Natural History

Talking Taino: Boat Trips

Surviving in an ocean environment links all TCI inhabitants as one.

By Betsy Carlson and Bill Keegan

Life on an island is just not possible without boats. The history of the Turks & Caicos, both prehistorically and historically, is linked to the ability to build boats and navigate the oceans successfully.

Not just anybody can go out and colonize an isolated, oceanic island. The most important factor is the colonizer’s voyaging ability, which is not always linked to how accessible oceanic islands may be to a population. Madagascar lies just off the coast of Africa but was colonized by people from Indonesia. Other prerequisites to successfully colonize islands include horticulture, a marine economy, a material culture that uses shell as a major raw resource, and the ability to change the island’s resource base by introducing plants, animals, and assets through exchange. Since 500 B.C., all West Indian cultures have met each of these requirements.

In the West Indies, the direction of colonization followed the direction of the currents. The south equatorial current flows north from the Venezuelan coast up the Windward Islands. As it reaches the Leeward Islands it is eclipsed by the north equatorial current, which flows westward past the Leewards, paralleling the northern coasts of the Greater Antilles. The distances between the islands are not great, and once the 120 km gap between Trinidad and Grenada was bridged, every other volcanic island was intervisible from the next with distances of less than 50 km. There was no fear of not finding the way home after setting out to investigate a new island.

Once you can navigate well, you possess the maritime skills to sail past one island to reach a better one. Thus, accessibility fails to be a determining factor. In the Pacific, where the distances between islands are much greater, colonization occurred in quite the opposite way Ñ here, navigators sailed against the currents when exploring in order to ensure their ability to return home.

The ability to supplement the natural resources of an island with domesticated foods substantially reduces the risks involved in island settlements. When the Polynesians colonized a new island, they brought taro, sweet potato, fruit trees, and domesticated pigs and chickens. In the West Indies, in addition to root crops and some fruit trees, the colonizers brought with them dogs and small mammals such as guinea pigs for food. They also transported West Indian species, such as hutias (a large rodent) and rails (a ground bird, some species of which are flightless), from one island to another. Sweet potato may have been a key ingredient in island colonization by horticulturists because it produces an edible crop in two months or less, quickly establishing a reliable food base. The Taino were known to plant uninhabited islands with the root crop manioc, but never settle the island, creating food stocks for voyagers or for times of shortage.

The Turks & Caicos Islands were first colonized about A.D. 600 by pre-Taino peoples coming from Hispaniola. So, how did the navigators of Hispaniola stumble upon Grand Turk first? As you head north from the coast of the Dominican Republic, you encounter within 40 miles a series of shallow banks Ñ the Navidad, the Silver and the Mouchoir. They are submerged between 5 and 16 m today.


These shallow banks may have given the appearance of islands on the horizon by virtue of their aquamarine color, and the banks themselves could have attracted fishermen to their abundant marine resources. If voyagers from Hispaniola explored this line of banks looking for dry land, they would have been led straight to the Turks Islands. Grand Turk is the largest island on this bank, and the only that could have supported a population.

The northwesterly Antillean current flows from Puerto Rico toward the Turks & Caicos Islands, eventually joining the Gulf Stream. This, in association with the tradewinds, which blow east to west, would promote drift voyaging in the northwest direction, making voyaging from eastern Hispaniola to the Turks easy, but return voyaging more difficult.

The navigators of the Caribbean were not, however, at the mercy of the winds and currents of the region. The winds blow east to west in the summer and more northeast to southwest in the winter. All maritime cultures have a vast understanding of winds and weather systems. The Spanish recorded just one Taino word for wind, huracan, which described fierce winds, and is the source for our word hurricane. The language of the modern Miskito Indians of coastal Nicaragua has 25 words to describe types of winds. For the Miskito, the dry season, when tradewinds are less intense and no unexpected squalls or storms occur, is the time of the long distance journey. For the Turks & Caicos, February through April, with multiple day-long intervals of still weather, are the driest months and perhaps the best time for long distance travels. At the Governor Beach site on Grand Turk, where people from Haiti came to make shell beads, all of the clam shells were harvested during this season. This suggests that they, too, recognized this time period as the best time to travel over open waters.

Besides the ability to navigate well, the key technology for any complex island society is advanced water transport consisting of sophisticated ocean-going vessels that can carry large cargo loads and travel long distances. Large canoes allow for the distribution of wealth and the amassing of populations for military and ceremonial events.

The Taino possessed canoes of various sizes and proportions for different activities. Small canoes may have been individually owned, but some larger, special-purpose canoes could have been shared by a community and had restricted access. Because of this, the most important factor in choosing a settlement was access to the open ocean. They needed launching and beaching places for their large canoes.

The dugout canoes (canoa) constructed by the Taino were made from the trunk of a single large tree (maca), although the sides may have been built up with planks to allow for construction of very large vessels. The chroniclers of the contact period described immense canoes for the Taino. Las Casas said the canoes in Cuba were 20 m long, and Columbus reported seeing very large canoes under sheds on the coast of Cuba. Oviedo wrote that the boats had cotton sails, but this is generally not believed to be a pre-Columbian trait.

