Astrolabe

Small Island, Big History

Grand Turk is an island of historical importance.

By Dr. Carlton Mills

It has been commonly taught that Christopher Columbus’ first landfall in the “New World” was San Salvador in the Bahamas. In recent years, this theory has been challenged by two Turks & Caicos Islands historians, the late H.E. Sadler and Josiah Marvel. These historians promoted the theory that Columbus’ first landfall was Grand Turk in the Turks & Caicos Islands.

The late Josiah Marvel started his research in this area in the mid-1980s. Bolstered by his dear friend Tim Ainley, who accompanied him on his expedition, they took their 43 foot catamaran and proceeded to retrace the first landfall made by Christopher Columbus on Grand Turk. According to Dave Calvert, the author of the article, “Sailing the Caribbean in the Wake of Christopher Columbus,” the purpose of the expedition was to retrace Marvel’s purported route on a sailing vessel to confirm distances, courses and descriptions of the various islands as recorded by the famed admiral in the Diario of Christopher Columbus. 

Columbus also recorded in his diary that when he made landfall, he encountered Indians on the island. Over the years, an argument arose as to whether or not there is evidence to substantiate that there were Indians in the Turks & Caicos Islands at the time.

In short, the following details tend to suggest that there is strong evidence of Taíno/Lucayan presence in the Islands. It commenced with Theodore De Booy (1912) when he obtained exquisite examples of Taíno art. Later on, archaeologist Dr. Shaun Sullivan devoted two years of dedicated work to surveys and excavations in the Caicos Islands in an effort to track the Taíno colonization. He re-discovered forty Taíno sites; all but five were on Middle Caicos.  

In 1989, while attending a conference at which Robert Power and Josiah Marvel presented their case for Grand Turk as the first landfall of Columbus, Dr. Donald Keith found two Taíno sites on Grand Turk. This was the beginning of the Taíno story on that island as an article in the Summer 1995 issue of Times of the Islands, “History begins on Grand Turk,” suggests. Further evidence also revealed that within a half century of the European colonization efforts through conquest, degradation and extermination, this group of people were decimated through the imposition of the Spanish Encomienda System (their forced labour policy), inhumane treatment and the ingress of diseases by the Europeans which the Taíno people were not immune to.

Following the demise of the Taíno population, the next main settlement attempt in Grand Turk was by the Bermudians in 1678. The Bermudians first came to the Islands on a temporary basis to harvest salt. While they waited on the process to take place, they used their time to salvage wrecked ships and fish for turtles. In time, salt became a very lucrative business which encouraged them to establish a permanent settlement on the island. Remnants of the old salt ponds on Grand Turk tell this story. The island still retains aspects of the old colonial British-Bermudian heritage through its buildings, street designs and family names—in particular Astwood, Butterfield, Dean, Durham, Frith, Seymour and Taylor.

Laborers toil to rake the salt that dried in the hot sun in the salinas of Grand Turk.

Salt made Grand Turk a vitally important artery linking this small island (whether directly or indirectly) with several global partners including the USA, Canada, England and neighboring Caribbean countries, in particular Jamaica and Barbados. It was the salt from Grand Turk that was shipped to Newfoundland in Canada to make “salt cod” that was then sold to the slave plantation owners in these Caribbean countries as the main food for their slaves. As the salt trade expanded, it resulted in Grand Turk being declared the first port of entry in the Turks & Caicos, with custom officials present to collect the revenue that was being generated from its sales.  

Windmills pumped salt water through Grand Turk’s vast salinas.

By 1681, salt was not only a thriving business but because of demand, it acquired the popular name “White Gold.” This flourishing business also saw the Bermudians establish Cockburn Town in Grand Turk as the capital of the island. It was named after Sir Francis Cockburn, the then-governor of the Bahamas. Cockburn Town was a small Bermudian coastal settlement on the western side of Grand Turk, now the oldest permanent settlement on the island. Its boundaries extended from Duke Street on the southern end heading north along Front Street to where Duke Street merges into Queen Street overlooking the ocean. As the town developed into an important commercial center, several government buildings and offices were created in the vicinity, particularly on Front Street. Salt was the lifeblood of Grand Turk. It single-handedly transformed the island into an economic hub.

From as early as the 18th century, the French showed interest in the Turks & Caicos Islands because of the profitable salt trade. At the end of the Seven Years War in 1764, the French Admiral Comte d’ Estainy briefly occupied Grand Turk. The British did not take kindly to this aggressive move. They were reluctant to see another European power amassing wealth from the proceeds of salt. In order to stamp their dominance on the island, the British made Grand Turk the capital in 1766 and introduced the position of King’s Agent, with Andrew Symmer being the first to hold this new-found office. It was also an attempt by the British to maintain a strong physical governmental presence on the island to safeguard all proceeds from the salt trade for the British Crown.  

The British presence, however, did not deter the French. They returned in 1783. This return trip was historical as it made Grand Turk more famously known for the Battle of Grand Turk which transpired on March 9, 1783 during the American Revolutionary War. The French captured the Bermudians along with their salt workers before proceeding to exercise their political and military might over residents in the Caicos Islands. In response to the actions by the French, the British deployed a 28-gun frigate HMS Albermarle with a force of 100 men under the command of Captain Horatio Nelson. Their mission was to rescue the Islands from the French. Unfortunately, this military mission ended in total failure.

In the end, it took diplomatic action by both parties through the Treaty of Paris to formally conclude the war after six months. This raid by the French caused the British to exercise closer oversight of the island and its important role in the international salt trade.  

