British Empire > Turks and Caicos Islands

Turks and Caicos Islands

Golden Age of Piracy - Chapter Decoration


The Turks and Caicos Islands are part of the Bahamas and form part of the British West Indies. No one really knows how the islands got their current name with some believe they are named after the Barbary Corsairs of the Ottoman Empire. Others believe it refers to the presence of cacti. Regardless of the name like the rest of the Bahamas was eventually claimed by the British Empire after changing hands between colonial powers several times. Between the 16th and 18th centuries the islands changed hands between the Spanish, the French, and the British but none would ever establish any permanent settlements until the late 17th century.

The Turks and Caicos Islands were inhabited by the Lucayans who migrated to the Bahamas from nearby Hispaniola around 700 CE. Based on pottery evidence after about 300 years the people in the Bahamas created a distinct culture from their common ancestors. The first recorded sighting of the island for Europeans was in 1512 by the Spanish conquistador named Juan Ponce de Leon. Following this throughout the early 16th century the Spanish would raid the island for native Caribs and Lucayans for use in slave labor which led to the complete depopulation of the Bahamas archipelago along with disease.

Pirate Havens - Cove in Caicos Islands

Cove in Caicos Islands - The Pirates Own Book (1837)

The islands would see their first permanent settlement developed in 1681 when salt collectors built their first settlement on Grand Turk Island. These salt collectors were attracted to the shallow waters around the islands that made their trade much easier than in nearby Bermuda. They would work for six months in the Bahamas until it was no longer viable to collect salt and then they would move back to Bermuda.


Their colonization established the British dominance of the archipelago that has lasted into the present day. Huge numbers of trees were felled by the Bermudians to discourage rainfall that would adversely affect the salt mining operation. This deforestation has yet to be repaired. Most of the salt mined in the Turks and Caicos Islands was sold through Bermudian merchant houses on the American seaboard, including in Newfoundland where it was used for preserving cod. The agricultural industry sprung up in the islands in the late 1780s after 40 Loyalists arrived after the end of the American Revolution, primarily from Georgia and South Carolina. Granted large tracts of land by the British government to make up for what they lost in the American colonies, the Loyalists imported well over a thousand slaves and planted vast fields of sisal. Though in the short term highly successful, the cotton industry quickly went into decline, with hurricanes and pests destroying many crops. Though a few of the former cotton magnates changed to salt mining, just about every one of the original Loyalists had left the islands by 1820, leaving their slaves to live a subsistence lifestyle through fishing and hunter-gathering.

Following the settlement of the Bahamas throughout the 18th century the plantation economy that developed on the island meant the importation of great numbers of West African slaves. The islands themselves were governed by the British indirectly through other islands such as the Bahamas or Bermuda or British Jamaica. Eventually the islands gained independence in 1973 from the Crown and are now classified as an autonomous British Overseas Territory with its own governor.


Between the years of 1690 and 1720 the Bahamas in general were very popular for pirates with the nearby pirate haven of Nassau being established on New Providence. Pirates would frequently hide in the cays and shallow areas of the Turks and Caicos Islands along with others and prey on Spanish merchant ships departing from Cuba, Hispaniola and the rest of the Spanish Main.

