The Turks and Caicos Islands were a centre of the Lucayan people. There is some evidence that TCI was Christopher Columbus' first landfall in 1492. By 1520, the indigenous Lucayan population had been eradicated, by slavery and disease, and the islands were left uninhabited. The Bermudians rediscovered the Islands and, by the 1670s, had started to collect salt from the naturally occurring salinas on Grand Turk, South Caicos and Salt Cay, and these three became the salt islands. The salt industry was very profitable, but labour intensive. The first African slaves were brought to the islands by the Bermudians to work the saltpans. Salt production eventually stopped in the 1960s. Salt mining had made it uneconomic, and the structure of the salt pans was destroyed by Hurricane Donna in 1960. The other Caicos Islands had a rather different history at this time. Remaining uninhabited, they became safe and secret bases for pirates of the Caribbean. In the 1780s and 1790s, after the American War of Independence, fleeing Loyalists were granted land in the Caicos Islands. The plantations were mainly for cotton, with some sugar production recorded from North Caicos. Three of the old plantation sites remain, at Cheshire Hall on Providenciales, Wades Green on North Caicos and Haulover on Middle Caicos. Pest infestations, a fall in the price of cotton and a hurricane in 1813 saw many plantation owners depart from the islands leaving forced-labourers behind – who learnt how to live off the land. Emancipation in 1834 marked the final end of the plantation era.

Traditionally built boat, Middle Caicos. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

Traditional skills developed in TCI. Above: Caicos sloop; Below: Basket making from local plant material, especially the native palms. Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

Surrounding the islands are 200 miles (320 km) of white beaches, one of which is often awarded the accolade of one of the best beaches in the world. As such, the tourism industry is one of the main economic activities. With TCI trading on its ‘Beautiful by Nature’ slogan, in 2016, 1,300,575 tourists visited the islands. Of these, 453,612 were ‘stop-overs’ and the remaining 846,963 were cruise passengers. Other economic activities include financial services and fishing (mostly lobster Panulirus argus and conch Strombus gigas for export to the US). South Caicos or ‘The Big South’ is known as the fishing capital of TCI.

Native palms, which are traditionally used in basket making. (Unlike these, the tall coconut palms are introduced.) Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

South and East Caicos: beaches, inlets, islands and scrub with native palms, which are traditionally used in basket-making. (Unlike these, the tall coconut palms are introduced.) Copyright: Dr Mike Pienkowski

The natural environment contributes significantly to the local economy and, in 2006, the role of the marine environment to the TCI economy was examined to try and quantify this value. A study looked at coral reefs and calculated that those within the Princess Alexandra Land and Sea National Park (just one Park of several) made a contribution to GDP of some US$18m per year – values derived from diving, benefits to fisheries, water sports, etc. In addition, the consultant team calculated that the coral reefs protected economic value (protecting property from the full force of hurricane damage, facilitating the build-up of white beaches, and protecting those beaches from storm-surge, etc.), a benefit valued at US$17m per year (Nautilus Consultants Ltd. 2006).