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The Cays, A Pirate, and A Countess

A true-to-life tale that could only take place in the Islands.

Story & Historical Photos By Dr. Charlene Kozy, President Emerita, Cumberland University

Popular television shows such as Conquistadors, Black Sails, and Downton Abbey have their real-life counterparts here in the Turks & Caicos Islands. The tiny cays just east of Providenciales attracted explorers, pirates, and royalty to their shores, largely because of having fresh water, one of their greatest assets. It is unfortunate that none of the main characters can see the Islands today. They would marvel at the activity. It is no longer a stop for Spanish conquistadors or British Loyalists, nor a sanctuary for lawless pirates. And it is probably too commercial to soothe the stresses of life as an Austrian count . . .

The cays Pine Cay and Parrot Cay are part of the Turks & Caicos chain. Pine Cay is located approximately three miles west of the southwestern edge of North Caicos. Parrot Cay is about one and a half miles northeast of Pine Cay and is separated from the northwest edge of North Caicos by a narrow cut which is less than 800 feet wide at the north end, increasing to a half mile further south. Smaller cays between the two larger ones are Fort St. George, Dellis, Water, and Grouper.

The Caicos Cays — including Pine Cay and Parrot Cay — boast some of the most beautiful and pristine beaches in the world.

The Caicos Cays — including Pine Cay and Parrot Cay — boast some of the most beautiful and pristine beaches in the world.

Through the centuries, each has hosted several inhabitants, but none were permanent until recent decades. The earliest were the Arawak people who vanished after the Spanish conquistadors plundered the Islands. The first documented Europeans to record sighting the Islands were Juan Ponce de Leon in 1512 and Christopher Columbus who described Fort St. George as a harbor with “two mouths.” This harbor would become important in the defense of the Islands during the Haitian Revolution and a threat of a French Invasion. The Islands passed from Spanish, to French, to British ownership, but no permanent settlement was made until the American Revolution drove hundreds of Loyalists out of America, one of whom was recorded as being relocated on Parrot Cay.

Loyalist Thomas Williamson was awarded 288 acres on Parrot Key, described as “the same being a key called Parrot key, situated on the north side of Grand Caicos, one of our Bahama Islands, bounded on all sides by the sea.” (Bahama Registry, B/1, 171, 18 December, 1789). This parcel of land will play in the later history of Parrot Cay.

Water was mentioned repeatedly in the logs of early European ships describing the cays as having an abundant supply for 50 ships. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, water will again be the major factor in the development of Pine Cay and the recent resort development on Parrot Cay.

A twist of fate born out of a war and a quasi-war brought two women, first, a pirate and secondly, a countess, to the largest Cays, Pine and Parrot Cay. Even though the time span between their lives is approximately 140 years, they had some commonality. The pirate followed a colorful outlaw in Nassau who was later hanged in Jamaica and left her to beg for her life. The countess married an Austrian count who fled Austria to New York during the Nazi Anschluss in 1938 but died young and left her to finish their dream.

Anne Bonny — the pirate

Anne Bonny was a colorful female pirate who likely spent time on Parrot Cay with her lover, Calico Jack Rackham.

Anne Bonny was a colorful female pirate who likely spent time on Parrot Cay with her lover, Calico Jack Rackham.

Anne Bonny was born in Cork, Ireland around 1700 to a lawyer and his maidservant after a scandalous affair. The lawyer left Cork with the child and her mother and came to the Carolinas in America. They settled in Charleston where she grew up and her father practiced law and then became a merchant. She was a spirited, tough girl who did not run from a fight. She was expected to marry well into the Charleston society. Instead, she married a penniless sailor, James Bonny, which displeased her father. He disinherited her and “cast them out.” She was about sixteen at that time.

The Bonnys moved to New Providence to seek their fortune. James made a meager living turning pirates in to the new government established by Bahamas Governor Woodes Rogers. Anne apparently lost respect for James and began sleeping with men until she was later referred to as a harlot.

A colorfully dressed pirate, John “Calico Jack” Rackham, had accepted a pardon offered by the King and was living in Nassau at this time. He met the fiery young lady, Anne. They fell in love and wanted to marry, but she could not get an annulment or a divorce. Since they could not get married, on the night of August 22, 1720, Rackham, Bonny, six men and cross-dressing female, Mary Read, stole William — a twelve-ton, six-gun sloop — and began a new life of piracy.

