The islands’ first dwellers were the peaceful Taínos, who left behind ancient utensils and little else. By the middle of the 16th century not one Lucayan, as Columbus named them, remained. Like the Lucayans in the Bahamas islands, they were kidnapped for use as slaves or pearl divers, while many others died of imported diseases. The discovery of the islands, whether by Columbus in 1492 or later by Ponce de León, is hotly disputed. There is a very convincing argument that Columbus’ first landfall was on Grand Turk, not Watling Island in the Bahamas, now officially named San Salvador. The infamous Caicos Banks, south of the Caicos group, where in the space of 1 km the water depth changes from 1,830 m to 9 m, claimed many of the Spanish ships lost in the central Caribbean from the 16th to the 18th century.
The Bermudan traders who settled on the islands of Grand Turk, Salt Cay and South Caicos in the 17th century used slaves to rake salt for sale to British colonies on the American mainland, and fought pirates and buccaneers for over 200 years. During the American Revolution, British loyalists found refuge on the islands, setting up cotton and sisal plantations with the labour of imported slaves. For a while, cotton and sisal from the islands were sold in New York and London, solar salt became the staple of the economy, and the Turks and Caicos thrived, but all these products encountered overwhelming competition from elsewhere. The thin soil was an added disadvantage and a hurricane in 1813 marked the demise of cotton plantations.
Following an alternation of Spanish, French and British control, the group became part of the Bahamas colony in 1766. Attempts to integrate the Turks and Caicos failed, rule from Nassau was unpopular and inefficient, and abandoned in 1848. Links with Jamaica were more developed, partly because London-Kingston boats visited frequently. The Turks and Caicos were annexed to Jamaica in 1874. After Jamaica’s Independence in 1962, they were loosely associated with the Bahamas for just over 10 years until the latter became independent. At that point, the Turks and Caicos became a British Crown Colony (now a Dependent Territory). The Anglican Church maintained its links with the Bahamas, which is where the Bishop resides.
The main political parties were established in 1976: the People’s Democratic Movement (PDM) and the Progressive National Party (PNP). From time to time Independence is raised as a political issue but does not have universal support.
The isolation of the Turks and Caicos and the benign neglect of the British government led to increasing use of the islands as refuelling posts by drug smugglers en route from South America to Florida. Constitutional government was suspended in 1986 after it was discovered that several Ministers were involved and direct rule from the UK was imposed while investigations continued into malpractice by other public officials. The Chief Minister and the Minister of Development were imprisoned for accepting bribes to allow drugs planes to refuel on South Caicos. The islands are still being used for trans-shipment of cocaine and other drugs.
In 1988, general elections restored constitutional government. These were won by the PDM. The April 1991 elections brought the PNP back to power, but economic austerity measures and civil service job cuts cost the PNP its mandate. The PDM, under the leadership of Derek Taylor, held power from 1995 until 2003. Declining popularity of the government led to hotly contested elections in April 2003. Initial results gave the PDM seven seats and the PNP six, but three seats were contested in court and there were rumours of illegal dealings. By-elections for two seats were held in August 2003 and were awarded to the PNP, giving them eight seats to the PDM’s five. In the February 2007 elections, the PNP won 60% of the vote, gaining 13 seats against 2 for the PDM. The Premier (formerly Chief Minister) is Michael Misick, of the PNP, while Floyd Seymour is the leader of the opposition.
The traditional economic activity, salt production, ceased in 1964, and for two decades there was little to generate legal income apart from fishing, government employment and some tourism. Natural resources are limited, even water has to be strictly conserved. Agriculture is almost non-existent. Practically all consumer goods and most foodstuffs are imported. The lack of major employment activities led in the 1960s and 1970s to thousands of local people emigrating to the nearby Bahamas or the USA to seek work. This trend has now been reversed as the economy has improved and the population is rising. Belongers have returned to work in the tourist industry and professionals trained abroad are returning to work as lawyers, accountants, etc. Poorly paid skilled and unskilled labour, much of it illegal, comes from Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
There is no income tax, company tax, exchange control or restriction on the nationality or residence of shareholders or directors. New legislation and the creation of the Offshore Finance Centre Unit (OFCU) were designed to regulate the growth of offshore finance and encourage banking, insurance and trust companies.
The main islands of the Turks group, Grand Turk and Salt Cay, shelter 20% of the colony’s 7,901 ‘belongers’, as the islanders call themselves, but only 15% of the total resident population of 20,000-25,000, which includes many Haitians, Dominicans and ex-pat North Americans and Europeans. The rest of the population is scattered among the larger Caicos group to the west: South Caicos, Middle Caicos, North Caicos and Providenciales, the most populous, known locally as ‘Provo’.