“I hear you had a special visitor last night,” says Oswaldo Ariza, a sprightly octogenarian who has lived his whole life on Grand Turk, the long-settled capital and seat of government of the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI for short).
I have come to Grand Turk from the more recently developed island of Providenciales—just a 20-minute flight away—to dig a little deeper into TCI’s history and culture. Although it is tempting to stay put on shiny and new Provo, with its luxe, modern-day resorts and breathtaking Grace Bay Beach, my interest in the old and authentic has sent me on the hunt for something a little more real.
“I’m not sure,” I admit to the noted historian, before going on to describe for him the disquieting footsteps I’d heard in my hotel—one of the Grand Turk’s oldest buildings—the night before.
“I thought it was just a night watchman,” I say. “But the owner this morning insisted there was no night watchman and that I was all alone last night.”
“Well,” Ariza says, softly, “there are all kinds of souls around here.”
I shiver. Shipwrecks and slavery, privateers and pirates, gallows and ghosts—Grand Turk harbours the historical makings of a gripping period novel, though
fictional stories they are not, assures Ariza, the grandson of a native islander who had 65 children. His fascination with the island’s dark and quirky past shines through as he describes the scallywags who holed up here, the many public hangings in the town square, and the sad stories of all those who were lost—and occasionally saved—when slave-trade ships and other vessels foundered on the reefs just offshore.
For years, timber salvaged from those frequent shipwrecks served as the island’s main source of wood—and the primary building material for most of the lovely colonial buildings still standing on the island today.
To learn more about these buildings, Ariza sends me into Cockburn Town, the heart of the island’s administrative capital, where I wander down turn-of-the-century Front Street to the Turks and Caicos National Museum in Guinep House, named for the guinep fruit trees still gracing its entrance.
Inside, through a viewing window to the ground below, I can see a chunk of a sailing ship’s sturdy mast, the foundation’s supporting timber. Although no one knows exactly how old Guinep House is, the turquoise-trimmed two-storey is another one of the oldest surviving pre-1850 private residences. Its architectural style is Bermudian, like many of the island’s buildings, explains museum guide Fred Glinton, who promises the reason why will be revealed on our tour of the building’s impressive and well-presented collection.
On a colourful satellite map, Glinton points out Grand Turk, a mere speck of nearly flat land protruding from the Atlantic Ocean near the edge of the 2,134-metre-deep
Columbus Passage, which separates the islands of Turks from the Caicos Islands 35 kilometres to the west.
Grand Turk may be tiny, but some researchers nevertheless believe it is where Christopher Columbus made his first New World landfall in 1492. Although this claim is hotly debated, evidence of Columbus-era ships sailing in TCI’s waters is undeniable. One such ship, likely in search of gold and silver, met its watery grave on Molasses Reef, 32 km south of Providenciales, around 1513, and artifacts from this unnamed caravel—one of the oldest wrecks discovered in the western hemisphere—fill the museum’s first floor.
Some 165 years after that shipwreck, a different sort of treasure lured Bermudian explorers to the area. They came to harvest the glistening salt crystals edging the natural salinas of low-slung Grand Turk and even tinier Salt Cay, another of the Turks Islands. At first, the Bermudians were seasonal inhabitants, but, by the 1780s, many had established permanent settlements.
In those heady pre-refrigeration days, Grand Turk and the other Turks islands became the Americas’ largest salt producer, thanks to their geology and location. The salinas were walled in with ballast stones to create solar-evaporation salt pans bisected by sluices carrying in sea water. The lack of rain, near-constant sun and prevailing winds quickly evaporated the water, leaving salt for collection.
To learn more about this, I head to the nearby Salt House fronting Town Salina, where a video explains the process of salt harvesting and the toll it took on the Bermudian proprietors and their African slaves, who worked excruciating hours, barefoot beneath the tropical sun, raking salt into glistening crystalline pyramids.
For almost 300 years, salt remained TCI’s most valuable commodity. Countless ships crowded Grand Turk’s anchorage to carry home the precious “white gold,”
vital for salting fish and preserving meat. But, this salt empire—which reached its apex between the mid-1800s and early 1900s—did not last. The islands could not produce enough salt to meet growing demand, nor could they compete with new methods of production.
