to be red fez-like structures on their tops, but this not likely to be true, since the fez was unknown to Turkey before 1826). The salt collectors were drawn by the shallow waters around the islands that made salt mining a much easier process than in Bermuda. They occupied the Turks only seasonally, for six months a year, however, returning to Bermuda when it was no longer viable to rake salt. Their colonization established the British dominance of the archipelago that has lasted into the present day. Huge numbers of trees were felled by the Bermudians to discourage rainfall that would adversely affect the salt mining operation. This deforestation has yet to be repaired. Most of the salt mined in the Turks and Caicos Islands was sold through Bermudian merchant houses on the American seaboard, including in Newfoundland where it was used for preserving cod.
The agricultural industry sprung up in the islands in the late 1780s after 40 Loyalists arrived after the end of the American Revolution, primarily from Georgia and South Carolina. Granted large tracts of land by the British government to make up for what they lost in the American colonies, the Loyalists imported well over a thousand slaves and planted vast fields of cotton.
Though in the short term highly successful, the cotton industry quickly went into decline, with hurricanes and pests destroying many crops. Though a few of the former cotton magnates changed to salt mining, just about every one of the original Loyalists had left the islands by 1820, leaving their slaves to live a subsistence lifestyle through fishing and hunter-gathering.
The Bermudian Century
Bermuda spent much of the 18th Century in a protracted legal battle with the Bahamas (which had itself been colonised by Bermudian Puritans in 1647) over the Turks Islands. Under British law, no colony could hold colonies of its own. The Turks Islands were not recognised by Britain either as a colony in its own right, or as a part of Bermuda. They were held to be, like rivers in Britain, for the common use. As a result, there was a great deal of political turmoil surrounding the ownership of the Turks (and Caicos).
Spanish and French forces seized the Turks in 1706, but Bermudian forces expelled them four years later in what was probably Bermuda’s only independent military operation.
The struggle with the Bahamas began in 1766, when the King’s representative in the Bahamas, Mr. Symmer, on his own authority, wrote a constitution which legislated for and taxed the Bermudians on the Turks. The Secretary of State, Lord Hillsborough, for the Crown, issued orders that the Bermudian activities on the Turks should not be obstructed or restrained in any way. As a result of this order, Symmer’s constitution was dissolved. The Bermudians on the Turks appointed commissioners to govern themselves, with the assent of the King’s local agent. They drew up regulations for good government, but the Bahamian governor Shirley drew up his own regulations for the Turks and ordered that no one might work at salt raking who had not signed assent to his regulations.
Following this, a raker was arrested and the salt pans were seized and divided by force. The Bahamas government attempted to appoint judicial authorities for the Turks in 1768, but these were refused by the Bermudians. In 1773 the Bahamian government passed an act attempting to tax the salt produced in the Turks, but the Bermudians refused to pay it. In 1774, the Bahamians passed another, similar act, and this they submitted for the Crown’s assent. The Crown passed this act on to the Bermudian government which objected to it, and which rejected Bahamian jurisdiction over the Turks. The Crown, as a consequence, refused assent of the Act as applied to include the Turks, and, in the form in which it finally passed, the Bahamas, but not the Turks, were included.
The Bermudians on the Turks continued to be governed under their own regulations, with the assent of the royal agent, until 1780, when a more formal version of those regulations was submitted for the assent of the Crown, which was given. Those regulations, issued as a royal order, stated that all British subjects had the right (“free liberty”) to rake and gather salt on the Turks, providing that they conformed to the regulations, which expressly rejected Bahamian jurisdiction over the Turks. Despite this refutation by a higher authority of their right to impinge upon Bermudian activities on the Turks, the Bahamian government continued to harass the Bermudians (unsurprisingly, given the lucrativeness of the Turks salt trade).
Although the salt industry on the Turks had largely been a Bermudian preserve, it had been seen throughout the 17th century as the right of all British subjects to rake there, and small numbers of Bahamians had been involved. In 1783, the French had landed a force on Grand Turk which a British force of 100 men, under then-Captain Horatio Nelson, had been unable to dislodge, but which was soon withdrawn.
Following this, the Bahamians were slow to return to the Turks, while the Bermudians quickly resumed salt production, sending sixty to seventy-five ships to the Turks each year, during the six months that salt could be raked. Nearly a thousand Bermudians spent part of the year on the Turks engaged in salt production, and the industry became more productive.
