On the Way Back

South Caicos, past and present

By Dr. Carlton and Verona Mills

Fishermen daily ply the pristine waters of South Caicos.

Anyone who has lived in the Islands for any length of time knows that patience, perseverance, and resilience are required characteristics to survive, along with a daily dollop of hope. South Caicos is no different. With a long history of success and achievement—many reasons to sing praises—anyone who places their bets on South Caicos’ future won’t be disappointed.

Salt, sponges, and sisal

South Caicos has a phenomenal salt history. The salt that was produced in South Caicos helped to form the backbone of the local economy for three centuries. The island was included in the tripartite—three salt operations started by Bermudians in the mid-17th century. At the time, South Caicos was included in the Turks Islands group along with Grand Turk and Salt Cay. It was not until 1848 (during the term of the first president, Alexander Forth, 1848–1852) that the Caicos Islands officially became part of the group, changing the name to the Turks & Caicos Islands (TCI).

With the commercialization of salt by the Bermudians, South Caicos became a part of the global commercial sphere. It opened the door for the island to develop economic and trading links with Europe, the United States and Canada, and the English-speaking Caribbean. Turks Islands salt at the time was in such demand that it became popularly known as “White Gold” (the equivalent to “King Sugar” in the Caribbean). 

However, salt also placed the island in a precarious position. The income generated from salt resulted in the creation of further European rivalry as was evident in 1764 when the French imposed their political will over the Islands. It took diplomatic intervention of the British to bring about a resolution to this crisis. This invasion of the Turks Islands by France caused Britain to realize the lucrativeness and vital importance of the salt industry. In response to France’s actions, in 1766 Britain placed their stamp of ownership on the Turks Islands. They established a physical presence in the person of Andrew Symmer who was appointed by the Bahamas Governor Shirley as the first King’s Agent to the country.  

South Caicos’ salt enriched many Bermudians as well as Europeans. The entirety of the center of South Caicos consisted of shallow salinas which were once used as salt ponds. The Boiling Hole, a unique and natural subterranean tidal passage, played a pivotal part in salt production. South Caicos had over 800 acres of land under salt cultivation, the largest acreage in the three salt-producing islands.

Salt production was readily facilitated by the unique enclosed shelter harbour that lies to the southern end of South Caicos. In 1840, following a visit by Sir Frances Cockburn, governor of the Bahamas with jurisdiction over the Turks Islands, the town was officially named in honour of him. Because of the salt activity, it also became the main settlement in the island.

Cockburn Harbour boasts delightful Bermudian style architecture with picturesque stone-walled streets along with well-built drainage systems. This Bermudian heritage is still represented in the architectural designs, streets and street names, and also family names. Unfortunately, Hurricanes Ike (2007) and Irma (2017) wreaked havoc on many of these historical landmarks of South Caicos which once stood tall for centuries. However, structures such as the lighthouse which served as a beacon to guide sloops safely into Cockburn Harbour still remain despite battering over the years by natural forces.

South Caicos was also home of a thriving sponge industry in the early 1900s. Unfortunately, this industry eventually suffered from overfishing, low financial returns, the blight disease, year-round harvesting, and global competition resulting in its closure by 1938.

Sisal was also processed and shipped from South Caicos, mainly to markets in Jamaica. This product was important for shipping companies as it was used to make rope for anchoring of ships and securing them to the docks. Belts to be worn with clothing were also made with sisal.

Shift in the economy

JAGS McCartney, founder of the People’s Democratic Movement (PDM) and TCI’s first Chief Minister in 1976, exits an Air Florida plane at the South Caicos International Airport.

In the 1940s, there was a dramatic shift in the South Caicos economy. In 1944, the US Government established an anti-submarine base on the island. They also constructed an airstrip, making South Caicos the first island in the TCI to have an international airport. The airport was handed over to the TCI Government in 1947.  

By 1959, the US Coast Guard LORAN Station was completed. This base was a low frequency radio signal navigation system (GPS). Unfortunately, it was decommissioned in 1982 along with the other facilities that the US Government operated in Grand Turk as more modern technology replaced the antiquated equipment.  

In its early years of operation, the South Caicos International Airport saw the likes of airlines such as Air Florida, which was the first commercial airline to the TCI. Bahamas Air also flew in from Nassau, opening up the gateway for international travel and commerce. 

The US Government also constructed three stations on South Caicos. First Station was used as a beacon guiding aircraft flying from North America to the eastern Caribbean. Second Station was used as a storage facility, while Third Station was used as a guest house.

The island received a major economic injection in the early 1960s when the Caicos Holdings Company Ltd., a North American real estate company, established the first hotel on the island—the Admiral’s Arms Hotel. This twelve-bedroom boutique hotel was constructed on an elevated site which was then known as Kersteiner Hill after its owner Emily Ann Stubbs-Kersteiner.

The 12-bedroom Admiral’s Arms was South Caicos’ first hotel—and obviously a hit!

As a part of their agreement, the company constructed a terminal building at the airport in 1967 built under the supervision of South Caicos’ very own Mr. Walter Malcolm, Sr..  Additionally, the runway was resurfaced, with fencing and lights to facilitate night landings also added.

In order to further facilitate their tourism product, the company established a refueling station at the airport and at their dock facility by the hotel. These activities opened South Caicos up to further tourism development by air and sea. Brazilian pilots also stopped over in South Caicos enroute to South America. This generated an upsurge in tourist arrivals, making the Admiral’s Arms “the place to be.” In-house generators were added to provide electricity. This action resulted in many local residents clamoring for electric services. This public demand resulted in the Caicos Company Holdings Ltd. starting the first private electric company in the TCI.  

