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Raking for heritage in the Salt Islands

The Royal Gazette
by Dr Edward Harris
Published Mar 23, 2013

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The sun rises early over the salinas at Salt Cay, as it has from time immemorial, the white froth that would one day be salt forming on the edges of the ponds, much as it has done for many millennia.

Not a soul to be seen in this place at the geological end of the Bahamian archipelago as the light creeps over the eastern limestone hills.

Except for the buildings along Victoria Street, one could be transported far back into prehistoric times and beyond, for the salt ponds were originally a feature of the natural landscape, mud flats occasionally inundated by the Caribbean Sea, there to evaporate into salt, an indispensable adjunct to life on Earth, particularly of the human variety.

Like Bermudians of old, I came to rake at Salt Cay (once a colony of the Bermuda colony), but not for the salt of material life, but for that of heritage, an element essential for our spiritual well being, a facet for reflection called ‘history’ that is particular to our species in its less destructive moments.

What is now the Turks and Caicos Islands, an overseas territory of Britain as is Bermuda, was formed geologically 150 million years ago and is composed of limestone, with no evidence of volcanic activity, as is to be found in some other islands in the West Indies.

Bereft, if that is the right word, of human populations until around 750AD, the islands of the Caicos Bank and Turks Bank, separated by a major cleft in the ocean floor to a depth of some 7,000 feet, languished in the company of sea and bird life, while on land evolved mahogany, lignum vitae and brazilletto forests, now perhaps entirely lost to history and natural heritage.

Around 1200 years ago, Tainos, being Native Americans from the nearby Hispaniola, found their way to TCI in their dugout canoes, but within two decades of Columbus’ landfall in the Bahamas to the north in 1492, the islands were deserted, as recorded by Ponce de León in 1513 on his way to discover ‘La Florida’, another island as he thought and where he met a violent end in 1521.

While the oldest known shipwreck in the Caribbean was found on the edge of the Caicos Bank and is now in a splendid display on the Molasses Reef Wreck (1515) at the Turks and Caicos National Museum in Grand Turk, there was no permanent settlement of TCI until after 1668, when Bermudians chanced upon the Turks Islands.
With no natural resources at home, excepting cedar trees and limestone, they knew the great value of salt and so began seasonal visits to the islands to gather the salt conveniently generated by Nature in the flats, or Salinas, of Grand Turk and Salt Cay.
In the first quarter of the 1700s, the Salinas were organised into ponds by the building of walls and the construction of windmills, canals and sluicegates added in the more efficient production of ‘sea salt’, now all the rage in some culinary worlds.
Eventually, Bermudians, free and enslaved, took up residence in the Turks Islands, bringing with them many of the building traditions of home, for some of the rock in the Turks Islands is almost indistinguishable from that of Bermuda.

Evidence of these homes away from home is very apparent in Grand Turk and Salt Cay, with the massive chimneys of Bermuda-style kitchens still to be found.

Perhaps the most important domestic architectural monument in the islands is the “White House” on Salt Cay, thought to have been built by Bermudian Daniel Harriott around 1830 and yet standing with its Bermuda stone slate roof, perhaps the only one in the Turks Islands.The home is still owned by the Harriott family, though the family name is now Dunn, some of whom are ‘belongers’, as well as Americans.

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It was a pleasure to stay at the White House with Georgia Dunn Belk of North Carolina, a ‘belonger’ in TCI with her cousin Tim Dunn and to record some aspects of the building and its furniture, some being straight off the boat from Bermuda, as it were.

The White House is under long-term restoration and ways should be found to accomplish all that needs to be done to preserve such a major piece of Turks and Caicos and of Bermudian heritage, albeit a thousand miles south through the Triangle.

Over a decade ago, I visited the “Salt Islands” and saw much of its built heritage, including the home of Wade Stubbs on North Caicos, from whom the Bermuda Stubbs family is descended, for they came as Loyalists out of the new United States to establish plantations there and later emigrated north.

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Much of that heritage was in need of preservation, but on Salt Cay, its owner, Helen Krieble, has restored the “Brown House” and is also much engaged in the restoration of Government House on that five square mile islet.
As is the case in Bermuda, outsiders have often been instrumental in environmental and heritage movements, for at the end of the day, decade or century, such built heritage belongs to all peoples.

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Given its industrial and architectural heritage, Salt Cay has apparently been recommended for World Heritage Site designation, which was received here a decade ago for the Town of St George’s and its associated fortifications.
The visit to the lands of our southern cousins of all hues drew to a close and one was dramatically reminded of the connections between the Turks Islands and Bermuda, as the thumping of a homemade base guitar interrupted the peace of dinner.

There in the trio of a band sat Alan (Red Dick) Neasham, straight out of Bermuda with his upturned five-gallon paint bucket, with stick and string, hammering out base notes, during a visit to his Grand Turk home of many years.
Needless to say, as Bermudians do, there was a not-so-tearful reunion, not unlike the one I had the previous day when meeting a belonger cousin of the Talbots of the famous band.

As it is with the material heritage, so we are still connected in daily life to the Salt Islands and that, to my mind, is a nice spoonful of sugar.

Edward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, PHD, FSA is Director of the National Museum at Dockyard. Comments may be made to director@bmm.bm or 704-5480.