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The old Caribbean

Dispatched to the Turks and Caicos as a reporter, Charles Laurence liked them so much he ended up staying

Charles Laurence | November/December 2014

The early sun peered over the headland as we left the harbour wall in our wake. Edwin stood at the bow, white shirt billowing in the breeze, bare feet planted on the deck of the Captain Haddock as she rose and fell in the swell, his back ramrod straight despite his 74 years. His eyes wrinkled as he squinted into the rollers breaking on the reef.

“Keep steaming!” he cried. We had left Deane’s Dock under power from the outboard motor, planning to raise our sails beyond the headland to steer a starboard tack from Salt Cay to Grand Turk.

The trade winds, which brought Christopher Columbus and Francis Drake through this passage five centuries ago, come from the east, and are deemed a “good breeze” by the island boatmen when blowing at 15 knots. But they are capricious, ready to gust to 20 knots or more, or die to a whisper, and on this morning of all mornings they had swung to the north-north-east, which is just where we wanted to go. As any old salt will testify, you can’t sail straight into the wind.

The whitecaps met us at a gallop as soon as we left the shelter of the headland. They were frothing on top of six-foot waves, foam flying, crashing with plumes of spray onto the shallow reef jutting from the head. My how-to sailing book had suggested that if you see whitecaps, you stay in the harbour—but those rules don’t apply to men like Edwin.

We motored on past the reef into the wind and the waves to raise the sails, the bow slicing nicely through the crests and on into the deep blue sea. I could glimpse Grand Turk on the horizon from atop the waves, a strip of land seven miles away with a stubby white lighthouse on the western tip. It was a wild, wet ride. The life jackets stayed stowed, as they always do. In mid-channel, where the current that will carry you to Haiti runs strongest and the waves buck steepest, some rigging came loose and Edwin climbed barefoot onto the bow to tie it down. He stowed his cap and had to let go of his grip on the mast to use both hands. The Haddock heeled over to the gunwale. What was the drill for a man overboard? I hung onto the tiller with one hand, and used the other to coil a rope I could throw.

Oh boy, I thought. And this is supposed to be fun.

It all began 28 years ago with a call from the foreign editor, a man who liked to be gruff, when I was New York correspondent for the Daily Telegraph.

“If you got your arse out of bed,” Nigel said, “you could get the 4pm flight from Miami to Grand Turk.”

I was in Arizona. It was, if I remember, 4am.

“Why”, I asked, “would I want to go to Grand Turk?” And where, for that matter, was Grand Turk?

He chuckled. Our man who checked the night logs of Whitehall had spotted that the Foreign Office was preparing to declare direct rule over one of our remoter territories, and that the Royal Marine Commandos were on alert for military intervention.

“Third Brigade,” said Nigel. “They did the Falklands war. You’d better be there.”

I made the flight, heading south from Miami for 646 miles to the freckling of islands just off the southern tip of the Bahamas, learning about my destination as we drew nearer. Grand Turk is the capital of the Turks and Caicos, still a British Overseas Territory, one of the last of the old pink dots on the globe. A half dozen or so of the islands are inhabited, the rest left to the birds and the iguanas and the Turk’s Head cactus. The beach close to the small airport has claims to be where Columbus first landed in 1492 after the long sail across the Atlantic.

The plane came in at toe-paddling height, and landed with the scream of rubber and roar of engines in reverse thrust to stop just shy of the far shore. It was sunset. The breeze tossed the palms and the pines. There was one immigration officer, one customs man and one taxi, which took about three minutes to get from the airport to the Salt Raker Inn. A painted sign on the road read: “Tidy the Turks, Clean Up the Caicos”.

This was the Cocaine Eighties, and Norman Saunders, the chief minister running the government under the apparently unwatchful eye of the British governor, had been arrested in a motel room in Miami by American drug-squad officers. It turned out that he had converted an old second-world-war airstrip on his home island of South Caicos into a refuelling stop for Colombian smugglers. The cargo would arrive in big Dakotas and be transferred onto small planes for the run to Florida. One plane that crashed into the sea is now a scuba-diving site; you can swim through the fuselage and watch the sharks glide sinuously by.

