Turks and Caicos islands

AN OVERSEAS DEPENDENT territory of the UNITED KINGDOM, the Turks and Caicos islands lie at the southeastern end of the BAHAMAS chain, north of HAITI in the CARIBBEAN SEA. Physically, culturally, and economically similar to the Bahamas, the islands have nevertheless maintained a separate identity across three centuries of British rule and continue to hold fast to their British roots in the postcolonial Caribbean.

With an area of 168 square mi ((430 square km), the islands’ capital is Cockburn Town. The territory is composed of two groups, the Caicos islands and the much smaller Turks islands. Only eight of the approximately 40 islands are inhabited: Providenciales in the Caicos (known as Provo) has the largest population, though the capital, Cockburn Town, is on Grand Turk. Provo is also the center for the islands’ tourism industry. Other islands are privately owned (some developed as resorts, like Pine and Parrot cays) or were once occupied but are now abandoned (like East Caicos). Only about 15 percent of the population consider themselves “belongers,” the remainder being temporary residents from Haiti, the DOMINICAN REPUBLIC or the UNITED STATES.

Turks and Caicos islands

The islands are low-lying and very dry. Most of the vegetation consists of scrub and cactus. Salt pans have therefore played a large role in the islands’ economy since the earliest days, providing passing ships with salt necessary for keeping meat for the long voyage across the ATLANTIC. Each of the two island groups has extensive encircling coral reefs, the Caicos reef being one of the largest in the world. The islands are separated by the Turks Island Passage, a trench with depths up to 7,000 ft (2,100 m) that connects the Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea. The passage is rich in marine life, attracting numerous diving tourists, who are also drawn to the nearby Caicos Banks, where the sea floor rises suddenly to only 30 ft (9 m) in less than 3,000 ft (1,000 m)—a death trap to sailing ships, whose hulls continue to litter the area.

There is speculation that the island first spotted and named San Salvador by Christopher Columbus was Grand Turk, not Watling in the Bahamas. The island was subsequently named for the Turk’s head fez cactus, while its neighbors took their name from the native words caya hico (string of islands). The native Taino population did not survive long after first European encounters, and the islands were sparsely settled by the British from the 17th century. Settlers grew cotton and produced salt and tried to keep their islands from becoming a pirate haven like those of the Bahamas to the north.

Governed as part of the JAMAICA colony from the late 19th century, the islands opted out of the independence that was granted to Jamaica in 1962. Salt production has ceased, so the islands are dependent on British financial support and on tourism, mostly from the United States. The British government has had to step in a few times to combat drug trade and local corruption, but growing tourism and offshore banking are now providing Turks and Caicos islanders with one of the strongest economies in the region. It is also the center of a new marine wildlife initiative to monitor numbers and health of dolphins and whales and tropical and subtropical waters.