Recent discoveries of Taíno artifacts on Grand Turk and Middle Caicos have shown that the islands originally had much the same indigenous culture as their northern neighbors. Known as the Lucayans, this branch of the Taíno people probably began arriving here around 750 AD, permanently settling most islands by around 1300 AD. Sadly, this young society soon came into contact with European rapacity. While the local claim that Columbus made his first New World landfall at Grand Turk in 1492 is unproven, what is certain is that within 30 years of that date the Lucayan civilization in these islands was gone, decimated by slavery and disease.
The island group remained virtually uninhabited for most of the 16th and 17th centuries, passing between the nominal control of Britain, France and Spain. Permanent populations only developed from the 1670s, when Bermudian salt rakers settled the Turks islands and used natural salinas (salt-drying pans, still prominent features of Grand Turk and Salt Cay) to produce sea salt. Captured by the French and Spanish in 1706, the islands were retaken by the Bermudans soon afterwards. It was also around this time that piracy in the islands enjoyed its heyday, with famous outlaws such as Mary Read, Anne Bonny, Calico Jack Rackham, Captain Kidd and Blackbeard preying on wrecked and gold-laden shipping from the many hiding places they offer.
The French again took the Turks and Caicos Islands in 1783, successfully resisting the attempts of one Horatio Nelson to reclaim then for the British Crown (the Treaty of Paris, signed the same year, accomplished what he could not). British Loyalists dispossessed after American Independence were settled here, many attempting to make a go of cotton farming, until hurricanes, weevils and geopolitics wrecked their ambitions in the early 19th century.
Bermuda and Bahama, both British colonies, had spent much of the 18th century disputing control of the islands; in 1799, the Crown resolved the question in favor of the Bahamians. TCI enjoyed a brief period of independence from 1848 to 1873, when control passed to Jamaica, which administered the islands until 1962.
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 very briefly in the international spotlight.
Administered through Jamaica and the Bahamas in the past, the Turks and Caicos islands 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 previously 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 of the 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 really just a dusty backwater in the sun.
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.
Things were made far worse in 2009, when the governor of the Turks and Caicos imposed direct rule on the country following a series of corruption scandals that rocked the islands in 2008. The scandals concerned huge alleged corruption on the part of the Turks and Caicos government, including the selling off of its property for personal profit, and the misuse of public funds.
The imposition of direct rule from London was attacked by members of the suspended Turks and Caicos government, who accused the UK of ‘recolonizing’ the country, but the general reaction across the country was a positive one, as faith in the local political system had been extremely low in the years leading up to the suspension.
In 2012 a new constitution and general elections saw the return of the Progressive National Party (PNP) to power, despite the corruption scandals of three years prior. In 2016, however, the opposition People's Democratic Movement (PDM) took power, installing the country's first female head of government.
Feature: The Trouvadore
One of the most fascinating vignettes from TCI's history is the story of the slave-ship Trouvadore. The slave trade had been abolished in Britain and its territories in 1807, with slavery itself fully outlawed in 1833. The Trouvadore, however, was Spanish. In 1841 it was carrying a cargo of up to 300 souls from the Portuguese African colony of São Tomé to the slave markets of Cuba when it ran onto the reef north of East Caicos. The crew of 20 and 192 slaves survived the wreck, and were carried to Grand Turk, where all were accommodated in the local prison.
Once a one-year 'apprenticeship' had been served in the salt works (ostensibly to pay for the cost of the rescue mission), 168 former slaves were resettled in TCI, primarily on Middle Caicos. Such an influx, equivalent to 7% of the islands' former population, represented a considerable alteration to their demographic makeup. The Trouvadore survivors went on to establish themselves in the islands, and many of today's Belongers can trace their ancestry to this seminal event. It's thought that the place-name Bambarra, in Middle Caicos, indicates that at least some of the settlers were of the Bambara people of modern-day Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Senegal.
The 1993 discovery of letters relating to the Trouvadore and its settlers revived interest in the story, and a search for the wreck itself. In 2003, archaeologists found a tell-tale ballast mound off the coast of East Caicos, becoming confident with further study that they had indeed found the ill-fated slave-ship. Excavation and research continue, and can be read about at http://slaveshiptrouvadore.org.