The history of Cockburn Town

The history of Cockburn Town
The Turk and Caicos Islands are one of the most popular destinations for visitors to the chain of islands known as the Bahamas. Travellers come here today to dive in the deliciously warm seas amid shoals of glittering fish, to sunbathe on the sugar-soft white sands, and to enjoy a relaxed and laid back way of life. But what was it that first brought travellers to the Bahamas? The founding of the capital of the Turk and Caicos Islands, Cockburn Town, is a result of the enticing prospect of one natural resource in particular.

Whales, gold, silver....salt?

The Charter of the Bahamas, of 1670, mentions whales, sturgeon, gold, and silver as the key natural resources of the island chain. It was none of these, however, that proved fundamental to the establishment of Cockburn Town and its eventual creation in 1766 as the seat of government in the islands. Rather, it was another, perhaps surprisingly everyday resource that made these islands so important to traders: salt.
The islands were found to be rich in salt pools. The still waters and the hot temperatures meant that salt was readily exposed in the shallow beds of the pools. Salt harvesters used rakes to pile up huge masses of salt which then could be sold for a large revenue. In the islands in the mid eighteenth century, they were literally 'raking it in'.

The foundation of Cockburn Town

The salt trade was a major prop of North American industry in the eighteenth century. And the Turk and Caicos Islands were right at the hub of this trade. Studies suggest that around half of the salt imported into North America from places other than Europe in the mid eighteenth century came from the Turks and Caicos Islands. Other countries also began to import large quantities of salt from the West Indies. Measured in bushels, salt was safely stowed in large vessels to make the perilous journey across the sea. Salt harvesters and traders quickly found that they needed a town to use as a base for their activities. Thus, in 1681, Cockburn Town was founded.
A small town at its inception (as, indeed, it remains in the present day), comprising of a couple of streets and planters houses, Cockburn Town was nevertheless a key strategic point on trading routes between the sslands, Europe, and North America.

Nowadays, travellers to Cockburn Town can learn more about the history of the islands in the National Museum. This museum contains the oldest known shipwreck off the coasts of the Americas: the 'Molasses' wreck, which dates to around 1505. Also to be seen in the National Museum is a different kind of history: dozens of bottles filled with messages that have been sent out to sea and have washed up on the nearby coasts. Many of these bottles have a misty, pearly colour, so that the messages are difficult to see. That is because they are caked in the salt that has been so significant for the town for four centuries.

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Date: 12/02/2013

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