Getting to Know

A Remarkable Journey

The life and times of Gustarvus O’Neil Lightbourne.

By Carlton Mills, Willette Swann & Tanya Parnell ~ Photos Courtesy Tanya Parnell & Bengt Soderqvist

Early life

Gus (center) with members of his family.

Gustarvus Lightbourne (affectionately called Gus) was born on January 27, 1921 to Mr. and Mrs. Emmanuel Lightbourne of Blue Hills, Providenciales. He attended the Blue Hills School in High Rock and was taught by Mr. Aaron Gardiner. Boys usually attended school until they reached the age of 14, when they would learn a trade or go fishing for a living. Gus was brought up by his grandparents, who made sure that he attended school.

Gus’s life was filled with challenges and hardships. On November 30, 1934, the General Express, a boat carrying his father, his mother and two sisters, disappeared from his sight in rough weather, never to be seen or heard from again. This must have been a horrifying experience for this young boy who had just become a teenager, yet he still managed to move on. Those who knew Gus say, “He always prepared for the worse.” Perhaps this early experience influenced that attitude.

Another attitude apparent in Gus and his sons was confident self-reliance. In the 1980s, when the flight instructor consistently failed to show, Gus’s younger son taught himself to fly an airplane. Gus’s elder son taught himself plumbing with the new materials marketed in the 1970s. 

Young men look forward to owning a boat and in the 1930s, Gus took on the job of building one. Gus and his “regarded” brother Livingstone Swannhad gone into the interior of Providenciales and found the branches they considered suitable timbers for framing the size he wanted. They had all the timber in the backyard when Gus engaged a boat builder who was too busy to get to his job. While waiting, Gus set the stern and transom into the keel. When Gus’s grandfather Thomas Lightbourne (“Ole Olemer”) saw what the boys had done he heaped encouragement on them. Gus finished the boat and, at age 18, was the owner of the G.L. Progress.  

This boat made several trips to Haiti which was one of the TCI’s main trading partners. Gus would take conch and other marine products from the local fishermen to Haiti to trade. In return, he brought back essential equipment, food items, clothing, etc. His bold initiative opened the gateway for a variety of goods and services to reach the previously neglected Caicos Islands. During World War II, when Turks & Caicos would otherwise be shut off from the rest of the world, boats like the G.L. Progress made several trips to Haiti to keep supplies coming in.

As it stood then, the bulk of the Islands’ international trading activities took place at the ports of Grand Turk and South Caicos. For people in the other Caicos Islands to purchase items for their survival they had to travel to South Caicos or Grand Turk by small sloops. With Gus’s initiative, they now had direct contact with international trading partners — The Bahamas, Dominican Republic and Haiti.

Gus loved building boats. He built several and bestowed on them fancy names such as the Glancing Shadow, the Smack, K.C.M. Orlando (Livingstone Swann, Gus and Livingstone’s brother Barrymore went on to marry three of Edgar Howell’s daughters—Kathleen, Christiana and Myrtle, and Barry spent time picking oranges in Orlando, hence the boat’s name) and the Cassius (from the boxing champion Cassius Clay). The Cassius was not a sailboat, but was built for an outboard motor. Her faster speed (from the same horsepower) and easier manoeuvrability made her competitive for all-around efficiency with the larger longboats built by Daniel Delancy. Gus not only loved to build boats he also loved to race boats. He piloted from the lee side and his competitors thought, “What nonsense” until after the race.

Gus Lightbourne had a character larger than life. He is described by many as a man who would tell you a piece of his mind in a heartbeat. He was a no-nonsense fellow, straightforward and plain-speaking, who did not stand for foolishness. You knew where you stood with him because he cut no corners. He was also described as being a sharp fellow for his intellectual/engineering ability. This earned him the nickname “Sharper.” He fell in love with Kathleen “Katie” Howell and on September 28, 1944 they were married. This union produced four children. Only two of them survived past infancy. 

Life’s challenges

A sloop under construction in Blue Hills around 1970.

Gus’s life was filled with challenges. He got shipwrecked aboard the Lady Austin in 1941 while on a trip to Mayaguana, Bahamas. In September 1945, while fishing off Blue Hills on the G.L. Progress with a crew of five men, a dangerous hurricane impacted the Islands. They were totally unaware of the hurricane’s approach because, at the time, they did not have modern warning systems. Their mast broke and they drifted at sea for 12 days without food and water. Through it all, God was with them.