While the backbreaking days of the salt industry are long gone, the abandoned pans remain very much a part of the landscape today. Outside Salt House, I take a look at what appear to be desolate, mud-coloured sloughs bisected by rows of piled-up stones, dotted with bits of salt around the edges. Barren as they seem, I discover the salinas are a delightful spot for watching West Indian flamingoes and brown pelicans, the national bird.
Before flying back to Provo that afternoon, I hop aboard a Grand Turk Diving speedboat to explore some of the area’s water-based wonders. In the species-rich Columbus Landfall National Park, on the island’s western shore, approximately 40 snorkel and dive sites mark the vertical wall where the sea floor plunges from around 12 metres to more than 2,000 metres. Gear at the ready, I check out a site called The Library, which is one of the shallowest places to see the wall. Snorkelling over the vibrant coral reef teeming with fish, I fin west until I see the sheer abyss, clearly delineated by a change in water colour from turquoise to indigo. Peering straight down, I can see why so many ships foundered here, and I wonder what lurks below.
On another day, I take the ferry from Provo to North Caicos and, to make the most of my time there, opt for an organized tour. Over the course of the next four hours, it becomes apparent that little bustles on TCI’s second-largest island, except the tongues of its 1,500 residents.
“News travels faster than you,” chuckles guide Keith Musgrove, dishing on his fellow “belongers” (TCI natives), most of whom are fishermen, farmers, boat builders or workers in the tourism industry.
Although history is less palpable here than on Grand Turk, it rustles in the remains of the Caicos’s Loyalist plantations. These plantations were established by the British, who were deeded Crown land on the islands following the American Revolutionary War, choosing to leave the newly declared United States rather than pledging allegiance.
A short distance past verdant Kew, one of the island’s four main villages, the road delivers us to Wade’s Green Plantation, an old plantation ruin and frequently visited heritage site on North Caicos. Founded in 1789 by Wade Stubbs and worked by legions of slaves, this was one of TCI’s most productive estates, growing cotton and sisal on more than 1,215 hectares, thanks to its fertile soil.
Along a gentle half-kilometre hike to the plantation ruins, we catch glimpses of local fauna, like elusive Key West quail-doves and endemic curly tailed lizards, while Musgrove points out indigenous trees and crops. The ruins themselves are slowly being reclaimed by tropical dry forest, but the remains of Stubbs’s great house and the homes of his plantation staff are still visible.
The next leg of the tour carries us to Middle Caicos, which is connected to North Caicos by a causeway that crosses shallow Bottle Creek Lagoon, just one of the wetlands peppering the islands.
TCI’s largest inhabited isle, Middle Caicos is also one of the least populated, counting fewer than 300 people, mostly seniors, as permanent residents. The small population lends a sense of quiet abandonment at every turn. In Conch Bar village, for instance, local handicrafts catch my eye at the not-for-profit Middle Caicos Co-op. I can see the work that has gone into making the traditional straw baskets and bags and the lovingly hand-carved model sloops. The income generated here supports about 60 local artisans—and, yet, there is no salesperson to answer questions or entice me to buy. Instead, a sign directs purchasers next door to Daniel’s Cafe.
It’s this “island-time” way of life that has drawn American Susan Moore and her family here every year for the past 24 years. Recently retired, she now serves as manager of the island’s Blue Horizon Resort, where I settle in for a night of tranquility in a charming cottage.
That evening, from the deck of the property’s new Mudjin Bar & Grill, I take in one of the most beautiful scenes I’ve witnessed since arriving in TCI. At the foot of a cliff, a cave nipped out of limestone opens to a half-moon beach wrapping around aquamarine Mudjin Harbour. The cry of birds and the murmur of the ocean are all I hear.
Alone, lulled by the tide, my thoughts return to my “special visitor,” and to my conversations with Ariza, whose rich stories of Turks and Caicos, both tragic and
triumphant, have ignited my imagination.
Getting there: WestJet flies to Providenciales six times a week from Toronto and Montreal.
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