The islands prospered for a while but things got out of hand when too many locals, already drawing attention by proffering $100 bills in the bars, began sampling the goods and going into the dealing business on their own accounts. Saunders did six years in an American jail before returning home and being re-elected to parliament to represent South Caicos.

I checked into the Salt Raker and went for a walk around Cockburn Town, enchanted by the bougainvillea and cordia trees, the crystal sea lapping the beach on one side of the main street with rows of weathered houses with breezy verandahs on the other. I sat on a cannon, salvaged from HMS Endymion when she went down on a reef in 1790, and the locals told me that what they really resented was having their man sold out to the Yanks. The governor, they thought, should have tipped Saunders off rather than agree to let him be filmed accepting $20,000 in a suitcase from an undercover cop in Miami. Perfidious Albion.

The Salt Raker was busy with government pooh-bahs and lawyers who make a living setting up offshore companies. A craggy Englishman in bleached-out khakis wove his way to the bar.

“I’m the Reuters correspondent,” he announced. “Anybody got a notebook and pencil I could borrow?”

He was Colonel John Houseman, veteran of one too many exploits with Churchill’s Special Operations Executive during the war, a battered James Bond who quoted classical Greek over buckets of rum and was long retired; as I came to understand, the islands have a special allure to some of us who left home long ago and have little use for roots. Later that night he took me to the Junkanoo shebeen in Back Town. It was the old rebel hangout and still pounding to a reggae beat. We all laughed as Houseman told the story of how he had once been kidnapped and held there in a dispute between the People’s Democratic Movement and the governor. He drunk his fill, and left when his captors fell asleep.

There was no need for the commandos in the event. The governor announced direct rule over the local radio, and Scotland Yard sent in two bobbies and a drug-squad officer to Clean Up the Caicos.

For some reason, I felt utterly at home.

For 20 years, amid and between two marriages, I came and went when I could, discovering Salt Cay when my son grew old enough to learn to scuba-dive, for it has a peerless diving school and unspoiled reefs. The Caribbean, professionally, is a New York corres­pondent’s backyard, and over the years I wrote from Trinidad, Grenada, the Bahamas, St Martin, Haiti, Cuba and Montserrat, where a volcano and hurricane produced Hell and high water almost simultaneously.

But nowhere was quite like the Turks and Caicos. While tourism boomed on Providenciales, which now looks more and more like Miami Beach, and on Parrot Cay, where the pirate queen Annie Bonny once wintered and which became famous as the island home of the likes of Keith Richards and Paul McCartney, on Grand Turk and Salt Cay—especially on Salt Cay—things stayed pretty much the same.

This is the Old Caribbean, frayed and faded under tropical sun and ocean winds, tested by depopulation, but almost completely unspoiled. British adventurers came to the islands from Bermuda in 1684. They were scouring the ocean for low islands formed of porous limestone ridges, with natural salt-water lakes—salinas—at their centres; the salt these could produce was more precious than gold. They found Salt Cay, Grand Turk and South Caicos. At first they would sail in with a crew of slaves, rake the drying salt from the salinas, and sail away again. In the 1700s, the Bermudans started building permanent settlements, digging canals and locks to turn the salinas into industrial salt ponds, which prospered for over two centuries.

In the 1960s the bottom fell out of the Caribbean salt market and the salt owners turned loose their donkeys, which now survive wild and hardy in the desert scrub. Some islanders went to sea as merchant seamen or got in on the nascent tourist trade. Many left; the population of Salt Cay plummeted from 1,000 a century ago to just 60-odd today, the descendants of slaves who call themselves Belongers.

One afternoon we piled into a golf cart and set off to explore Salt Cay. The island covers just two and a half square miles, about the size of Central Park, shaped like an arrowhead with the point facing south. We trundled the length of the lee shore, over the canal dug to bring fresh seawater into the saltpans, past the clump of wind-bent pines, past the canals and dykes, and the great plantation houses and the ruins of their salt works overlooking the sea where the sun sets.

The Brown House, its main beams made of ships’ masts, has been restored by an American heiress; the White House is shabby now, but with its Bermudan stone-tiled roof and cavernous salt barn below Victorian rooms last decorated in the 19th century it is among the Caribbean’s most historic buildings. Beyond it we turned into a grid of dirt roads heading towards the open ocean, passing the cottages of South Settlement where grandmothers tended gardens of bougainvillea and the cordia “shade trees” which drop orange petals onto the pathways. The lane ended at the mangrove swamps and a rocky beach where the Atlantic crashes ashore. Just there was a grand old ruin of a house.

