Ruined Dreams -April 11, 2002
The history of the Exuma island chain in the Bahamas is a convoluted tale of changing fortunes. The chapters spanning the past five centuries alternate between accounts of riches and ruin, and speak of fresh hope continuously rising from crushing despair. Bahamians are survivors.
This past week, we moved "Little Gidding" from the crowded anchorage in the lee of Stocking Island - directly across Elizabeth Harbour from George Town - to the more remote Red Shanks Cay anchorage four miles to the southeast. From here we took our dinghy to neighbouring Crab Cay to trace some of the tumultuous history of the area. The one and a half mile long island is criss-crossed with trails joining a number of stone ruins. No one has lived there for 170 years.
At the time Columbus made his first landfall in the New World in the Bahamas, the islands were inhabited by primitive farmers and fishermen who called themselves Lucayans. Impressed by the friendly welcome they gave him, Columbus declared, "There is no better people in the world." After that promising introduction, the Spanish who followed promptly enslaved the natives to work in the mines, plantations and pearl fisheries of their other Caribbean possessions. Forty brutal years later, the Lucayans had been exterminated from the face of the earth.
The depopulated islands had no obvious mineral wealth or great agricultural potential and were ringed by treacherous reefs. They were not the top choice of the colonizing powers and left to languish for close to three centuries. During this period of benign neglect, they became a haven for wreckers, pirates, privateers and smugglers. The Exumas were particularly well suited for these activities. The reef-strewn cays were located close to the main treasure route between the Caribbean and Europe and offered a number of secure hiding places for those who were familiar with the tricky waters.
By 1715 it's estimated there were 1000 pirates active in the Bahamas, including such notorious figures as Blackbeard, Calico Jack Rackham and the "lady" pirates, Mary Read and Anne Bonney. Their toll on mercantile activity eventually became too much to be ignored by the English, who had loose proprietary control over the islands at the time. The Bahamas were made a royal colony and a particularly zealous ex-privateer, Woodes Rogers, was sent as governor to establish law and order. By the time of his death in 1732, Rogers had largely succeeded in ridding the islands of pirates. In the Exumas and other out-islands, the population dwindled as only a few individuals hung on to fish, cut wood and work the salt ponds.
The American Revolution and subsequent Loyalist expulsion brought a boon to the Exumas. The 1783 Treaty of Versailles recognized the independence of the Thirteen Colonies, restored the Bahamas to England and yielded Florida to Spain. Loyalists and their slaves who had fled to Florida during the revolutionary war were offered land grants and free transportation to relocate to the Bahamas. In three years the population of the Exumas exploded from 32 to 704. Ninety percent of the new arrivals were slaves.
The settlement of Crab Cay was typical of the Loyalist incursion. William Walker and his family and slaves arrived from west Florida in 1784. Hardwoods of commercial value, particularly madeira (mahogany) and lignum vitae, were quickly removed from the cay. Walker built an impressive estate. When we wandered around the island a few days ago, we came across the foundations of his large manor house and the reasonably intact ruins of the cook house. The area in front of the main house had been terraced, as evidenced by a set of columns and descending steps. Stone walls enclose the remains of an extensive garden with elegant round stone pillars marking the gates on the east and west sides. A gun placement is located further away from the residential buildings, an indication that pirates probably had not been totally eliminated from the area at the time of settlement.
Walker, like other Loyalist settlers, attempted to replicate in the Exumas the plantation lifestyle of the southern colonies. The results were disastrous. The thin soil atop the hard limestone cays was rapidly depleted by efforts to cultivate cotton. The denuded islands never recovered. Crab Cay was abandoned around 1830 and reverted to the Crown a few years later, a mere 40 years after initial settlement.
With the collapse of their ill-founded attempts at farming, many of the white Loyalists left the Exumas. Most of their slaves remained behind, however. Emancipation was declared throughout the British Empire in 1834. As we stood atop the ruins of Crab Cay, we imagined the newly liberated slaves watching their former masters depart, feeling their freedom was something of a hollow prize. They and their descendants struggled and endured, sustained by subsistence farming, fishing and the traditional enterprises of wrecking and smuggling. The latter activity brought in brief boom periods during the American Civil War blockade in the 1860's and Prohibition in the 1920's. The presence today of a US military air base in Exuma proves that smuggling, now of illegal drugs, is not a forgotten vocation.
From our vantage point on Crab Cay, we could view most of Elizabeth Harbour stretching six miles to the northwest. A couple of hundred visiting yachts were anchored in the clear turquoise water. We spied numerous modern developments along the shoreline. This is the new economy of the Exumas: tourism. We like to think that visitors like ourselves - unlike the plunderers of the past - are now making a positive contribution to these beautiful islands.