Turks and Caicos Islands Named After Fez Topped Cactus

The Turks and Caicos Islands, located in the sunny Caribbean, get their name from a cactus. (PHOTO AP, Brennan Linsley)
2 December 2012 / ERKAM EMRE, İSTANBUL
It was during the Olympics. Before the race, a cameraman was making his way through the athletes gathered around as words flashing on the screen indicated the athletes’ homelands.

One weekend, it was my grandmother who first noticed, then called us all to the screen to see the list of runners. She was sure that a Turk was in the lineup, for the announcer had promised that very thing. She entreated us all to sit down and wait to see the Turk apparently scheduled to run. When the screen finally flashed the list, we realized what had gotten her confused.

Apparently, my grandmother had heard something said about a runner from the Turks and Caicos Islands and thought the runner was from Turkey. But it brings about a good question: From whence does the “Turks” of the name for these two Caribbean islands originate? The actual story behind the name is probably much different than you think.

These two tropical islands, the Turks and Caicos, lie to the southwest of the Bahamas and are actually composed of two main islands and lots of littler ones. The islands were first “discovered” by Christopher Columbus, though of course a native Tainos population had been living there long before. The Tainos were captured by the Europeans who arrived there by boat, and many of the natives died from infectious diseases they had never been exposed to before, brought over by newcomers. The French and later the Spanish ruled the islands for a while, after which they fell under the authority of the British Empire There are, in the meantime, some interesting stories that have circulated about how the smaller of the two main islands got the “Turks” name.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, when colonization efforts really picked up speed, pirates became a frequent feature of these islands, which lay on the route chosen by Spanish sailors to haul gold back from South America. At some point, these Spanish sailors started referring to the pirates on their routes as Turks. Interestingly, a full two centuries before that, some Europeans had started labeling pirates they encountered on the seas of the Mediterranean “Turks,” and the term wound up sticking in sailor terminology. The truth is, though, that the name for these islands actually comes from a completely different source: the famous Turkish fez cactus. When one looks at this cactus type, known in Turkish as türk fesli kaktüs — scientific genus Melocactus– it is clear why the adjective fez was chosen. When you look at the short, oval shaped red cap of the cactus, it really does appear to be a fez sitting atop this plant. And this cactus can be seen all over Central and South America, and is in fact one of the main symbols of the Turks and Caicos Islands. There are many different kinds of Melocactus, with the “fez” growing in several shades of red.

The population of the Turks and Caicos Islands, making up 40 islands altogether, is around 30,000 people. The majority of this population can be found on the two main islands, Grand Turk and Providenciales, or Caicos. Some compare the name of the other island, Caicos, to the Turkish word kayık, which means rowboat. The fact that famed seafarer Piri Reis had a world map that showed this island as a rowboat has even led to assertions that it was in fact Turks who discovered America. The truth is, though, the origins of that particular name come from native islanders the Lucayas, who called the place “caya hico,” which meant island.

Courtesy of Sunday’s Zaman

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