January 22, 2004
Hope Town on Elbow Cay in the northern Bahamas -- where we're currently cruising -- has had its share of ups and downs. Lucayan natives had lived here and elsewhere in the Bahamas for some 500 years before Columbus made his Bahamian landfall and "discovered" the New World. It didn't take the Spanish long to figure that the peaceful Lucayans would make a good work force in the mines they were establishing in Hispaniola. They were promptly enslaved, deported, and literally worked to death. Within 25 years of initial contact, the tribe was extinct.
For the better part of 200 years Elbow Cay and the other islands in the Abacos group were home only to roaming pirates. Around 1785 British Loyalists, dejected and desperate in the aftermath of the American Revolution, arrived hoping to begin a new life. Today many of the families in Hope Town trace their roots to these Loyalist settlers -- the Russells, Lowes, Bethels, Sawyers, and Malones are still very much in evidence. But theirs wasn't an easy existence at first. Farming the thin soils gave way to boat building and fishing. The extensive reefs around Elbow Cay provided islanders with more than just fish -- passing ships often came to grief on the unmarked hazards. "Wrecking" was such a profitable practice that residents of Hope Town apparently attempted to sabotage the construction, in 1864, of the Elbow Cay lighthouse. Then the wreckers' demise, the red and white candy striped lighthouse now is one of only three hand-wound, kerosene burning light stations in the world -- and probably the most photographed landmark in the Abacos.
Smuggling was another boom and bust enterprise that periodically brought wealth to the area, most notably during the American Civil War and then in the 1920's and 30's during US Prohibition. But none of these activities proved to be sustaining in the long run. More recently, tourism has become Hope Town's economic mainstay and the population has stabilized with the influx of foreigners, mostly North Americans, retiring or acquiring second homes on the island. Despite economic vicissitudes and occasional tribulations wrought by Mother Nature -- hurricanes are a fact of life in this part of the world -- the community has tenaciously held on.
Our friends Tony and Elaine Bennett, originally from Victoria, BC, are good examples of the newcomers who are now helping to revitalize the cultural and economic life of Hope Town. We met Tony and Elaine on our first visit to Hope Town in spring 1999. A former Canadian naval officer and an avid sailboat racer, Tony was an early fan of Eileen's music and one of her most enthusiastic supporters. He understood the jokes in her songs. We soon learned that Tony and Elaine enthusiastically support a lot of things, including the Wyannie Malone Historical Museum, named after one of Hope Town's original Loyalist settlers. Tony gave us a tour of the museum, then contained in a house owned by a Malone descendent.
Elbow Cay was a very different looking island when we next visited it seven months later. In the interim Hurricane Floyd had hammered the Abacos. Monstrous waves had rearranged the beach dunes and undercut many shoreside homes. The storm surge had cut a new channel near White Sound, south of Hope Town; we watched earth moving machines reattach the southern part of the island. In town, many buildings had sustained wind or wave damage. Elaine and Tony pointed to the high dunes that form a seemingly invincible barricade between their home, "Green Shutters", and the open Atlantic. The waves had cleared the dunes and rolled right across their property. Fortunately, the building is on a raised foundation and the water had flowed under the first floor. The Wyannie Malone Historical Museum had not been as lucky. The building housing the museum still stood, but the artefacts inside had suffered from the intrusion of storm driven water and sand. Tony and Elaine and the other museum volunteers had their work cut out for them.
Last weekend we were in Marsh Harbour, about half a dozen miles across the Sea of Abaco from Hope Town. We had headed there from the exposed anchorage at Baker's Bay in order to ride out a passing cold front and stock up on a few provisions. Sunday morning Tony called us on the VHF radio and welcomed us back to the Abacos. "I hope you're planning to come over to Hope Town," he said. "Elaine and I would love to see you again and maybe even arrange for Eileen to give a benefit concert for the museum building fund."
"That sounds great," Eileen responded. "The only difficulty is the fact we're planning to leave as soon as the weather improves. Do you think you could organize something for Wednesday?"
There was a pause on the radio. Tony came back, "That's a bit tight, but I'll see what I can do."
The next morning Tony called again. "It's on! We have permission to use St. James Methodist Church, I've printed up flyers, and we're letting everyone know on the radio. And we have a mooring waiting for you right in front of the Sailing Club dock." Among his other volunteer commitments, Tony is Commodore of the Hope Town Sailing Club.
"We'll be there," Eileen promised. Then she turned to David. "I've never performed in a church before. What do you think?"
"You might want to skip 'The Golden Days of Sail' and its references to how sailors of old relieved themselves," David advised. "I seem to recall in Sunday school we generally avoided discussing bodily functions."
Elaine and Tony met us at the church last night a half hour before the concert was to begin. They had brought with them a couple of traditional Bahamian straw hats for collecting donations. It was soon clear that they and the other museum volunteers had done their work. A steady stream of people came through the doors. By seven o'clock the pews and the hats were full. What was most encouraging was the mix of the audience. There seemed to be equal numbers of local Bahamians, foreign residents, and visiting cruisers. And everyone joined together during the singalong portions of the concert. Eileen was impressed. "It must be the setting," she told the crowd. "You folks really know how to sing in church!"
Elaine and Tony invited us back to their place after the performance for home-made pizza and salad. They described the progress on the new museum. One building is complete and open to the public. On an adjoining lot, the exterior of another building has been constructed. Work on the interior finish and displays is awaiting more funds. We were amazed at how much had been achieved is such a brief period of time. Much of the actual construction has been done by volunteers. ("Tony lost 20 pounds last July working in all the heat," Elaine confided.) A lot of the materials have been donated. Tony said, "We were told it would cost $600,000 to put up the new building. We did it for $150,000."
We asked Tony if they had a completion date in mind. Without hesitation he replied, "We hope to have our official opening on Heritage Day in March 2005." Hope is a powerful thing in Hope Town. Given the history of the community, we're pretty sure it will happen on schedule.
To find out more about the museum and to volunteer to help out, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.