The islands’ first dwellers were the peaceful Tainos, who left behind ancient utensils and little else. By the middle of the 16th century not one Lucayan, as Columbus named them, remained. Like the Lucayans in the Bahamas islands, they were kidnapped for use as slaves or pearl divers, while many others died of imported diseases.
The discovery of the islands, whether by Columbus in 1492 or later by Ponce de León, is hotly disputed. There is a very convincing argument that Columbus’ first landfall was on Grand Turk, not Watling Island in the Bahamas, now officially named San Salvador. The infamous Caicos Banks south of the Caicos group, where in the space of 1,000yds the water depth changes from 6,000 to 30ft, claimed many of the Spanish ships lost in the central Caribbean from the 16th to the 18th century. The islands were named after the Turk’s Head ‘fez’ cactus found growing on the islands. The name Caicos comes from the Lucayan, caya hico, meaning string of islands.
The Bermudan traders who settled on the islands of Grand Turk, Salt Cay, and South Caicos in the 17th century used slaves to rake salt for sale to British colonies on the American mainland, and fought pirates and buccaneers for over 200 years. During the American Revolution, British loyalists found refuge on the islands, setting up cotton and sisal plantations with the labour of imported slaves. For a while, cotton and sisal from the islands were sold in New York and London, solar salt became the staple of the economy, and the Turks and Caicos thrived, but all these products encountered overwhelming competition from elsewhere. The thin soil was an added disadvantage and a hurricane in 1813 marked the demise of cotton plantations.
Following an alternation of Spanish, French and British control, the group became part of the Bahamas colony in 1766. Attempts to integrate the Turks and Caicos failed, rule from Nassau was unpopular and inefficient and abandoned in 1848. Links with Jamaica were more developed, partly because London-Kingston boats visited frequently. The Turks and Caicos were annexed to Jamaica in 1874. After Jamaica’s independence in 1962, they were loosely associated with the Bahamas for just over 10 years until the latter became independent. At that point, the Turks and Caicos became a British Crown Colony (now a Dependent Territory). The Anglican Church maintained its links with the Bahamas, which is where the Bishop resides.
The main political parties were established in 1976: the People’s Democratic Movement (PDM) and the Progressive National Party (PNP). From time to time independence is raised as a political issue but does not have universal support.
The isolation of the Turks and Caicos and the benign neglect of the British government led to increasing use of the islands as refuelling posts by drug smugglers en route from South America to Florida. Constitutional government was suspended in 1986 after it was discovered that several Ministers were involved and direct rule from the UK was imposed while investigations continued into malpractice by other public officials. The Chief Minister and the Minister of Development were imprisoned for accepting bribes to allow drugs planes to refuel on South Caicos. The islands are still being used for trans-shipment of cocaine and other drugs.
In 1988, general elections restored constitutional government. These were won by the PDM, and Oswald Skippings took office as Chief Minister. The April 1991 elections brought the PNP, led by Washington Missick, back to power, but economic austerity measures and civil service job cuts cost the PNP its mandate and in 1995 the PDM was returned to office, holding eight seats over the PNP’s four. The 13th seat was held by an independent. Continuity was assured when the PDM won the 1999 elections with a convincing mandate, taking nine seats while the PNP won four again. The Chief Minister is Derek Taylor, leader of the PDM since 1991