Gus named the first land they sighted Atwood Cay (Samana Cay is the more popular name today). With this inspiration they struggled with wind and current, without success, to get to Acklins. They finally ended up on Crooked Island, Bahamas. They may have sold whatever equity was left in the G.L. Progress to get themselves treated and back home. This was a test of his faith which did not stop him. 

In 1946 Gus, still undeterred by his previous losses, launched the 10 ton General Progress. This boat was used to take passengers to Pine Ridge, Grand Bahama (Freeport) and bring back lumber and remittances from family members living and working there. Because of hardships at home, many men from the TCI sought economic opportunities in The Bahamas to be able to provide for their families. This link provided an opportunity for people to travel to and from The Bahamas and fostered the opportunity for trade. This was another vital service that Gus was instrumental in providing.

It is through this initiative that Gus was able to establish a long-lasting relationship not only between The Bahamas and the TCI, but specifically with Pine Ridge and the Caicos Islands. There was a labour agreement between the two country’s governments; these trips serviced that agreement. Many of the men from the Islands found employment opportunities in the Pine Yard in Freeport.  As Freeport developed, they found work in the hotels and taxi business.

Unfortunately, after more than 40 trips, the General Progress was wrecked in July 1954. Another misfortune for Gus, but despite this major setback the trade continued using a leased boat called the Cherry Top. Most of the lumber was consigned to the Turks & Caicos Government—still repairing 1945 hurricane damage. Perhaps the most important cargo was not lumber though, but remittances to family members of those employed in Pine Ridge. 

In mid-1958 the famous 20 ton K. C. M. Orlando was launched. The Orlando served Turks & Caicos well: Customs officials say she was 21 tons—she always came home overloaded. During Hurricane Donna in September 1960, Gus watched as two year-old K. C. M. Orlando parted moorings at Wheeland. Recognising her importance to the life and livelihood of his people he gave chase on foot. She smashed one side and ended up on Piece-O-Bay (a small piece of sandy beach between what is now Thompson Cove and Turtle Cove Marina). Because she was badly needed, a praiseworthy repair effort was exerted and by December she was back at sea. In February 1967, after 35 trips to The Bahamas and 3 to Puerta Plata, she was wrecked in a storm with 26 adults and 16 children aboard. Not one of the passengers or crew was lost.

Church life

Gus was a devoted Christian who spent much of his time while not at sea participating in his church—Bethany Baptist in Blue Hills. Every time you met him, he would speak of the goodness of his God. He was baptized in March 1939 and served as a Sunday School teacher and secretary from 1939 to 1955.

In July 1954, his faith was tested. While he was in his field, he got the news that his first-born son had suffered a serious wound. Ironically, there was no boat to take him to South Caicos to see a doctor. The following night, the house caught fire. Despite these unfortunate circumstances, which would have provided good reason for others to remain at home, Gus was present in church on Sunday morning.

After teaching Sunday School that day, there was no preacher present and the congregants encouraged Gus to take the pulpit. One member argued with him when he said he felt “unfit for the position,” telling Gus, “If you’re not fit for one thing, you’re not fit for any other.”  He took the pulpit and from that day, never looked back. When the new church building was dedicated on March 25, 1955, Gus was ordained as a deacon by itinerant minister Rev. R.E. Rhynie.

In 1964, Gus was seconded to lead the congregation at Jericho Baptist Church in The Bight. Having met that need and returned to Bethany, Gus was instrumental in getting electricity to the church in 1971 with its own generator. He was the first without formal theological training to become president of the Turks & Caicos Islands Baptist Union from 1966–1973 and vice president from 1973–1981.

In 1969 Gus, along with Rev. E.N.S. Hall, represented the Turks & Caicos Islands Baptist Union at a regional conference in Jamaica. During this time, the TCI Baptist churches were supported by the Jamaica Baptist Union.  At this meeting, he made an appeal for help with training local ministers, and by the following year training would be provided for the first five ministers from TCI to take over the running of the churches. This is what he was agitating for in his speech and daily actions for many years. His dream had come true and he credited his God for all of his successes.


Gus and Queen Elizabeth II prior to receiving the MBE in 1966.

The island of Blue Hills (Providenciales) that Gus lived on in the early 1950s was undeveloped. Residents traversed via footpaths. There was no electricity, no banking, no running water and no indoor plumbing. Commercial and economic life was centred around Grand Turk, Salt Cay and South Caicos—the Salt Islands as they were called.

The Salt Islands had some form of political representation in the form of nominated members. The other Caicos Islands were not really considered part of the family of Islands. The country, being governed from Jamaica, was far removed from direct political involvement. No political figure considered visiting the other Caicos Islands because of their remoteness. Gus was one who set about agitating for social and economic changes.