Bermudian Century

Bermuda spent much of the 18th Century in a protracted legal battle with the Bahamas (which had itself been colonised by Bermudian Puritans in 1647) over the Turks Islands. Under British law, no colony could hold colonies of its own. The Turks Islands were not recognised by Britain either as a colony in its own right, or as a part of Bermuda. They were held to be, like rivers in Britain, for the common use. As a result, there was a great deal of political turmoil surrounding the ownership of the Turks (and Caicos). Spanish and French forces seized the Turks in 1706, but Bermudian forces expelled them four years later in what was probably Bermuda's only independent military operation. The Bermudian privateer, the Rose, under the command of Captain Lewis Middleton, attacked a Spanish and a French privateer holding a captive English vessel. Defeating the two enemy vessels, the Rose then cleared out the thirty-man garrison left by the Spanish and French.[1] A virtual state-of-war existed between Bermuda and the Bahamas through much of the Eighteenth Century. When the Bermudian sloop Seaflower was seized by the Bahamians in 1701, the response of Bermuda Governor Bennett was to issue letters-of-marque to Bermudians vessels. The legal struggle with the Bahamas began in 1766, when the King's representative in the Bahamas, Andrew Symmer, on his own authority, wrote a constitution which legislated for and taxed the Bermudians on the Turks. The Secretary of State, Lord Hillsborough, for the Crown, issued orders that the Bermudian activities on the Turks should not be obstructed or restrained in any way. As a result of this order, Symmer's constitution was dissolved. The Bermudians on the Turks appointed commissioners to govern themselves, with the assent of the King's local agent. They drew up regulations for good government, but the Bahamian governor Shirley drew up his own regulations for the Turks and ordered that no one might work at salt raking who had not signed assent to his regulations. Following this, a raker was arrested and the salt pans were seized and divided by force. The Bahamas government attempted to appoint judicial authorities for the Turks in 1768, but these were refused by the Bermudians. In 1773 the Bahamian government passed an act attempting to tax the salt produced in the Turks, but the Bermudians refused to pay it. In 1774, the Bahamians passed another, similar act, and this they submitted for the Crown's assent. The Crown passed this act on to the Bermudian government which objected to it, and which rejected Bahamian jurisdiction over the Turks. The Crown, as a consequence, refused assent of the Act as applied to include the Turks, and, in the form in which it finally passed, the Bahamas, but not the Turks, were included. The Bermudians on the Turks continued to be governed under their own regulations, with the assent of the royal agent, until 1780, when a more formal version of those regulations was submitted for the assent of the Crown, which was given. Those regulations, issued as a royal order, stated that all British subjects had the right ("free liberty") to rake and gather salt on the Turks, providing that they conformed to the regulations, which expressly rejected Bahamian jurisdiction over the Turks. Despite this refutation by a higher authority of their right to impinge upon Bermudian activities on the Turks, the Bahamian government continued to harass the Bermudians (unsurprisingly, given the lucrativeness of the Turks salt trade). Although the salt industry on the Turks had largely been a Bermudian preserve, it had been seen throughout the 17th century as the right of all British subjects to rake there, and small numbers of Bahamians had been involved. In 1783, the French landed a force on Grand Turk which a British force of 100 men, under then-Captain Horatio Nelson, was unable to dislodge. Following this, the Bahamians were slow to return to the Turks, while the Bermudians quickly resumed salt production, sending sixty to seventy-five ships to the Turks each year, during the six months that salt could be raked. Nearly a thousand Bermudians spent part of the year on the Turks engaged in salt production, and the industry became more productive. The Bahamas, meanwhile, was incurring considerable expense in absorbing loyalist refugees from the now-independent American colonies, and returned to the idea of taxing Turks salt for the needed funds. The Bahamian government ordered that all ships bound for the Turk Islands obtain a license at Nassau first. The Bermudians refused to do this. Following this, Bahamian authorities seized the Bermuda sloops Friendship and Fanny in 1786. Shortly after, three Bermudian vessels were seized at Grand Caicos, with $35,000 worth of goods salvaged from a French ship. French privateers were becoming a menace to Bermudian operations in the area, at the time, but the Bahamians were their primary concern. The Bahamian government re-introduced a tax on salt from the Turks, annexed them to the Bahamas, and created a seat in the Bahamian parliament to represent them. The Bermudians refused these efforts also, but the continual pressure from the Bahamians had a degrative effect on the salt industry. In 1806, the Bermudian customs authorities went some way toward acknowledging the Bahamian annexation when it ceased to allow free exchange between the Turks and Bermuda (this affected many enslaved Bermudians, who, like the free ones, had occupied the Turks only seasonally, returning to their homes in Bermuda after the year's raking had finished). That same year, French privateers attacked the Turks, burning ships and absconding with a large sloop. The Bahamians refused to help, and the Admiralty in Jamaica claimed the Turks were beyond his jurisdiction. Two hurricanes, the first in August, 1813, the second in October, 1815, destroyed more than two-hundred buildings, significand salt stores, and sank many vessels. By 1815, the United States, the primary client for Turks salt, had been at war with Britain (and hence Bermuda) for three years, and had established other sources of salt. With the destruction wrought by the storm, and the loss of market, many Bermudians abandoned the Turks, and those remaining were so distraught that they welcomed the visit of the Bahamian governor in 1819. The British government eventually assigned political control to the Bahamas, which the Turks and Caicos remained a part of until the 1840s. One Bermudian salt raker, Mary Prince, however, was to leave a scathing record of Bermuda's activities there in The History of Mary Prince, a book which helped to propel the abolitionist cause to the 1834 emancipation of slaves throughout the Empire. Bahamian and Jamaican jurisdictions[edit] The islands remained part of the Bahamas until 1848, when the inhabitants successfully petitioned to be made a separate colony governed by a council president under the supervision of the governor of Jamaica. This arrangement proved to be a financial burden, and in 1873 the Turks and Caicos Islands were annexed to Jamaica with a commissioner and a Legislative Board. The islands remained a dependency of Jamaica until 1959, when they received their own administration under an administrator, although the governor of Jamaica remained the governor of the islands. When Jamaica was granted independence from Britain in August 1962, the Turks and Caicos Islands became a crown colony. From 1965 the governor of The Bahamas was also governor of the Turks and Caicos Islands and oversaw affairs for the islands. When the Bahamas gained independence in 1973, the islands received their own governor.

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