They successfully recruited out-of-work sailors and former pirates to join them. For the next months, they chased and attacked any vessel they saw. Anne was an excellent pirate. She cursed and drank like the men and she and Mary Read dressed like a man when fighting began. Sailors who had been captured by Rackham reported that it was the women who urged more violence and “greater acts of bloodshed.” In her later trial, some of these sailors testified against her.

Nassau could no longer be used as a sanctuary and a new haven was found off the western coast of North Caicos, which was most certainly Pine Cay and Pirate Cay, renamed Parrot Cay. One version of the origin of the name “Turks” is that it came from a time 200 years before this age of piracy when the Ottoman Empire dominated the seas and halted European Atlantic shipping and cruised the Caicos shores. Translated, “Turks” Islands became “Pirate” Islands.

Business prospered. Bella Christina, a Spanish treasure ship, was captured cruising the Caicos Passage and a large booty and some captured seaman boosted their enthusiasm. The capture of a slave ship swelled their numbers into a small settlement which may have lasted over two years.

Rackham continued his reckless pursuit of any vulnerable vessel with Bahamas Governor Woodes-Rogers offering bounties for his capture. While cruising the shores of Jamaica, Captain Jonathan Barnet, a privateer, chased Rackham into the night. It is believed that Rackham’s men fell to drinking and could not defend their ship. They were asked to surrender but refused, and the men fled to the hold leaving Bonny and Read on deck to fight. The women called for them to come up and fight “like men” and when they did not, the women fired into the hold, killing one and wounding others.

Barnet fired a broadside which caused the boom to crash onto the deck. Barnet’s men stormed over the rails, took all into custody, and delivered them to the military officer on shore. Soon, Calico Jack, Anne Bonny, Mary Read, and the crew found themselves in a Spanish Town jail waiting to be tried.

Rackham and the other male pirates were swiftly found guilty and were hanged at Gallows Point in Port Royal, Jamaica on November 18, 1720. Anne was allowed to see her lover, Calico Jack, before the hanging. Reportedly, her last words to him were, “I’m sorry to see you here, but if you had fought like a man you need not have hanged like a dog.”

Bonny and Read were also found guilty and sentenced to hang, but both “plead their bellies” and after finding they were indeed pregnant, the execution was postponed. Mary Read died in prison from a fever five months later. Anne Bonny received a reprieve but what became of her is not known; it is only known that she was not executed. With the execution of ”Calico Jack” Rackham and other pirates, the Golden Age of Piracy was all but over.

The Countess — Helen Czernin

Helen was an American girl born in Ohio to a professional artist, was working in New York after World War II. She met, fell in love with, and married Austrian Count Ferdinand Czernin. He was the son of the last Prime Minister for the Austro-Hungarian Empire and fled when the Nazis invaded during World War II. After the war, he too came to New York to work and live. He and his bride honeymooned in Europe and made several other trips trying to salvage anything of his family’s holdings.

Ferdinand published several books warning of the Nazi threat. One, entitled Europe, Going, Going, Gone was destroyed and rewritten while he was in exile in England. Reportedly, Prime Minister Churchill asked his leaders to read it as a harbinger of things to come. Ferdinand’s dream was to see Austria as a free nation again.

Never lacking in acquaintances, the count visited a friend on South Caicos in 1958. In a conversation aimed at seeking a place to escape the stresses of a life in New York, the island of Pine Cay was mentioned and described as being uninhabited and having fresh water. A trip was made to Pine Cay and it met all his expectations of a peaceful little island and a sanctuary from the stresses of city life.

Schooled in doing things the proper way, he needed to find the owner of the island. Turks & Caicos was annexed to Jamaica in 1848 and remained a dependency until 1959, but the governor of Jamaica was also the governor of Turks & Caicos until 1962. Therefore, it was the Jamaican government who granted him a conditional farming lease for five years and then extended it for a 90 year period. The requirements were that he build a residential house and start a farming operation. Helen came from New York to join the venture.

Hurricane Donna swept through in 1960 and destroyed vegetation on all the Islands including Pine Cay. An extension was given to the farming lease and Ferdinand reopened his dream of a hideaway island and a Pine Cay development possibility. The count died in 1966 of a heart attack. Helen attempted to continue the legacy her husband had dreamed of.

Ownership and control of Pine Cay changed at the death of Ferdinand. Helen, in the settlement, moved to Parrot Cay. She remodeled the plantation home of Loyalist Thomas Williamson. A second story was added and the slave cabins were remodeled to serve as guest houses. Helen was an accomplished artist and the house accommodated a studio. One painting titled, “The Cook House,” pictured the kitchen separate from the main house. This writer spent some time there sleeping in a renovated slave home, and is proud to own a painting of the “Cook House” along with other of the countess’s island paintings.

Proposals for a marina and resort hotel on Parrot Cay were made by the countess and associate Fritz Ludington. They never materialized. The countess lived there until illness necessitated a move to Grand Turk. She resided at Corktree Beach until her death.

Helen's painting “Conch Bar,” is the property of this article’s author.

Helen’s painting “Conch Bar,” is the property of this article’s author.

Countess Helen Czernin became a part of Grand Turk society. She was often a guest at the governor’s house for parties and luncheons. One special invitation was to Prince Phillip’s party on his yacht honoring the officials on the island. She involved herself in the art of the island and donated a mural for the newly founded National Museum. She continued to paint pictures of the many islands in the chain.

Her signature piece of art is the official Coat of Arms. The original is held by a friend on Pine Cay. The Coat of Arms is used as a pattern for a rug in the governor’s home on Grand Turk. The shield with the cactus, conch, and lobster adorns the official flag of Turks & Caicos.

Not only did Helen enjoy associating with the prominent of Grand Turk, she knew and helped those not as fortunate. One girl from the Dominican Republic who worked for her was given a house in that country. The young boys knew she would buy their shells if they stopped and ask “Miss Helen” for a drink of water. The animals were her friends too. A pet donkey, Pegasus, was flown from Parrot Cay when she moved to Grand Turk, and was then allowed to roam with the wild donkeys. Water and food were always available for stray cats and dogs. She could often be found buzzing the streets in her golf cart or having lunch at Salt Raker Inn. She was truly a citizen of the Island.

Helen Czernin’s benevolence extended to students from Cumberland University working in historical archaeology.

Helen Czernin’s benevolence extended to students from Cumberland University working in historical archaeology.

Helen’s benevolence was extended to college students from Cumberland University who were working in historical archaeology on the Caicos Islands. She wanted to know them and opened her home to them, as well as helping them financially and treating them to a dinner on Grand Turk. She is kindly remembered by them today.

Daphne, a lovely lady who lives on Grand Turk, became a special friend to Helen in her last days. Helen died on February 11, 2004.

Count Ferdinand Czernin accurately foresaw the future of Pine Cay. Today it is a private island with a limited number of homes and an exclusive resort. The countess did not get to participate and be a part of the Pine Cay community. What she and Fritz saw as the future of Parrot Cay has also materialized. A luxurious resort —touted as a celebrity hideaway — has recently been developed and a bit of the countess is still there in her remodeled plantation home. After the sale to developers, she never returned to Parrot Cay.

The Czernins had foresight and a drive that sparked tourist development and changed the ambience of the Islands from being unheard of and under-developed to a coveted destination for the “rich and famous.”

Countess Helen Czernin retained her title in remembrance of the man she had married. Rather than go back to the United States, she chose to finish her life on the Islands, living the life the count dreamed of. The countess certainly left her footprints on the sands of the Caicos.

Sources

Johnson, Charles. The General History of Pyrates. This book gives most of the details of Anne Bonny’s early life. Johnson did not give his sources and most of his work cannot be verified with records; however, he wrote in 1724 which would be contemporary.

Woodard,Colin. The Republic of Pirates. Harcourt, Inc., 2007.



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Marta Morton, owner/operator of Harbour Club Villas (www.harbourclubvillas.com) took this photo of the native Turks & Caicos rock iguana on Bay Cay. This endemic animal is being threatened by the invasive green iguana. See article on page 36.

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