Ruin ‘n’ Wrack

The infamous Turks Island wreckers

By Mark Parrish, Big Blue Unlimited

Since 1852, the Grand Turk lighthouse has been warning passing ships of the treacherous reefs around the island.

Since 1852, the Grand Turk lighthouse has been warning passing ships of the treacherous reefs around the island.

The Grand Turk lighthouse was built in 1852. Its construction was borne out of necessity for the sheer volume of ships that fell victim to the treacherous reefs around the island. The history of the Turks & Caicos Islands during the eighteenth and ninteenth centuries is strewn with tales of ships being wrecked on the razor-sharp corals, of the salvage operators that plied their trade on these wrecks, and the notorious misuse of “guiding lights” to lure these boats to their doom. What resulted was a great reluctance for merchants to call on local anchorages, and this was a particularly crucial problem for the salt trade that dominated the commerce of the Turks Islands.

The northeast reef that stretches about two and a half miles from the north coast of Grand Turk is the most infamous reef in the area. The strong currents coming in off the Atlantic Ocean can make it very difficult for sail-driven vessels to keep from going ashore if they pass too close to the reefs or in the event of stormy weather. The lighthouse was erected to mark this danger and offer better guidance into the Turks Island Passage. On numerous occasions, Turks Islanders were commended and even rewarded for their bravery in rescuing mariners in heavy seas from vessels stricken on the reefs.

This satellite view of the dangerous reefs at the northern end of Grand Turk shows the need for a lighthouse.

This satellite view of the dangerous reefs at the northern end of Grand Turk shows the need for a lighthouse.

An unfortunate accident in 1842 may have significantly altered the course of the Turks Islands forever. The Royal Mail Steam Ship Line service had recently made Grand Turk its main terminus for the entire Bahamas. The island was stocked with coal to service the paddlewheel steam boats that came over from England to run a series of local mail routes. The R.M.S. Medina, a 247-foot-long, 1,800 ton vessel, was the first to make the journey from Southampton and did so without incident. Her second voyage, however, ended in disaster when she struck the northeast reef of Grand Turk at night and all the passengers, crew and mail had to be taken off by a nearby schooner.

At the time, the north end of Grand Turk was inadequately marked by either an old lantern or a series of candles with no reflector. The Royal Mail Line subsequently moved its terminus to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands and Grand Turk’s brief existence as an important regional port was lost to obscurity.

Salvaging shipwrecks was a viable enterprise throughout the Bahamas. In the early 1700s, Bermudian wreckers set up bases throughout the archipelago, including Grand Turk and at Blue Hills on Providenciales. The occupation of salvaging shipwrecks was called “wracking” and involved saving as much cargo as possible as well as the ship’s hull and rigging. Tidy sums were made for the work performed as well as a percentage of the profits from auctioning the wares. The citizens of the Turks & Caicos were also kept supplied in this way and could pick up hard-to- find commodities and personal effects at discount prices. The problem was that some of the unscrupulous residents engaged in this pursuit were tarnishing the reputation of the Turks & Caicos Islands by becoming increasingly piratical in their practices.

In the mid-1800s, ominous reports regarding the manner in which the wreckers were treating the passengers and crew of vessels that foundered on the shallow reefs were common. Upon word of an incapacitated vessel the wreckers rushed to the scene, took charge of the ship and unloaded the cargo with little or no regard for the people left on board. Some captains recounted that they had to hide in their cabins and defend themselves against incursions until such time as the cargo was removed and it was safe to be ferried ashore.

Funding for the lighthouse on Grand Turk was secured by Captain Henry Alexander Forth. Its graceful white circular tower was designed by Alexander Gordon and built of cast iron. It stands 108 feet above sea level and originally housed a Fresnel lens that revolved around an oil lamp which could be seen for eight miles. Its construction did not entirely solve the problem of vessels coming afoul on the Turks & Caicos reefs. In fact, in some ways it made the situation worse by providing an opportunity for cruel deception. Wreckers on North Caicos were reportedly setting up a light at night that imitated the revolving nature of the Grand Turk light. Their intention was for vessels to steer southward thinking they were entering the deep waters of the Caicos Passage and wreck on the reefs around North Caicos instead. A number of captains that either wrecked their boats or passed uncomfortably close to the Grand Turk reefs also complained that the dimness of the lighthouse left them with the impression that they were further from the island than they actually were. Letters were sent to the British Admiralty accusing the wreckers of tampering with the light in an attempt to lure boats towards the reefs in the hope that they would flounder and require assistance.

In November 1886, an engineer from H.M.S. Goshawk sent to carry out an inspection of the lighthouse made a very unfavorable report of its effectiveness. Confidence in the lighthouse was so low that in 1894, the local government commissioned the Trinity Imperial Lighthouse Service in Nassau to take over its running and maintenance which improved the situation dramatically. Ironically, 1895 proved to be a terrible year for shipwrecks off Grand Turk with the first incident occurring on the very first day of that year.

In 1948 the Grand Turk lighthouse was fitted with a modern kerosene beam that provided a twenty-mile visibility radius. A further improvement converted it to an electric light in 1971. In 2006 it was renovated with funding provided by the Carnival Corporation. The lighthouse and associated structures are a National Historic Site under the management of the Turks & Caicos National Trust. The lighthouse remains a popular tourist landmark as it continues to warn shipping of the notorious reefs to the northeast and northwest that it overshadows.

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Aysha Stephen is Grand Turk’s newest artistic sensation, renowned for her iconic “Cool Donkeys” paintings. Her creations are quite the hit with visitors to TDB Fine Arts Gallery. It recently opened within the Turks & Caicos National Museum on Grand Turk and is dedicated to showcasing art “Made in TCI.

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