When Governor of Jamaica HE Sir Hugh Foot visited the Caicos Islands in 1953, he held a town meeting where all Caicos Islanders should attend. Paul Higgs and Gustarvus Lightbourne stood out as potential leaders. When invited to Grand Turk to meet with Governor Foot, both men challenged him for provision of political representation to the Caicos Islands. After much persuasion, the governor agreed and by 1956 held a trial general election.

Members of the Caicos Islands were involved in the local government. This was regarded as TCI’s first Legislative Assembly. Because of the nature of the 1956 government (unsupported by a Constitution Order) the new members could not receive any form of compensation. They got themselves to and from meetings in Grand Turk. This did not matter to these men, who were about country, not self. They worked for three years putting together a new constitution which came into force in 1959.  

This was a significant political milestone for the TCI as things were happening rapidly in the British West Indies. The constitution that these men designed accommodated authority for the Administrator (local government), Jamaica (the administrator of record), the West Indian Federation and the UK. Soon they were back to the drawing board as Jamaica was withdrawing from the Federation, opting for independence. Then the Federation itself collapsed. This provided the opportunity for TCI to break away from Jamaica. Five elected representatives from the Caicos Islands voted for improved status with the UK; four from the Salt Islands voted to be part of Jamaica. Gus was a part of the team that went to Jamaica and to the UK to discuss the logistics of implementing this change. The new constitution came into force on August 6, 1962, a clear indication of the team’s vision.

The new constitution included:

• A Legislative Body consisting of some ex-officio members, some nominated members and a number of members elected by universal adult suffrage.

• An Executive Council consisting of officials and elected members of the Legislature with whom the Commissioner would be required to consult.

This was the beginning of a new political direction for the TCI. Local members were now involved in discussions about the direction in which the country should go.

During Gus’s 1962 term in office, times in the Islands were tough. The salt industry was on the decline and there were talks of a merger with The Bahamas. This failed in 1964. Our leaders felt that The Bahamas needed to better develop their own southeastern islands before the TCI could consider becoming a part of them. They also remembered their past experience with The Bahamas which led to the Separation Act of 1848. However, they  agreed to meet with officials of The Bahamas and continue talks after two years. While they waited, an opportunity arose.

A group under the leadership of Fritz Ludington was attracted to Providenciales while flying over, amazed at its natural beauty. They saw the potential for development and immediately submitted a proposal to the government. Of course, one of the first persons they met with was Gus. He believed that if Providenciales were to move forward, government would have to sacrifice land. Almost single-handedly, Gus brought this opportunity to fruition.

Despite his conviction and eagerness, Gus had a major obstacle. Mr. Wood, who chaired the council of the day, adamantly opposed the development—but Gus did not give up. Members of Bethany Baptist Church remembered Gus preaching that God’s Word accomplishes that for which it is sent, even though that fact might not be immediately apparent. He spoke that Word in the House of Assembly, then went to his abode to rest. He later described how he received a vision from God to go and see Mr. Wood. He obeyed. As Gus walked towards the north, Chairman Wood was walking south to see him to indicate his approval.

The Assembly voted in favour of the development—the initiative that jump-started the economy of Providenciales. Gus fought for this because he believed that once Providenciales developed, it would positively impact the Caicos Islands and eventually the entire Turks & Caicos Islands. 

Gus Lightbourne had a passion for his country. He was a true patriot. He served for three consecutive terms (1956, 1959 and 1962) giving him nearly a dozen years of providing representation for his people. 

Other achievements

Gus was one of the TCI’s first taxi drivers.

Gus’s life was blessed with several major achievements, including being Providenciales’ first trucker, first frozen grocer and first taxi driver. He was the recipient of the Queen’s Commendation of Member of the British Empire (MBE) on January 1, 1966 and the Order of the British Empire (OBE) on June 13, 1998. He was also appointed as Justice of the Peace.

Gustarvus Lightbourne was an outstanding Turks & Caicos Islander. He was certainly a man committed and dedicated to country. He was relentless in his efforts to make the Caicos Islands a place where his people could live comfortably. His actions clearly demonstrated that he believed that Turks & Caicos Islanders should play their rightful roles in their country.  

Gus enjoyed sharing his experiences with anyone who found the time to listen. He held a treasure trove of historical knowledge and I am honoured to have had the opportunity to sit at his feet. He passed away on September 24, 2005. It was great loss for the Turks & Caicos Islands.

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