The Northern Islands

Caribbean Islands Table of Contents

THE NORTHERN ISLANDS is a term of convenience used in this study to refer to the independent Commonwealth of the Bahamas and the two British dependent territories, the Cayman Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands. All three are located in the northern Caribbean Basin. Both the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands form part of the Bahamas archipelago, which extends 80 kilometers southeast of Florida to approximately 150 kilometers north of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The Cayman Islands lie approximately 150 kilometers south of Cuba and 290 kilometers northwest of Jamaica.

All three island groupings share a similar historical development. Christopher Columbus most likely made his first landfall in the New World on a Bahamian island, although exactly where has been debated for years. He discovered the Cayman Islands on his third voyage in 1503. Although Ponce de Leon is said to have discovered the Turks and Caicos in 1512, some historians still speculate that Columbus landed on one of these islands during his first voyage in 1492. In mid-1987 preparations were underway for the celebration of the quincentenary of the discovery of the New World; replicas of Columbus's ships were being constructed in Spain to recreate the historic transatlantic voyage in 1992. The ships were scheduled to drop anchor in the Bahamas on October 12 of that year, focusing world attention on the small Caribbean nation.

The islands shared common political linkages at various times in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Turks and Caicos formed part of the Bahamas in the first half of the nineteenth century. By the second half of the nineteenth century, both the Turks and Caicos and the Caymans were Jamaican dependencies and remained so until Jamaican independence in 1962. At that time, both sets of islands became separate British colonies, a status that they retained as of the late 1980s. The Bahamas, which became a British colony in the mid-seventeenth century, attained independence as a sovereign nation in 1973. In the late 1980s, all three island groupings maintained membership in the British Commonwealth of Nations (see Appendix B).

The Bahamas dwarfs both the Caymans and the Turks and Caicos in area, population, and gross domestic product (GDP--see Glossary). Despite differences, these three societies shared several common social and economic characteristics in the late 1980s. The populations of all three groupings had a strong African heritage. Tourism and financial services were major elements of the domestic economies in all three island groupings. The Bahamian and Caymanian economies were particularly developed in these two sectors, resulting in relatively high per capita income for the region and for the developing world in general. The economy of the Turks and Caicos lacked the necessary infrastructure to exploit these activities fully; however, it was steadily establishing important tourist and financial service sectors in the mid-1980s with the help of British investments.

Finally, all three island groupings were affected in the 1980s by drug trafficking. Both the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos became transit points for traffickers from South America; in addition, both societies experienced severe social and political crises resulting from drug-related corruption. Traffickers were also believed to have laundered funds in Caymanian banks. This major international problem was being addressed throughout the area under pressure and with assistance from the United States.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress