As we set off down Philadelphia’s runway, the pilot drolly piped up to say, ‘at least we didn’t have to de-ice [the plane] today.’ A muted ripple of laughter passed through the serried ranks of seats as we set southwards and onwards into crystalline horizons with glimpses of shimmering coral reefs and long sandy beaches.
Our destination is Providenciales, the largest of the Turks and Caicos Islands, an archipelago discovered in 1492 by Christopher Columbus, that passed through French hands to become a British protectorate, as it remains today. On reaching the tarmac, you instantly feel the congenial languor of the Caribbean. This is a place for decompression – at least in the 21st century – and I have brought a gift to while away my time, Ron Chernow’s huge biography of Alexander Hamilton. As I will recount, it’s perfect reading matter. On the island, a British legacy and an American present are deftly melded together. Although this feels like a distant key of Florida, the Queen is prominent on many walls and, added to which, the islanders drive on the left along the bustling Leeward Highway.
Tourists aggregate around Grace Bay, a version of Palm Beach’s upmarket ethos except that the beaches are unfenced and swathes of undeveloped land remind you of the island’s raw, natural condition. Direct flights from snowy American and Canadian cities have brought thousands here, and with them the island population that numbered only a few hundred in the 1960s is now around 30,000. The few hundred were descended from a mixture of local Taino and Lucayan people: Caribbean hunter-fishers who lived off the fruits of the shallow shelves below turquoise seas. The island is low and for the most part just rocky limestone. On it grows a miscellany of scrub, but little else. The British took the islands from the French in 1710, making them part of the Bahamas and then Jamaica, until the latter gained independence in 1962. During those centuries the tiny population worked salt, traded to the larger islands.
Off to work they go
Everything changed in 1966: the ‘Seven Dwarfs’, as these businessmen from Florida became known, boldly set about developing the island for tourism. Faded Kodachrome slides record how they introduced the island’s first vehicle, a jeep; today, it boasts 25,000. Then, an airstrip was made with a foundation of crushed conches. The airport dates from this time. After this came the infrastructure and, over the past decade, a bustling small town at Grace Bay of high-end apartment blocks with resort facilities. The beaches are protected, as are the bays and reefs. At a stroke, Providenciales and the Turks and Caicos got an injection of wealth that even 50 years ago was unimaginable. The past is very much a foreign place to the majority of the visitors. The National Museum is on Grand Turk, a flight away. But imaginatively, in 2015, given the spike in visitors to Providenciales, the museum authorities created a branch at Grace Bay. Once your passport is stamped, and the officer welcomes you to the island, the very first sign advertises this new museum.
The museum building occupies an empty lot on the edge of Grace Bay. Currently, it comprises two buildings. The museum/ visitor centre and a reconstructed dwelling. A cannon – perhaps from a pirate ship or from the small Loyalist islet on Fort George Cay – guards the museum itself. Inside, the large room is filled with rows of chairs for instructing visitors and school-children. The story of the island is told on three walls with an array of images and objects. A case is dedicated to Taino polished stone axes and handmade ceramics including figurines. Another case contains glass drinking vessels – almost certainly Venetian wares – retrieved from wrecked slavers. Then there is a wrought-iron swivel gun from the early 16th-century Molasses Reef Wreck, excavated by Texas A&M University in the 1980s (initially identified as Columbus’s La Pinta). My eye, though, was drawn to the lapidary finds, simple epitaphs to those bold or mad enough to carve out plantations here in the 18th and 19th centuries.
I ask the director, Candianne Williams, about running a museum in a place that thrives on high-end resort tourism. Her response was measured. She is working to get it on the map. An afternoon with taxi-drivers, for example, is in her immediate schedule. Support from all quarters is essential. The National Museum is an NGO; it relies on donations and already has an impressive digital reach. They have commissioned plans for a new museum on adjacent land and are searching for funds. Just over two million dollars will pay for a place that aims to interact with Grace Bay’s burgeoning numbers of foreigner tourists, as well as the fast-growing local community.
From conches to cotton
Next door, resplendent in its own grounds, is a reconstructed bijoux house. Inside, a guide took me through the minute detail of daily living: grinding the corn, separating it, cooking, sleeping, and the management of an arboretum’s worth of shrubs in the arid, shallow soil outside. My eye, though, is not drawn to the miniaturised scale of life in this house, but to some of its key particulars. For starters, it is stoutly made of precisely cut limestone, neatly laid then stuccoed, my enthusiastic guide tells me, with a lime made from burning crushed conches. Inside, it has a timber floor; pine planks were brought from neighbouring islands. Beneath the floor is a cellar of sorts. Here were stored products from Providenciales’s shallow marine fields: conches, sponges, dried fish, and salt. These were taken in small skiffs to Haiti or other islands in the archipelago. There, in exchange for these simple staples, the islanders obtained fruit, meat, and vegetables, and even the bare commodities of colonial life.
This house helps me to make sense of the Turks and Caicos National Trust’s ruins at Cheshire Hall. This is a plantation holding from the late 18th century. Built by an American Loyalist, Thomas Stubbs, who lost his Florida property in the Revolutionary War, it instantly brings to mind the hard living that the American founding father and Olympian hero Alexander Hamilton knew in his early years on the neighbouring Caribbean island of St Croix. Hamilton, whose fame is now stratospheric thanks to the eponymous rap musical, had the humblest of beginnings. Becoming a New Yorker, he was famously sympathetic to the American Loyalists (ill-fated supporters of King George III) who fled the new nation with the end of British rule, and in common with his estranged Scottish father, sought to invest in the Caribbean.
Cheshire Hill lies on the highest spine of ground just east of the airport, with a viewshed that takes in much of the low-lying ground running towards a long, narrow sandy beach. In the 1780s, this was the largest house and estate on the island. Stubbs owned 5,000 acres and employed hundreds of slaves to grow cotton. Cheshire Hill was known for Anguilla, a long staple cotton as opposed to the Persian or short staple cotton grown in Georgia. It was an ill-starred venture. After two decades of moderate success, the boll weevil, soil degradation, and hurricanes put an end to growing cotton on these islands.
All images: Richard Hodges