The Bahamas, meanwhile, was incurring considerable expense in aborbing loyalist refugees from the now-independent American colonies, and returned to the idea of taxing Turks salt for the needed funds. The Bahamian government ordered that all ships bound for the Turk Islands obtain a license at Nassau first. The Bermudians refused to do this. Following this, Bahamian authorities seized the Bermuda sloops Friendship and Fanny in 1786. Shortly after, three Bermudian vessels were seized at Grand Caicos, with $35,000 worth of goods salvaged from a French ship. French privateers were becoming a menace to Bermudian operations in the area, at the time, but the Bahamians were their primary concern.
The Bahamian government re-introduced a tax on salt from the Turks, annexed them to the Bahamas, and created a seat in the Bahamian parliament to represent them. The Bermudians refused these efforts also, but the continual pressure from the Bahamaians had a degrative effect on the salt industry. In 1806, the Bermudian customs authorities went some way toward acknowledging the Bahamian annexation when it ceased to allow free exchange between the Turks and Bermuda (this affected many enslaved Bermudians, who, like the free ones, had occupied the Turks only seasonally, returning to their homes in Bermuda after the year’s raking had finished).
That same year, French privateers attacked the Turks, burning ships and absconding with a large sloop. The Bahamians refused to help, and the Admiralty in Jamaica claimed the Turks were beyond his jurisdiction. Two hurricanes, the first in August, 1813, the second in October, 1815, destroyed more than two-hundred buildings, significand salt stores, and sank many vessels. By 1815, the United States, the primary client for Turks salt, had been at war with Britain (and hence Bermuda) for three years, and had established other sources of salt.
With the destruction wrought by the storm, and the loss of market, many Bermudians abandoned the Turks, and those remaining were so distraught that they welcomed the visit of the Bahamian governor in 1819. The British government eventually assigned political control to the Bahamas, which the Turks and Caicos remained a part of until the 1840s.
One Bermudian salt raker, Mary Prince, however, was to leave a scathing record of Bermuda’s activities there in The History of Mary Prince, a book which helped to propel the abolitionist cause to the 1834 emancipation of slaves throughout the Empire.
Bahamian and Jamaican Jurisdictions and Local Autonomy
The islands remained part of the Bahamas until 1848, when the inhabitants successfully petitioned to be made a separate colony under the supervision of the governor of Jamaica. This arrangement proved to be a financial burden, and in 1873 the Turks and Caicos Islands were annexed to Jamaica with a Commissioner and a Legislative Board.
The islands remained a dependency of Jamaica until 1959, when they received their own administration, although the governor of Jamaica remained the governor of the islands. When Jamaica was granted independence from Britain in August 1962, the Turks and Caicos Islands became a crown colony. From 1965 the governor of The Bahamas was also governor of the Turks and Caicos Islands and oversaw affairs for the islands. When the Bahamas gained independence in 1973, the islands received their own governor.
The salt industry, along with small sponge and hemp exports, sustained the Turks and Caicos Islands (only barely, however; there was little population growth and the economy stagnated) until in the 1960s American investors arrived on the islands and funded the construction of an airstrip on Provo Island and built the archipelago’s first hotel, “The Third Turtle”. A small trickle of tourists began to arrive, supplementing the salt economy. Club Med set up a resort at Grace Bay soon after. In the 1980s, Club Med funded an upgrading of the airstrip to allow for larger aircraft, and since then, tourism has been gradually on the increase. It is common for foreign couples to be married in the Turks and Caicos Islands today.
In 1980, the ruling pro-independence party, the People’s Democratic Movement, agreed with the British government that independence would be granted in 1982 if the PDM was reelected in the elections of that year. The PDM lost the elections to the Progressive National Party, which supported continued British rule. The PNP’s leader, Norman Saunders, became chief minister, and won the 1984 elections. However, in 1985 Saunders and two associates were convicted in the USA on drug charges.
The PNP emerged victorious from the following by-elections, but on July 24, 1986, the governor dissolved the government and replaced it with an advisory council after a report on allegations of arson and fraud found that the chief minister post-Saunders, Nathaniel Francis, along with four other PNP officials were unfit to rule.
Under the careful guidance of the governor and the advisory council, a new constitution for the Turks and Caicos Islands was created and elections held in 1988, with the PDM winning by a landslide, and Washington Misick becoming the new chief minister.
Wenika Ewing was the islands’ representative to the Miss Universe contest in 2005.
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