Today, Turks and Caicos are recognized as one of the most sought-after vacation destinations in the world, with Grace Bay Beach in Providenciales holding the current title of World’s Best Beach from the masters of travel, Condé Nast. But for hundreds of years, Turks and Caicos has been attracting the fringe elements of European society who sought refuge on the remote and stunningly beautiful paradise. For a notorious period in history, spanning several decades around the turn of the 18th century, the Turks and Caicos Islands were a popular hideout for pirates; and our subsequent brief history of the most fascinating aspects of the past should have you wanting to make like a pirate and experience your own tropical island (hopefully with less plank-walking).
Santa Maria, Salt-Tax, and a little Civil Disobedience
In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed his mighty flotilla ashore to ‘discover’ the New World at Guanahani Beach, Grand Turks. The arrival of these Europeans tragically signalled the demise of the local Taíno Indians who had inhabited the islands for thousands of years, killed off from disease or sold into slavery. The islands would pass from Spanish, to French, to British control, although none of the three world powers at the time established any colonies. The British, who control the territories to this day, would eventually set up shop – but not before the islands became prime real estate for privateers and pirates to do their legendary thing in the Caribbean.
Bermudian salt collectors settled the Turk Islands around 1680, attracted by logging and the vast amounts of salt deposits, which were exported north to the support the fishing industry in the burgeoning nations of Canada and America. The shallow waters surrounding the islands were ideal for salt raking but treacherous for nautical navigation, and in the treacherous journey to and from Turks and Caicos more than 1,000 ships were wrecked (many of them still remain on the Caribbean floor for you to explore on a scuba diving tour).
Salt was one of the world’s main industries and a valuable commodity throughout human history due to its vital importance to survival. Not only is it an essential element to life, salt is one of the oldest most ubiquitous food seasonings and the best way to preserve food before the invention of canning and artificial refrigeration, just over a hundred years ago. Of course the word salary comes from the Latin word salarium which referred to the money paid to the Roman army’s soldiers for the purchase of salt. And if you’re wondering how salt ties into piracy, let’s remember that in 1930 Mahatma Gandhi led over 100,000 people in an act of civil disobedience called the “Dandi March” or “Salt Satyagraha”, in which protesters made their own salt from the sea, which was illegal under British rule as it avoided paying the “salt tax”.
The connection comes when we realize that while pirates have been largely condemned by British orthodox thought as criminals and outlaws, at the base of their enterprise was the notion of civil disobedience and self-governance, choosing to conduct their own trade outside the channels of the imperialist British Empire and the Royal Navy. And because they represented a threat to the status quo of “The System”, they were branded as terrorists and history has written them largely as such. Of course many pirates were indeed bloodthirsty maniacs, apparently, but it makes you think; as you throw a pinch of the substance once used as currency over your left shoulder for good luck (or, as the ancient superstition would have it, to ward off the newil).
It’s also interesting to note that in Wiccan philosophy, salt is symbolic of the element Earth and is believed to cleanse an area of harmful or negative energies. Perhaps this helps explain why Turks and Caicos radiates such positive good vibes…
Some of the most notorious pirates to be found in the pages of history have been reported as lurking in Turks and Caicos waters over the years of the Golden Age of Piracy. Legendary pirates such Mary Read and Anne Bonne, the lady pirates who sailed with Calico Jack Rackham, Stede Bonnet the Gentleman Pirate, Benjamin Hornigold, Charles Vane, Captain Kidd, L’Olonnois, and Edward Teach (aka Blackbeard). Local legend purports that Anne Bonny camped out at Parrot Cay in the 1720s, lending the original name – Pirate Cay. The 1,000 acre island now hosts the ultra luxurious and very private vacation hideaway Parrot Cay Resort and Spa, called by some “the world’s most exclusive resort” where the rich and famous now flock to soak up the solitude and anonymity once sought by the big buccaneers.
Another legend has it that the lost treasure of Captain William Kidd is buried somewhere in the Turks and Caicos Islands, waiting to be discovered. The huge caches of gold, silver, and gems that inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island may very well be out there on one of the uninhabited cays. In 1976, an excavation of a cave on Providenciales turned out to be unsuccessful but stories of the location may have it in San Salvador, several miles northwest in the Bahamas. Wherever it may be, the law in most Caribbean nations states that any pirate treasure found on the islands belongs to the government. If used correctly, the discovery of billions of dollars worth of pirate gold could pay off national debt and build a solid infrastructure to last into the future – maybe an impetus to fund some treasure hunters in Turks and Caicos; maybe an inspiration for YOU to be a treasure hunter.
Our Favorite Pirate Activities in Turks and Caicos
Exploring for submerged cannons at Fort George Cay
The tiny island of Fort George Cay, between Pine Cay and Parrot Cay, was once the home for a small British fort in the 1800’s. Due to the high rate of piracy in the area, the fort and the loyalist plantations of the island were protected by big cannons – the remains of which can be found beneath a few feet of clear water. You can almost the hear the ghost echoes of the cannonballs firing at the threatening pirates.
This tiny island was once a hideout for buccaneer Françoise L’Olonnois as he preyed on passing Spanish galleons, raiding the ships and absconding back to French Cay with his loot. Today it is a vibrant bird sanctuary accessible by permit only, where nature lovers come to admire the beauty of Caribbean wildlife and observe nurse sharks mating in the shallow waters just off shore each summer. Imagine what life as the French pirate would have been like.
Experience a Pirate Adventure Cruise
Get in touch with your inner buccaneer and set sail with the Captain at Outback Adventures on a 40-foot glass bottom boat tour of famous swashbuckler haunts. Explore a local pirate’s lair with caves featuring actual pirate’s treasure maps etched into the walls, along with etchings made by shipwrecked sailors. Search for buried treasure, or just find some booty in the form of neat-looking seashells on this full-day adventure that includes BBQ lunch, snorkeling, and unlimited beer/ rum punch.