The Turks and Caicos Islands are a British Overseas Territory consisting of the larger Caicos Islands and smaller Turks Islands, situated on an underwater plateau marine bank. The Turks and Caicos include eight large cays and numerous smaller cays, islets, reefs, banks and rocks.
Turks and Caicos Islands
The Turks and Caicos Islands are two groups of tropical islands in the Lucayan Archipelago situated in the Atlantic Ocean, south of the Bahamas island chain and northeast of Cuba, in the northern West Indies.
A British Overseas Territory consisting of the larger Caicos Islands and smaller Turks Islands, situated on an underwater plateau marine bank, the Turks and Caicos include eight large cays (keys) and numerous smaller cays, islets, reefs, banks, and rocks.
Often considered part of the greater Caribbean Region, the island territory relies heavily on tourism and as an offshore financial center. Significant foreign investment and commercial land development, much of which has occurred in Providenciales, have propelled its growth in the modern era.
It is the third largest of the British overseas territories by population: 45,114 (2021). More than 90% of the population is of African heritage. The majority of the population is Christian. Cockburn Town, the seat of government since 1766, is situated on Grand Turk Island and is the main commercial center.
Map depicting the location of the Turks and Caicos Islands
The Turks and Caicos Islands were inhabited for centuries by native Amerindian peoples. The first recorded European sighting of the islands occurred in 1512. In the subsequent centuries, the islands were claimed by several European powers, with the British Empire eventually gaining control.
It is believed that many of the Turks and Caicos islands, along with the rest of the Bahamas chain, were inhabited by an indigenous people, the Arawakan-speaking Lucayan Taino. Within a generation of European contact, the Lucayan Taino had either died from the ill effects of colonization, including introduced diseases or were enslaved by the Spaniards.
The sweltering, dry conditions led to natural salt production in the interior wetlands of the islands, leading to one of the first major international salt industries in the Americas.
From the mid-1600s, Bermudian salt collectors began seasonally visiting the islands, later settling more permanently with their enslaved Africans. The enslaved people worked for salt production, forcibly imported from Africa or the other Caribbean islands. Eventually, they and their descendants came to outnumber the European settlers.
The islands became popular pirate hideouts for several decades around the turn of the 18th century. After the American War of Independence (1775–1783), many Loyalists fled to British Caribbean colonies, bringing enslaved Africans. They developed cotton as an important cash crop, but the development of the salt industry superseded it.
During the Anglo-French War (1778–1783), the French captured the archipelago in 1783. However, the Treaty of Paris (1783) later confirmed it as a British colony. In 1799, both the Turks and the Caicos island groups were annexed by Britain as part of the Bahamas. The islands were governed indirectly through Bermuda, the Bahamas or Jamaica for many years afterward.
When the Bahamas gained independence in 1973, the Turks and Caicos Islands received their own governor and have since remained a separate, autonomous British Overseas Territory.
Coral reefs form the islands, and thus, they are low-lying. The highest elevation is 50 m (163 ft) at Blue Hills, on Providenciales. As most islands have a soft limestone foundation, they are characterized by numerous karst features, including banana holes (small sinkholes containing rich soil), caves, caverns and sea cliffs.
Recognized examples of features formed by the Karst Process include "The Hole" on Providenciales, "Cottage Pond" on North Caicos, "The Boiling Hole" on South Caicos, as well as "Indian Cave" and "Conch Bar Caves" on Middle Caicos.
There is little arable land. Lack of arable land restricts agriculture on the islands, though corn (maize), beans, cassava, fruits and other subsistence crops are grown on the western Caicos Islands.
The Turks and Caicos Islands experience very little rainfall, and most of what occurs usually happens two to three times during the year, resulting in flooding. Consequently, much plant life is drought-resistant or can survive in salty marine wetland environments.
Island vegetation types include xerophytic shrubs, scrub, savanna and marsh-swamp. Mangroves, cacti and Caribbean pines are also found here.
The Turks and Caicos have many endemic species and others of international importance, partially dependent on the conditions created by the oldest established salt-pan development in the Caribbean.
The smaller cays are essential for breeding seabirds and endemic reptiles, invertebrates and plants. The wetlands are globally crucial for shorebirds.
Animal life consists of insects, iguanas and lizards. The islands are on several migratory bird routes. The reefs surrounding the islands abound in spiny lobsters, conchs, snappers, groupers, sharks and sea turtles.
Bone remains from large tortoises, giant iguanas and possibly crocodiles were recovered during archaeological digs conducted at cave sites in the country. These land animals were probably hunted to extinction by the Taino aborigines.