“I’ve seen the house I am going to buy,” I announc­ed when we got back to the Island Thyme Bistro. Empty and abandoned, shutters creaking, verandah overlooking the Atlantic to the east and the Caribbean to the west, it was the quintessential island house.

“You can’t,” said Porter, our barkeep. “It belongs to the Queen of England. Anyway you can’t afford it.”

“But you might be able to buy the old wooden house next door,” said Bram, a Salt Cay expat of 30 years who sat on the next stool to mine.

They were both right. The big house had once been home to the district commissioner, a man in charge of raising taxes on the salt and the commander of a couple of cannon aimed at French raiders. Its smaller neighbour was for sale for $85,000. Debbie, owner of the Coral Reef restaurant and the Salt Cay dive shop, runs an estate agency on the side. She took me to inspect it. “I call it the charming house,” she said. The name has stuck. Now it is my home for four months a year and I gaze from my own verandah at the ocean to the east and spot migrating whales going along the Columbus Passage to the west.

One summer I found glasses rattling with excitement on Porter’s bar at the prospect of tourist development on Salt Cay. We would be rich. It was coming in the form of “Russians” who planned to build bungalows, condos and a hotel, along with a spa, golf course and a deep-water marina. They would cut Victoria Street in two so that yachts could sail into what were once salt beds. It was a remarkably secret proposal considering that it would cover 80% of the island, but we did find out that the plans included a branch of the Istrokapital Bank of Bratislava. In the era of oligarchs and offshore money, that explained a few things.

The irony, I thought, as the New Caribbean comes crashing into the Old just as I plunder my savings for a home. The “Russians” turned out to be Czechs and Slovaks in a consortium called Salt Cay Devco.

“It is time”, said Devco, “for Slovakia to have its own Caribbean paradise island.”

The shimmer of sudden riches had its usual effect: unhappiness and bitter rivalry between those who stood to gain and those who didn’t.

But it was not to be. Instead the islands found themselves in trouble once again: a Royal Commission of Inquiry under Sir Robin Auld found a strong enough stench of systemic corruption to call in the prosecutors. It looked as if Salt Cay was not the only island sold by the then prime minister, Michael Misick, for his own gain and the gain of his cronies, but it turned out to be the deal that broke his back.

Direct rule was once again imposed, and this time London sent in lawyers and forensic accountants rather than the drug squad. Devco has returned its Turks and Caicos acquisitions to the Crown, including our pristine North Beach, while protesting its innocence. Its principals face prosecution for corruption back in Prague. Misick, who married an American starlet after telling her that he owned a small Caribbean island, is facing trial after being extradited from Brazil. He is divorced.

Salt Cay is quiet again. In season, there might be 50 or 60 expats and tourists; in summer, a handful. One Sunday I went down to St John’s for matins. Wilbur, a Haitian immigrant who worked on the restoration of my cottage, was in the churchyard ringing the single church bell. Poley, head of the Dickinson family whose son, Alan, is the captain of the ferry providing the link to the shops and services of Grand Turk, handed me a hymnal and prayer book. Herbert Simmons, like most of his generation a veteran of the British Merchant Navy, drove the church bus around the narrow lanes collecting the congregation of grandmothers who are the pillars of the community.

But Miss Mellie and Miss Amy have gone, said Poley, gone into care in Grand Turk and Providenciales, and although neighbours are keeping up their cottage gardens, no one expects them back. Miss Rosie, who plays the church piano, would not be coming today because she had fallen and hurt her hand.

“It’s quiet, man, it’s too quiet,” said Poley. “The old folk are going. We’re needing some new work on the island now the salt business is gone. A hotel on the beach, not too big, that would be good.”

The pews were lightly filled that Sunday. Herbert brought his grandchildren, the three little girls lovely in their Sunday best, one of them minding the infant boy. Herbert’s wife, Miss Pat, who has Pat’s Place restaurant and is held to be the best at cooking local fish, went into the vestry and donned her surplice, keeping a stern eye on the grandchildren. Poley, Pat and her husband’s cousin Maurice, all lay preachers, made their way to the altar. There was no visiting Anglican minister that day. They made do without the piano, and sang the hymns with vigour.

