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Turks and Caicos


Map Courtesy CIA World Factbook

The Turks and Caicos Islands is an overseas territory of the United Kingdom consisting of two groups of tropical islands in the Caribbean, southeast of the Bahamas. The thirty islands total 166 sq. mi. (430 km²), primarily of low, flat limestone with extensive marshes and mangrove swamps. The weather is usually sunny and relatively dry, but suffers frequent hurricanes. The islands have limited natural fresh water resources; private cisterns collect rainwater for drinking. The primary natural resources are spiny lobster and conch. The United Nations Committee on Decolonization includes the Turks and Caicos Islands on the United Nations list of Non-Self-Governing Territories.

The first inhabitants of the Turks and Caicos Islands were Amerindians, first the Arawak people, who were, over the centuries gradually replaced by the warlike Carib. The first European to sight the islands was Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León, who did so in 1512, though some historians claim that Guanahani, the native name of the island Christopher Columbus called San Salvador on his 1492 voyage is Grand Turk Island or East Caicos Island. Spanish slavers frequently raided the islands, enslaving the Caribs of the islands. Only a year after first being discovered, the entire archipelago was completely depopulated.

During the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, the islands passed from Spanish, French and British control, but none of the three powers ever established any settlements. From about 1690 to 1720, pirates hid in the cays of the Turks and Caicos Islands, attacking Spanish treasure galleons to Spain from Cuba, Hispaniola and the Spanish posessions in Central America and Peru. The islands were not properly colonised until salt collectors from Bermuda built the first permanent settlement on Grand Turk Island in 1681, drawn by the shallow waters around the islands that made salt mining a much easier process than in Bermuda and establishing the British dominance of the archipelago that has lasted into the present day.

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 cotton. Though in the short term high 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. In 1799 the islands were given representation in the Bahamas Assembly, and they remained part of that colony until 1848, when the inhabitants successfully petitioned to be made a separate colony 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 governor. When Jamaica was granted independence from Britain in August 1962, the Turks and Caicos Islands became a crown colony.

The salt industry, along with small sponge and hemp exports, sustained the Turks and Caicos Islands until in the 1960s American investors arrived on the islands and funded the construction of an airstrip on Provo Island and built the archipelago's first hotel: "The Third Turtle". A small trickle of tourists began to arrive, supplementing the salt economy. Club Med set up a resort at Grace Bay soon after. In the 1980s, Club Med funded an upgrading of the airstrip to allow for larger aircraft, and since then, tourism has been gradually on the increase. It is common for foreign couples to be married in the Turks and Caicos Islands today.

In 1980, the ruling pro-independence party, the People's Democratic Movement, agreed with the British government that independence would be granted if the PDM was reelected in the elections of that year. The PDM lost the elections to the Progressive National Party, which supported continued British rule. The PNP's leader, Norman Saunders, became chief minister, and won the 1984 elections. However, in 1985 Saunders and two associated were convicted in the USA on drug charges. The PNP emerged victorious from the following by-elections, but on July 24, 1986, the governor dissolved the government and replaced it with an advisory council after a report on allegations of arson and fraud found that the chief minister post-Saunders, Nathaniel Francis, along with four other PNP officials were unfit to rule.

Under the careful guidance of the governor and the advisory council, a new constitution for the Turks and Caicos Islands was created and elections held in 1988, with the PDM winning by a landslide, with Washington Misick becoming the new chief minister.

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