Map of the Turks and Caicos Islands
The Turks Island Passage, or "the Wall," more than 2,200 m (7,200 ft) deep, separates the Turks Islands from the Caicos Islands. The islands form a chain that stretches from north to south.
Grand Turk Island
Grand Turk Island is the largest and most developed of the Turks Islands (the smaller of the two archipelagos that make up the island state), with 18 sq km (6.9 sq mi). It is home to the Grand Turk Cruise Center, consisting of a 900 m (3,000 ft) pier, welcome center and recreational area.
Grand Turk contains the territory's capital, Cockburn Town and the JAGS McCartney International Airport. The island is the territory's administrative, historic, cultural and financial center and has the second largest population of the islands at approximately 3,700 people.
Grand Turk was first colonized in 1681 by Bermudians, who set up the salt industry in the islands. In 1766, it became the capital of the country. Grand Turk Lighthouse was erected in 1852 near the island's northern end.
Salt Cay is the second largest of the Turks Islands, with fewer than 80 inhabitants living in Balfour Town on the west coast, established in 1673. The island is small, flat and triangular. It measures about 6.5 sq m (2.5 sq mi) and is mainly covered with salt pans.
The island was once home to several hundred people, all supported by the salt industry. Ruins from the salt operations remain on the island. Donkeys and cattle, descendants of those who worked during the salt days, roam freely.
Salt Cay is now popular with tourists looking for uncrowded beaches and activities like whale-watching. Scuba diving and other water sports also attract visitors.
- Big Sandy Cay
- Cotton Cay
- East Cay
- Endymion Rock
- Gibb Cay
- Pear Cay
The Caicos island group lies northwest of the Turks island group and comprises the following main islands:
Providenciales (known as "Provo" locally) is an island in the northwest Caicos Islands. It is the most developed island in Turks and Caicos, the third largest in area and home to a large majority of the Turks and Caicos population. The island has an area of 98 sq km (38 sq mi) and a population of 23,769 (2012).
Provo is the most tourist-oriented and developed of the Turks and Caicos Islands, boasting many resort hotels and an 18-hole golf course. The island has recently become popular with retirees worldwide, kindling a residential development boom. Grace Bay has seen many luxury condos built on its shores.
The western half of Providenciales is mostly barren wilderness, home to the island's best natural attraction, Chalk Sound National Park. The park is a 4.8 km (3 mi) long bay southwest of Downtown. The color of the water is uniform turquoise and studded with countless mushroom-like tiny islets. Also on the western part of the island is Northwest Point Marine National Park, which extends to nearby reefs and several saline lakes that attract breeding and migrant waterfowl.
North Caicos is the second largest island in the Turks and Caicos (after Middle Caicos). A 1.6 km (1 mi) causeway connects North and Middle Caicos. The population is approximately 1,400. Towns include Bottle Creek, Whitby, Kew and Sandy Point.
North Caicos is the lushest of the islands due to abundant rainfall and hosts the largest flock of Pink Flamingos.
Middle Caicos is the largest island in Turks and Caicos. To the west, it is separated from North Caicos by Juniper Hole and to the east, from East Caicos by Lorimer Creek; both are narrow passages that can accommodate only small boats. The island is green and ideal for agriculture.
Middle Caicos is home to the largest cave network in the Bahamian Archipelago, situated at Conch Bar. The island is known for its significant Lucayan Indian archeological sites. There are also ruins of Loyalist plantations.
South Caicos is the seventh largest island in the Turks and Caicos archipelago, with a land area of 21 sq km (8.2 square miles). It is known for excellent fishing, both deep-sea and bone fishing, as well as scuba diving.
The sleepy little harbor town of Cockburn Harbor was once the most active commercial community in the Turks and Caicos islands.
South Caicos was formerly a salt exporter; the island still hosts a network of salt pans as a reminder of the industry. Today, the island's primary income is derived from small-scale commercial fishing.
Uninhabited or Privately Owned Islands
- Ambergris Cays
- Big Ambergris Cay
- Little Ambergris Cay
- Bay Cay
- Bush Cay
- Dellis Cay
- Donna Cay
- Dove Cay
- East Bay Cay
- East Caicos
- Fish Cays
- Five Cays
- Five Little Cays
- Fort George Cay
- French Cay
- Little Water Cay
- Long Cay
- Mangrove Cay
- Middleton Cay
- Parrot Cay
- Pine Cay
- Plandon Cay
- Seal Cays
- Six Hill Cays
- Stubbs Cay
- Water Cay
- West Caicos
- West Sand Spit