This 1965 aerial view of Cockburn Town, Grand Turk, includes many structures still standing today!

Another important historical feature of Grand Turk is Waterloo, constructed in 1815. It was later purchased by the British Government in 1857, eventually becoming the home for the British resident governors in the territory.

In 1898, the first cable was landed on Grand Turk by Halifax Cable Company, later called Direct West India Cable Company Limited of Canada. This investment made Grand Turk an important cable station linking the island with the rest of the world.   

In 1921, the first high school was opened in Grand Turk providing secondary education for students on all of the Turks & Caicos Islands. This was in addition to the two government primary schools that were already operational in the island. 

An inter-island radio service was inaugurated in 1923. This operated until 1941, following the takeover of the Grand Turk station by Cable and Wireless. 

A major historical development for the island took place in the 1950s when the US bases and radar tracking station were set up. The US NAVFAC 104 (known as North Base) was commissioned on October 23, 1954. This base was a part of the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) and underwater listening system that was designed to track Soviet submarines. It was eventually decommissioned on March 31, 1980.  

The Grand Turk Air Force Base, a missile tracking station, was built by a joint agreement between the UK and the US. It came into service in 1953. The purpose of this facility was to track long-range missiles launched from the US and also monitor satellites and manned flights launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

Grand Turk residents greet US Vice President Lyndon Johnson in 1962 when he came to accompany Astronaut John Glenn back to the United States following his splashdown in the ocean off Grand Turk.

The third facility that was constructed by the US on Grand Turk was on Colonel Murray’s Hill (known colloquially as “Nookie Hill.”) When John Glenn splashed down in the waters of the TCI in his space capsule Friendship 7 in 1962 after orbiting the earth, NASA never knew that Glenn was still alive. It was from Colonel Murray’s Hill that the heart rates and positions of the astronauts John Glenn in Friendship 7 and later in the year, Scott Carpenter in Aurora 7, were monitored. US Vice President Lyndon Johnson came to Grand Turk to take Astronaut John Glenn back to the United States. These bases further augmented Grand Turk’s strategic position in the US Global Surveillance Operations programme.

The first hotel, Turks Head Inn, was opened on Grand Turk by the government in 1965 but sold three years later to a private individual. In 1966, the government opened a savings bank on Grand Turk and Barclays Bank (now CIBC/First Caribbean International Bank) was opened on April 12, 1966.  As a means of boosting the tourism sector following the opening of the Turks Head Inn, the government in 1969 constructed new air terminal buildings on both Grand Turk and South Caicos.

An attempt at implementing the A Level programme in education was made in the early 1970s but this was short-lived. This failed effort did not impede plans of developing post-secondary education however, as the Turks & Caicos Islands Community College opened its doors in Grand Turk on September 18, 1994 with assistance from the Caribbean Development Bank. The old Navy Base buildings were eventually refurbished to facilitate the transfer of the community college to a permanent home.

This is the original Barclays Bank building which opened on Grand Turk in 1966.

Grand Turk is also the home to the $40 million cruise port, constructed in 2006. This facility is erected on 13 acres of land and includes a 3,000-foot pier, welcome center, recreational center including a swimming pool, 1,000 feet of beachfront, cabanas and shops and the largest Margaritaville in the Caribbean. In 2019, Grand Turk captured the accolade for the Best Caribbean Beach Port by Porthole Magazine.

Grand Turk is usually described as a “floating museum” and rightly so. It is the home to the lighthouse which was constructed in 1852 as an important landmark to guide sailing ships. In addition, there is the old prison, the militia building, Victoria Public Library, post office, Odd Fellows Building and the St. Thomas Anglican Church. Built in 1823, it was the first church constructed on the island, followed by its sister church, St. Mary’s Anglican Church, built in 1899.

Grand Turk was also home to several plantations, including Hawkes Nest Plantation which was developed in the 1900s to produce sisal, and Eve’s Family Plantation, used to produce cotton. Grand Turk is where the Junkanoo Club was founded, a social organization that was transformational and progressive in its actions. This group was instrumental in bringing about a new sense of consciousness in the 1970s which facilitated the ushering in of constitutional changes with wide implications for the TCI. The People’s Democratic Movement (PDM), one of the country’s major political parties, eventually emerged from this group of social advocates.

To the present-day visitor, the National Museum on Grand Turk provides a wealth of fascinating displays including a historical Lucayan carved wood duho (ceremonial chair) and artifacts from the Molasses Reef Wreck which is believed to be the oldest European shipwreck excavated in the Western Hemisphere. The island is also known for excellent scuba diving and offshore snorkeling with pristine and sheer wall sites defining the underwater experience. This wall has attracted many divers, as in certain places it can drop from 30 feet to well over 7,000 feet. Along the Cockburn Town waterfront are many beautiful beaches, small hotels and resorts. The west side of Grand Turk is home to Governor’s Beach, Pillory Beach, English Point Beach, Cockburn Town Beach and White Sands Beach.

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly halted most of the tourism activity on the island. As the main contributor of visitors, at press time the Carnival Cruise Lines have continued to cease operations. It is believed that once cruise ships again call on Grand Turk, it will  regain its glory as being one of the leading tourism destinations in the TCI.



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On the Cover

Agile LeVin—photographer, explorer and chronicler of everything TCI on his website www.visittci.com—took this drone photo of the multi-textured wetlands of West Caicos. He was part of the expedition that investigated the site of the historic pirate attack in the area. For more information and photos, go to page 48.

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