Astrolabe

The Layers of History

East Caicos is a treasure trove of relics.

Story & Photos By John Galleymore

When I was very young, I was shown at school a very basic picture depicting “How History Works.” It showed layers of the Earth with the oldest relics the deepest and those more recent near the surface. I soon came to discover this is not quite the case! As I progressed through my career in exploration, it became apparent that you have to keep an open mind, and —even more— open eyes, in order to discover and hopefully unravel the secrets of the past. Very often, the artifacts from one time in history will be laying in plain sight alongside those of another.

This “graffiti” is carved into the walls of abandoned Jacksonville homes with dates of 1892.

During the recent TCI National Museum visit to East Caicos, the primary objective was to rediscover the lost petroglyphs left by the Lucayan Indians some 500 years ago. However, East Caicos is a treasure trove of history, and much of it is more recent than the Lucayans. With this in mind, while the team was exploring caves and Lucayan homesites, I ventured into the bush on the east coast of the island to look around the long-abandoned ruins of the township known as Jacksonville.

In the late 1880s, sisal growing was attempted and became the largest export East Caicos ever saw. Sisal (in the past also called pita) is an agave plant that is grown for its very strong fibers that are used to produce rope and twine. At the height of production, much of the suitable ground was planted but not for long. Due to poor global demand, the industry was abandoned on East Caicos by the early 1900s.

In the late 1800s, cattle ranching was also carried out by J. N. Reynolds and for years was moderately successful. The beef was considered to be quite good and was especially appreciated in Grand Turk considering that the alternative usually consisted of canned and salted meats. After the abandonment of the island, remnants of these herds existed for decades, but were eventually hunted to extinction. Today, only donkeys can still be found in the wild there.

On East Caicos, there is still pottery and glass bottles from the late 1800s.

Located on the island’s west end, Jacksonville was the social center of East Caicos. Sisal processing stations, houses, a company store and barracks capable of holding up to 400 people were all part of the “town.” Only a few ruins remain of this small settlement in the thick,unrelenting bush that is evermore reclaiming them back to nature. Yet, it’s interesting to note that these ruins lay alongside layers of history from the Lucayans, to slave traders, explorers and modern-day developers.

As I climb the small incline from the beach (homesteads were always constructed on ridges due to the breeze), I first note that some “new” construction has taken place in the last 10 years — maybe someone’s idea of rekindling this old ghost town? It’s obvious the work was abandoned before completion.

I soon reach the summit and the ruins of the houses appear through the thick undergrowth. Most of the walls still stand, a testament to the craftsmen that toiled here, with some still showing plastered walls which were made from burning conch shells. It’s interesting to see that although the roofs have long gone, some original timbers still line the doorways. More interesting still is the original “graffiti” etched into the walls which show dates (1892) and the outlines of what appears to be a schooner, perhaps produced by idle hands or minds dreaming of home?

To further confirm that history is often linear, I stumble across some reddish clay substance on the surface. This turns out to be Lucayan pottery made of red clay from dust blown from the African continent. It’s a wonder to think what else these early settlers of Jacksonville stumbled across when they set up home here in the 1800s. One thing is for sure, whatever era we investigate, other parts of history are closely intertwined.



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Photographer Marta Morton was enjoying another spectacular sunset when she spotted this lovely scene—a picture-perfect clump of Old Man Cacti and the pastel colours of what she later learned were crepuscular rays (see page 18). For more of Marta’s images, turn the pages of this issue and visit www.harbourclubvillas.com.

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