Recent discoveries of Taíno (the indigenous population) artifacts on Grand Turk have shown that the islands evolved much the same indigenous culture as did their northern neighbors. Locals even claim that the islands were Christopher Columbus’ first landfall in 1492.
The island group was a pawn in the power struggles between the French, Spanish and British, and remained virtually uninhabited until 1678, when some Bermudian salt rakers settled the Turks islands and used natural salinas (salt-drying pans) to produce sea salt. These still exist on several islands.
Fast forward to the mid-20th century: the US military built airstrips and a submarine base in the 1950s, and John Glenn splashed down just off Grand Turk in 1962, putting the islands in the international spotlight.
Administered through Jamaica and the Bahamas in the past, the Turks and Caicos became a separate Crown colony of Great Britain in 1962 then an Overseas Territory in 1981. In 1984 Club Med opened its doors on Providenciales (Provo), and the Turks and Caicos started to boom. In the blink of an eye, the islands, which had lacked electricity, acquired satellite TV.
The Turks and Caicos relied upon the exportation of salt, which remained the backbone of the British colony until 1964. Today finance, tourism and fishing generate most income, but the islands could not survive without British aid. The tax-free offshore finance industry is a mere minnow compared with that of the Bahamas, and many would be astonished to discover that Grand Turk, the much-hyped financial center, is just a dusty backwater in the sun.
The per capita GDP in 2002 was estimated at US$11, 500. Illegal drug trafficking, a major problem in the 1980s, has also been a source of significant revenue for a few islanders.
Relations between islanders and British-appointed governors have been strained since 1996, when the incumbent governor’s comments suggesting that government and police corruption had turned the islands into a haven for drug trafficking appeared in the Offshore Finance Annual, and opponents accused him of harming investment. Growing opposition threatened to spill over into civil unrest. The issue created a resurgence in calls for independence, calls that still continue today.
While some pine for more autonomy, there are calls for closer ties with Canada, of all nations. Recently there have been moves to join the northern nation as an official province. The drive is for economic spillover, better trade relations and a more prominent international voice. Whether this comes to pass is still up in the air, but if it does the influx of frostbitten patriots would certainly change the current population landscape.