A Testament to the Past
It’s hard to believe that Cheshire Hall Plantation is so close to the Providenciales business district. For as soon as you pass through the refuge of its rugged stone wall, you feel the present disappear. Sounds of traffic, construction and airplanes vanish and a lonely quiet takes their place, filling the silence with memories of the past.
In April, 2003, the Turks & Caicos Islands National Trust re-opened the Cheshire Hall Loyalist Plantation National Historic site for public tours. Visitors will find interpretive signs, stone-lined nature trails, plant identification markers and an informative leaflet. The goal, says Executive Director Ethlyn Gibbs-Williams, is to encourage visitors and residents to understand and appreciate the country’s deep historical roots and natural history.
Standing somber and still, you’ll discover ruins of the plantation’s Great House and several outbuildings, along with circular structures that held tools of the cotton industry, including a cotton gin and cotton press. The Great House is on the breezy rise of a hilltop, overlooking much of western Providenciales and a valley below, which was likely once used for raising food crops or livestock. Sections of the original stone wall still trace the plantation’s boundaries deep in the bush.
In fact, much of the Cheshire Hall site is lush with the native plants — Guinea Grass, Cow Bush, Bull Vine and Torchwood trees, to name a few — that carpeted the area centuries ago. The bush is also home to butterflies, birds and lizards, all noticeably flitting, flying and crawling by as you wander the trails. I especially enjoyed the lower trail that winds along the plantation’s western wall past a hidden ruin overgrown with trees and a seemingly bottomless well (watch your children!). Leading up to the Great House, walking this shady trail is a chance to closely examine the craftsmanship of the wall and details of the tropical plants that line the trail’s edges.
Facing due north at the top of the hill is a cannon that protected the planters and their slaves from unwelcome attack. According to Colette Robinson, former National Trust Marketing & Public Relations Manager, a number of small cannon balls were found buried in the sand on the site. She also explained that the buildings’ original walls were made from soft limestone blocks mortared with sand and quicklime. This material was ingeniously made by burning huge piles of conch shells in kilns, then mixing the ash with water to form the white plaster that covered the buildings’ exteriors.
I was also fascinated by the primitive drawings of sloops etched into the Great House wall facing the settlement of Five Cays. Colette says these mysterious drawings appear on many plantations throughout the Bahamas and Turks & Caicos; their significance is currently being researched.
The Road to Recovery
Although the ruins of Cheshire Hall are among the country’s more important cultural properties, they were dangerously close to being destroyed by progress before the National Trust stepped in. After much lobbying by the Trust, in 2000 the Turks And Caicos Island Government transferred the site (already designated an “Area of Historic Interest”) to the Trust’s care. A 99-year lease is under negotiation.
The structures were in a critical state following years of neglect and vandalism. Yet thanks to a grant from the British Government, the National Trust was able to hire restoration expert Rodney Melville, who came highly recommended by the English National Trust. He produced a rescue strategy for Cheshire Hall which was implemented. Dr. Donald Keith of Ships of Discovery and his team surveyed and photographed the original site, stone by stone. Their extensive work was distilled into a CD and site plan. Cheshire Hall was temporarily closed while the structures were stabilized and nature trails laid.
A Gateway to Culture
Ethlyn Gibbs-Williams believes that Cheshire Hall’s central location makes it an ideal gateway site to other Turks And Caicos Island cultural attractions. “In the short term, we’d like to restore the ruin that stands just inside the gate (possibly the overseer’s house) to be a visitor’s center. In the future, we hope to develop Cheshire Hall into a major tourism cultural facility. The Loyalists left a legacy more important than simply ruins. The planters left their slaves behind, who became the real settlers, developers and lasting pioneers of the Turks & Caicos Islands.”
Guided tours of Cheshire Hall are offered Monday to Friday, 8:30 AM to 4 PM. The cost is $5.00. For reservations, call The National Trust at (649) 941-5710 or 231-1172.
Who were the Loyalists?
The Loyalists were original American colonists who remained faithful to England during the Revolutionary War. By 1778, when the British armies pulled out of the southern states, thousands of Loyalists abandoned their holdings there and fled, along with their slaves, to British-held Florida and later to the Bahamas, which then included the Turks & Caicos Islands.
They (or more accurately, their slaves), built grand plantations to grow the highly prized Sea Island Cotton, preferred by the expanding textile industries in England. Although the land was initially productive, a combination of thin soil, infestations of chenille worm and red bug and the Great Hurricane of 1813 cut short the life of these enterprises. The Loyalists departed or died and left behind the ruins of beautiful stone buildings and some 1,200 slaves. These slaves are the ancestors of much of the populations of North and Middle Caicos and Providenciales.
Who built Cheshire Hall?
Loyalist Wade Stubbs, originally from the village of Gawsworth in the English county of Cheshire, received a grant of 860 acres on North Caicos. Here he built the Bellefield Plantation, later christened “Wade’s Green.” His holdings grew and Wade soon convinced his brother Thomas to leave Cheshire County and seek his fortune in the Caicos Islands. Thomas Stubbs settled on Providenciales (then known as Blue Caicos) and named his plantation after his home county.
By 1810, Thomas Stubbs gave up and sold Cheshire Hall to Wade. A soon-to-be-placed cornerstone at Cheshire Hall, inscribed “W. Stubbs 1810″ commemorates this transaction. At his death in 1822, Wade Stubbs’ Cheshire Hall holdings were approximately 5,000 acres and he left behind 384 slaves.
Story and Photos by Kathy Borsuk