I had just bought the Charming House when I first spotted Edwin’s boats. There were two of them, moored in the half-ruined dock down by the old White House. Simple boats with sharp prows, they struck me as living history, and I wanted a bit of it.

“Would you build a boat for me?” I asked Edwin. He was the last of the island’s boat builders, fashioning sturdy little boats using handsaws and chisels and knowledge passed down through the generations. “No, man,” he said. “I’m old and don’t want to build no more boat.”

Then Hurricane Ike blew by in 2008 and wrecked both of Edwin’s boats. Months later, I got a message back at home in New York that if I sent down materials for two, Edwin would build mine first. 

“Why”, I had asked when he’d finally agreed to build it, “don’t you fit your boats with sails? We could sail to Grand Turk like they used to do.”

Edwin had looked at me with a quizzical eye and said: “Boy, my first boat, we sailed straight over in one tack!” He raised his hand like a well-trimmed main sail and cut a perfect passage over the horizon.

And instead of building the 16ft fishing skiff I had expected, Edwin built a 20-footer, the smallest of the old island sloops with genes going back 400 years, made to trade between the cays and run goods from the shore to bigger ships.

Island time being what it is, the Captain Haddock, named for the character in the Tintin books and his love of adventure, slid into Deane’s Dock four years later, dazzling in her spanking fresh red and blue paint. She was christened with a beer bottle by the district commissioner, nowadays without plumed hat, and cheered by a good proportion of the islanders.

By the end of last year we finally had a good rig fitted. (“More sail, more sail!” Edwin had admonished as I shipped selections of masts, booms, sails and ropes down to the island from the boatyards of New England.) We were ready for our maiden deep-water voyage across the jiving waves to Grand Turk.

It felt like deliverance when we reached the shallows, waters that shimmer from topaz to azure, the colours of heaven in Renaissance frescoes. We docked at the Town Jetty under a noonday sun. Edwin beamed, his chest puffed out, as people clustered around his handiwork; on these small islands everyone knows of Edwin’s sailboat. I went to buy a cargo of wine at the Oddfellows’ Hall, between the sagging wooden structure of the Turks and Caicos Import Company, which once held monopolies on canned goods and fancy ribbons, and the Government Office where old ships’ cannon still point out to sea.

Emancipation from slavery was declared on August 1st 1834, from the verandah above my local wine store, a detail that never fails to bring me joy. We waited out the heat and Edwin said: “It’s cool, man, you’ll see: the wind will drop and the sea will go down in the afternoon. We’ll have good sailing home.”

He was right. We left the jetty elegantly under sail, with no need for the engine, tacked a little way east, then bore south to run before a wind which had now turned almost due north. The sea had calmed to a steady roll. When the wind dropped a little too low we used an oar to rig a boom for the jib to catch every puff, and made just enough way to beat the current heading for Haiti. We did not need to talk. We both knew we would make the passage by sail and save the gas so the Captain Haddock could meet her mission.

It took three hours. The rigging creaked. About halfway, Salt Cay appeared like a mirage on the horizon, coming and going with the swell, as it would have done when the sea dogs of old had hunted the Spanish Main. Ratty, in “The Wind in the Willows”, tells Mole: “There is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

We docked quietly, and went for a drink at the Coral Reef on the harbour, where a sign over the entrance reads: “I Love This Bar”.

In the hot summer days since then, Edwin and I have turned the Haddock to repaint her bottom, and fitted a bigger, more powerful rudder. We have sailed up and down the lee shore fishing for tuna, but mostly catching barracuda. Lionel, the island’s commercial fisherman, ran out of gas for his motor and while he waited for his jerry cans from Grand Turk we took him around the point to North Beach for conch, the big ocean mollusc which has been an island staple since the first saltraker landed. We anchored off the beach, and Lionel dived without so much as a snorkel to pluck them off the sandy bottom 25 feet below.

The breeze blows through the unglazed windows of the Old Caribbean, keeping us cool. The waves should calm again after the full moon. Edwin and I are planning a voyage south, to Great Sand Cay, where the only inhabitants are birds and lizards, and the nurse sharks congregate off the beach in breeding season.

“Good sailing,” Edwin says. “Good sailing.”

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