The Island Caribs in the 17th century did have boats with sails (called piraguas), but again this was likely due to European influence. Today, the tradition of hand-crafted boats is best seen in Haiti where types of boats range from rafts to dugouts to sloops. The Taino had a word for a flat boat with no keel that may have resembled a raft (called Cayuco).

Las Casas noted that the Mona Passage between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico was the site of daily voyages, and thus culturally more closely linked than eastern and western Hispaniola. So, the primary movement of people and goods in the Greater Antilles was between water passages, not within an island’s landmass. The Taino maintained Ògateway communitiesÓ such as MC-6 on Middle Caicos, which allied far-reaching political territories and greatly increased trade opportunities. This is evidence that the Taino were voyagers and were not isolated on their separate islands. The Taino word for small island was cay. Similarly, the word for the passage between small islands was cayo. The similar word caico means outer island in the Taino language.


We have no preserved Taino canoes from the Turks & Caicos, although the Turks & Caicos National Museum houses a Taino canoe paddle (nahe in Taino) found in the peat sediments of North Creek on Grand Turk. This paddle is nearly identical to one found on Mores Island (Little Bahama Bank) in the Bahamas. Las Casas described Taino paddles Òlike long handled bakers’ shovels, but sharp.Ó The Mores paddle was first described in 1913 by Theodore DeBooy and remains the only other prehistoric paddle known from the Bahamas archipelago.

The Grand Turk paddle was carved from a single piece of bullwood (Pera bumeliifolia), a native to Cuba, Hispaniola, and the northern Bahamas. This species is not known from the Turks & Caicos Islands today. The paddle may have been carved in Hispaniola and lost after working its way to Grand Turk along with the early inhabitants of Grand Turk. The wood was radiocarbon dated and provided a calibrated age range of A.D. 995Ð1125, centuries after Grand Turk was first colonized. This suggests that people sailed between Hispaniola and the Turks & Caicos Islands regularly and for many centuries.

The cultural history of the Turks & Caicos Islands includes occupations by Tainos, Bermudians, Loyalists, and Post-Emancipation period Africans who were formerly enslaved to work in the salt and cotton industries in these islands. What these cultures had in common was the island environment. All these people had to make a living from the sea and their lives were intimately tied to boat technology. There is one indelible reminder of this in the history of the Turks & Caicos Ñ the boat images scratched into the plaster of ruinous plantation houses throughout the Islands.

Etchings of sailing vessels have been found throughout the Bahamas and have been reported on plantation ruins from New Providence, Crooked Island, and San Salvador as well as Middle and North Caicos and Providenciales. Laurie Wilkie and Paul Farnsworth, who have worked on plantations throughout this region, argue that ship imagery is an important symbol in many contexts throughout the African Diaspora and link the drawings to the late enslavement period or post-Emancipation (ca. 1820Ð1900).


In many cases, when the Turks & Caicos Loyalist plantations were abandoned, the former slaves of the plantations were left in the Islands. They took residence in their former slave houses and plantation houses. The ship imagery in the ruins lends itself to a feeling of isolation, which we can imagine reflects what the freed slaves may have felt in these surroundings. Eventually, people congregated in small villages rather than live in isolation on the former plantations and they turned to the sea to form a maritime rather than a primarily agricultural economy.

The etchings contain an amazing amount of detail Ñ so much so that the specific type of boats depicted can be deciphered. The most common wooden boats of the time were a small ketch, single mast sloops, and schooners. A schooner has two or more masts and Òfore and aftÓ rigging, which means the sails run with the long axis of the boat. Bahamian schooners could be up to 50 feet long and carry 20 men. A two-masted schooner is shown in the etching from a Turks & Caicos plantation ruin, along with fragments of two other boats. As can be seen in the photograph and the line drawing, the ship likely had topsails, as is indicated by several horizontal lines near the top of the masts. All three ships have sprits extending off the bow with indications of multiple jib sails. The complete etching appears to have three jibs. Also illustrated are the fore sail (in the center of the ship) and the main sail (at the stern end of the ship).

The people making these drawings had intimate knowledge of the workings of sailing vessels. The commonness with which these images are found throughout these islands and the detail they show reinforces the bond all inhabitants of the Bahamas archipelago had with the sea. It is this tie to the ocean environment that links all the prior residents of these islands as one.

Dr. Betsy Carlson is an archaeologist at Southeastern Archaeological Research, Gainesville, Florida. Dr. Bill Keegan is Curator of Caribbean Archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, Gainesville.

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South Caicos was once a major exporter of salt harvested from its extensive salinas. Award-winning Master and Craftsman Photographer James Roy of Paradise Photography ( created this vertical composition by assembling a series of six images captured by a high-definition drone which was a half a mile away from his position.

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