During this era, the first major fishing plant operated by Mike Derby was established in South Caicos where lobsters were processed and shipped to the United States.  South Caicos is also known as home to the bonefish, popular for fly fishing tourists and hungry locals alike. 

The lucrative fishing business gave South Caicos the reputation of being the “Fishing Capital of the TCI.” It also attracted more investment. One such investor, Harold Crown, established a market for lobster, conch, and conch shells in Florida. This resulted in him taking conch shells via his boat the Shell Factory to Florida and in return, bringing back merchandise for his hardware and grocery store. South Caicos residents could now shop for United States merchandise right at home. The Shell Factory was also captained by local South Caicos man Captain Bruce Lightbourne.

The late HM Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip visited South Caicos in 1966 to much excitement and pagentry.

In 1966, during her visit to the British colonies, the late Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth ll and her husband, Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh, visited South Caicos. During her visit there was a parade of Caicos sloops in the harbor to celebrate her visit. These sloops, an integral part of the salt culture, made a picture-perfect display for the Royals to enjoy.

South Caicos Regatta

To commemorate the auspicious occasion of the Queen’s visit, a Regatta Committee was formed in 1967 birthing the oldest festival in the Islands, the South Caicos Regatta. The highlights of this event were the sloops, sailboat, and speed boat races, followed in the evenings by pageants along with music and dancing. Regatta took place thereafter every year with the exception of one year due to the COVID-19 pandemic (2020). The South Caicos Regatta holds the trophy for being the oldest cultural festival in the Islands, celebrating its 57th anniversary this year.

Outstanding citizens

Formed in 1967, the South Caicos Regatta is the country’s oldest festival.

South Caicos has produced some of the most outstanding citizens in the TCI. Notably in this lot are the Astwoods, with Dr. Donald Astwood being the country’s first local dentist, along with his three sons, two of whom were dentists and one a medical doctor. South Caicos has also produced the first local chief medical officer and chief nursing officer in the persons of brother and sister Dr. Hugh Malcolm and Nurse Beatrice Burton. The island is known for producing prominent businesspeople such as Mr. Clarence Fulford and his wife Louise.  Most of their children followed in their footsteps, especially the Fulford sisters who also owned businesses and now his son George, who has the main hardware store on South Caicos. There were also Edmond Ewing and his son George, in whose store one would find almost any merchandise at the time. Also prominent was Mr. William Mills, who was not only an outstanding businessman but a politician and lay preacher as well. Additionally, there were Mr. Lloyd Stubbs and Hugh Wilson. Carrying on the fishing industry were the Jennings brothers, Thomas (Tooks) Stubbs and George Lockhart.

As it currently stands, Mr. Lewis Cox is the glue that holds business together in South Caicos. Together with his children, they own the primary grocery store, the main refueling station for local fishermen, passing yachts, and vehicles and the major fishing plant. The Cox family also operates one of the TCI’s few locally owned hotels in  Ocean Beach Resort. 

South Caicos is famous for producing many local pilots who have developed some of the most outstanding reputations in the aviation industry. In the area of politics, Hon. Norman Saunders of South Caicos holds the belt for being the longest serving member of the House of Assembly (accumulatively). The island can also boast of having the first speaker of the Legislative Council in 1976, Hon. George Ewing. The current Speaker of the House of Assembly Gordon Burton also hails from South Caicos as well as the former Deputy Premier Hon. Erwin Jay Saunders and Minister of Education, Youth, Culture and Library Services Hon. Rachel Taylor. 

A bright future

This aerial view of South Caicos shows the seaside town of Cockburn Harbour and the spread of salinas behind it.

South Caicos is gearing up for a number of local projects intended to enhance its pristine beauty and rich heritage. These include the enhancement and restoration of Conch Ground Bay; redevelopment of the Regatta Village; Cedar Park Development; community road development; and airport terminal development. This follows on the heels of ongoing works to complete the terminal building for reopening; completion of the fire station at the airport; and the presence of a fire truck and further upgrading of the airstrip. Furthermore, a recent press release revealed that top government officials, along with the Member of Parliament for South Caicos Hon. John Jamael Malcolm, recently met with a couple who own a home at Sail Rock in regards to providing the finances for city water to every household on the island. While some may be skeptical about this initiative, it does provide hope for a people who have all their lives depended on rain water to fill their tanks and drums. In essence, this could be a dream come true for many.

It is also my dream that South Caicos will also witness a further development to Conch Ground Bay to accommodate yachts from all over the world. This can lead to several spin-offs and an added feature to the South Caicos Regatta festivities where several categories of staged racing events for yachts can be included. 

Sailrock is a premier luxury resort and residential community nestled on South Caicos’ ridges and pristine beaches. In 2024, it was named “Resort Hotel of the Year” by Small Luxury Hotels of the World (SLH). Sailrock South Caicos is known for its stunning natural beauty, impeccable service, luxurious accommodations, and its barefoot luxury getaway appeal. The resort recently received the Condé Nast Johansens Award for Excellence 2024 for Best Service (USA, Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean) for the fourth successive year, and was named the World’s Leading Luxury Villa Resort 2023 at the World Travel Awards for the second year in a row.

The 100-room East Bay Hotel is now being revamped and transformed into the Salterra Resort and Spa. The property is currently undergoing significant renovations. It is expected to open its doors in early 2025, making it the first Luxury Collection property in the TCI.

This is wonderful news for South Caicos, this little gem with tranquil beaches where guests can reconnect with nature and soothe their minds, away from the hustle and bustle of the developed world. South Caicos is certainly on the comeback trail. The “Big” is once again returning to the Big South.

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On the Cover

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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