Caribbean Island, Capital of Turks and Caicos

About 600 miles (965 km) southeast of Florida, among waters that often shimmer like blue gemstones, lies a small scattering of tiny islands collectively called the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI). This tiny British West Indies nation, just north of the Windward Passage* between Cuba and Hispanola, is a part of the British Commonwealth.

Grand Turk, the capital of this miniscule nation is only eight miles (12.9 km) long and two miles (3.2 km) wide. The island's single settlement of any size is Cockburn Town, on the western side of Grand Turk. Cockburn Town is the home to many beautiful and picturesque old colonial buildings, many built in the 18th and 19th centuries by settlers from Bermuda. Directly across the Turks Passage from Cockburn Town lies Cockburn Harbour on South Caicos Island.

Grand Turk has a modest airport, southeast of Cockburn Town. The United States used to maintain naval and air force bases on the island, which were a big stimulus to the local economy, but both were closed down in the 1960s–this dealt a large blow to Grand Turk. The people of Grand Turk been trying to recover their economy through tourism and offshore banking.

The building which once was a NASA tracking station with a big telemetry array is now a research station that the Smithsonian Institution maintains on the east side of the island. A ridge on the northeast portion of Grand Turk contains some of the only other human habitation–the Island Reef Hotel.

Off the western shore, a massive coral reef runs along the length of the island and plunges down to an 8,000 foot (2,438 m) ocean chasm called the Turks Passage. The northern end of the island is limestone cliffs. Grand Turk's silky coral beaches are well-regarded by visitors.

This area of the Caribbean was where John Glenn's Mercury capsule splashed down in 1962 and he was brought to Grand Turk for debriefing. The former air force base is now island administrative offices.

The People of Grand Turk

The population of Grand Turk in 1990 was 3,691. The locals are of mixed heritage–Latin, Black, English and other genes have mingled here for many generations. As with many island cultures, most of the local people learn to swim before they can walk.

There also is a large transient population on the island–tourists, beach bums and travellers from around the world. Grand Turk is a very popular spot for people who want to enjoy the experience of being beach bums for a couple of weeks to escape their high-stress lives.

A Lively Marine Habitat

Near Silver Reef is a calving ground for humpback whales. These giants may be sometimes seen there January through March. In addition to this, there is an abundance of undersea life, including coral, rays, a variety of fishes and sea plants, conches, lobsters, crabs, jellyfishes, sea turtles and dolphins.

Dive tourism has become a major industry of the island, divers love the unspoiled coral and aquatic flora and fauna. Many snorkel and scuba tours exist on the island. In addition to the already-mentioned Island Reef Hotel, there are a couple of hotels in Cockburn Town.

The Salinas

Grand Turk was once wooded, but it is now scrubby and treeless, deforested many years ago by salt merchants. In the days before refrigeration, salt was one of the principal methods of preserving meat; salt was a very valuable commodity. The remains of the old salt evaporating ponds, called salinas still dominate the central portion of the island. Some of the salinas were once a lake.

In the 1670s, Bermudan colonists began drying salt in the lake. The salt merchants lived in huts near the ponds and cut down trees to reduce the shade and thus facilitate quicker evaporation. Salt was heaped on shore and raked into mounds, which became a common sight on the island. Grand Turk became well-known for the purity of its salt. Grand Turk supplied salt to General Washington's army, as many Bermudans had no great love for the English Crown. These salinas also provided salt for the New England fisheries for two centuries.

The ubiquitous salt heaps became a symbol of this island nation and the heaps were actually on the Turks and Caicos flag, although some designer put doors on the little white mounds, (thinking they were igloos, apparently!). The flag kept this error for quite some time.

Grand Turk's Colorful History

The Turks Islands get their name from the Turk's Head Cactus that grows wild there. The Turk's Head is a small, squat plant with a little red topper that looks like a fez.

Some people claim that Columbus' historic first landing in the New World was in fact at Grand Turk. No one is quite certain of the site of his landing, there are about 20 different islands that claim the honour. One big problem with this story is that Columbus' account told of meeting Arawak people on the first island he reached, and there is no evidence of Arawak settlements on Grand Turk.

In the 16th Century, Grand Turk was a stopover for English sailors who stopped for salt and to hunt manatees and flamingoes. French buccaneers and Moroccan pirates called Salee Rovers came to this island to hide out.

After the American Revolution, many loyalists to the English Crown came from North America and settled in the Caribbean. Slavery was also an important factor in the island's history–slaves worked the salinas and a short-lived cotton industry. After being emancipated, a number of freed slaves settled in this area. Many families on Grand Turk trace their roots to the slaves, fugitives, loyalists, salt merchants, buccaneers and other colorful characters in the history of this fascinating little island.

*There really is such a place, but apparently, there is also a rather vulgar definition for this term! I had NO idea! Thanks E2, for enriching my vocabulary every day!


References:
Harrigan, Stephen, "Water and Light" (University of Texas Press, Austin, Texas, 1992).
The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed., vol. 5 (Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc, London, 2002).
Wynn, Judith, "Ocean Mecca Draws Divers to Paradise in Grand urk Island" the Boston Herald March 5, 2000, pg. 073
More info about touring Grand Turk can be found at turksandcaicos.com or 800/241-0824.

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