Residents of the Turks and Caicos, like so many of their Caribbean neighbors, have been consistently engaged in a debate over who, precisely, was the first European explorer to reach the islands. However, everyone can agree that prior to the Europeans' arrival, both Taíno and Lucayan natives lived on these islands' shores.
The first people to live on the islands that make up the Turks and Caicos were the Taínos. Because the only traces they left were ancient utensils buried in the sands of the islands, historians know few concrete details about the Taínos' lives. Later, the Lucayans took hold of the islands. Their culture flourished until the middle of the 16th century when European diseases and Spanish slavery took their toll.
Some speculate that Ponce de Leon was the first to reach the Turks and Caicos. Still, the most widely accepted truth about the first European contact is that Christopher Columbus found the islands in 1492, making landfall on the island now called Providenciales.
The islands changed hands several times over the years, and by 1766 they had been owned by the Spanish, French, and British. It was then that they became a part of the British colony of The Bahamas, though they were never able to fully integrate the two neighboring island chains.
British settlers from Bermuda and, later, the colonies in the United States began arriving in the 17th century. Bermudian settlers landed on Grand Turk, Salt Cay, and South Caicos and began a trade in salt, known in the Turks and Caicos as "white gold." Slaves were brought in from Africa for salt raking, though many British settlers made their trade on cotton and sisal plantations as well. This cotton trade was short-lived, and salt became the islands' main trade.
Like The Bahamas, these islands gained some notoriety as a pirate hideaway. However, the pirates of the Turks and Caicos thought nothing of sacking the homes of the wealthy salt merchants.
Due to the islands' pirate-initiated turmoil, the French turned their attention to the islands in 1753 and took control. The British sent a warship to reclaim the islands from the French the following year, though the French also managed to occupy Grand Turk two more times, in 1778 and 1783.
By 1848, attempts to integrate The Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos were abandoned. The Turks and Caicos had developed trade with boats making the long journey between London and Kingston, Jamaica. As a result, the Turks and Caicos were annexed to Jamaica in 1874.
However, the 1962 independence of Jamaica resulted in a return of power to The Bahamas, which controlled the region for a little more than 10 years until the Turks and Caicos became a British Crown Colony. Poised to declare their own independence if the People's Democratic Movement won the 1980 elections, the islands' governing went to the Progressive National Party. The Turks and Caicos remain a British overseas territory.
These peaceful islands remained relatively undiscovered by the outside world until the 1960s, when John Glenn splashed down on the waters offshore. Other American investors also found the islands during this era.
The Turks and Caicos were rediscovered in the 1990s, when they became widely known as a center for drug trafficking and money laundering. It was then that the British government took a more interventionist stance and has since given the islands' residents British citizenship.
The islanders of the Turks and Caicos are proud of their 250 years of peace. Even though they changed hands many times, the islands have maintained a stable society, vibrant culture, and beautiful natural surroundings.
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