Serendipity and shipwrecks in Grand Turk
Serendipity – the art of making happy discoveries by chance. Appropriately, the name was inspired by travel, taken from Serendib, the Arabic name for Sri Lanka, stumbled across by traders centuries ago.
That’s one explanation at least. But there’s nothing like travel for happy discoveries as my trip to Grand Turk reminded me.
We had less than half a day on the island, the capital of the Turks & Caicos. As Grand Turk is around seven square miles, with a population of approximately 3,700 people – roughly the same number of passengers on our cruise ship, Carnival Breeze – it’s not as stingy as it might seem.
At first, it seemed things were not going according to plan. When we got off the ship, we felt the first spots of rain… which got heavier and heavier. So we hopped into a taxi to Cockburn Town, the tiny capital city.
And discovered we’d stumbled upon a tour. Our multitasking driver was conveying some people to the island’s beaches, and giving a few more a tour of the island, so on our way to Cockburn Town – and what’s dubbed historic Downtown to visitors – we got a bit of background for free.
The Turks & Caicos islands are officially a British Overseas Territory, which means that archaically, we still dispatch a Governor to act as head of state and appoint ministers in this slice of the Caribbean. As a bonus, he (or she) also gets a pastel coloured mansion in its own grounds, backing onto one of the island’s most beautiful stretches of sand, Governor’s beach.
Far more imposing than the string of Government buildings we drove past, mostly quiet and slightly dusty, white paint starting to peel in the heat.
As well as the Turk’s Cap cacti which give the islands their name, plus the salt pans that formed its first industry in the 17th century, there’s a replica of John Glenn’s Friendship 7 shuttle, which landed off the coast in 1962.
But before long, you’re into Cockburn Town itself, with black plaques attached to the most historic buildings, the oldest of which rarely topped 150 years.
On one long street running along the coast, there’s room for two not very secret societies including the Freemasons, an old prison housing around half a dozen prisoners at a time (whose friends would throw cigarettes over the wall at night), a brightly coloured church plus pastel-coloured shacks and huts, selling souvenirs and drinks.
As we came in to town, a man rode past us on a horse. I loved it.
The serendipitous discovery, meanwhile, came from the National Museum of the Turks & Caicos. You might not think a national museum is too hidden a secret, but apart from the sign, this looked more like a typical Caribbean house, white wood and a balcony upstairs.
Inside, it’s a treasure trove. There are displays on everything from Glenn’s shuttle to colonial memorabilia including a pursed-lipped photo of Queen Victoria, plus details of the Taino and Lucayan Indians who first lived here.
But most fascinating is the shipwreck found on the edge of the reef surrounding the islands, the third largest barrier reef in the world. The Molasses Reef Wreck, as it’s called, is a caravel dating back to the Age of Discovery, the same kind of ship that Columbus sailed.
And while more ancient Viking and Egyptian vessels have been found, this is the only example of a caravel and the oldest European wreck to be found in the New World.
Despite optimistic suggestions that it might have been one of Columbus’ own ships, it’s more likely to have been a slaving vessel. Marine archaeologists have dated it to before 1513 thanks to the discovery of some of the weaponry, haquebuts which weren’t used after 1515, as well as the total lack of treasure and coins which puts it before the Mexican conquest.
After all, why take coins when there’s nowhere to spend them, as museum guide Nikki pointed out. The treasure itself is in the detail, the cannon, pottery, surgical instruments and anchor, which are among the artefacts discovered, giving us a picture of life on this sea voyage.
A video shows details of the original dives and excavations (complete with fantastic 80s hair on the archaeological team) and there are displays and maps to pore over.
Then we emerged, blinking into the light, the rain shower long over to look out at the waves which claimed the ship so many centuries ago.
Need to know
Entry costs $7, or $5 to cruise ship passengers and hotel guests (although you’re likely to be one or the other…) Limited opening hours on Monday to Thursdays, and opens for cruise ship visits, more details on the museum’s website.
Disclosure: My Caribbean cruise was courtesy of Carnival Cruises – payment for entry to the museum and all opinions are my own.
All images copyright MummyTravels/Cathy Winston