Benedict Thielen "The Bahamas-Golden Archipelago"

Holiday December 1964, pp. 62- 73, 135-140

The coat of arms of the self-governing British colony of the Bahamas bears on its motto: "Expulsis piratas, restituta commercia." Whether the pirates have been completely expelled is perhaps open to question, but there can be no possible doubt that commerce has been restored.

Of all the commercial activities in the Bahamas, none approaches tourism in importance. Each year more than half a million set foot on New Providence Island, the home of Nassau, the colony's capital. Many descend from planes or disembark from yachts, but mostly they stream down the gangplanks of the cruise ships. For these a stop at Nassau is as routine as the Captain's Dinner, the eleven-o'clock bouillon or the free Bossa Nova lessons included in the price of the ticket. Pausing briefly at the native straw-market to purchase a hat—functional or facetious, depending on the spirit of the buyer—the cruise passengers charge upon the shops of Bay Street, their chests festooned with cameras, their pockets filled stuffed with traveler's checks. Like a hydra-headed vacuum cleaner they suck up china and crystal, tweeds and woolens, liquors, pipes and perfumes. The calypso singers and the steel-drum beaters often find it hard to make themselves heard above the exultant chiming of the cash registers.

During the rare lulls when no cruise ships are tied up at the Prince George wharf or anchored in the roadstead, Nassau reverts to its unhurried tropical indolence and charm. The hot sun bakes and fades the brightly colored facades of the old buildings. The breeze blows through the open doors of a courtroom presided over by a judge in white wig and scarlet gown. The straw-hatted horses that draw the surreys doze in their shafts. From the giant ceiba tree in front of the hundred-year-old Royal Victoria Hotel the white puffs of kapok down drift and settle in the garden's deep shade. A short block from Bay Street the water front looks much as it did when Winslow Homer painted it many years ago.

All water fronts are interesting but it would be hard to find one so charged with vitality, with fury and laughter and action. The little native sloops toss and strain at their moorings. Their furled sails are patched and faded; their decks are piled with crimson-lipped conch shells, baskets of fish, crates of mangoes, oranges, tomatoes and limes. Seagoing goats and sheep are tethered to their masts. children crawl among the frayed lines. The smoke of cooking fires billows up from the sandboxes jammed in corners of the decks.

Among the sloops are the mail boats, high-sided, clumsy and fancifully colored as a child's drawing. They carry cargoes of rum and beer, oil drums and tractors, crayfish pots, cows and sometimes grand pianos. The Air Swift has come from Eleuthera, the Lady Dundas from Cat Island. The Church Bay is bound north for Grand Bahama, the Drake far south to Rum Cay and San Salvador. Coming and going, they and others like them call at little settlements like Palmetto Point and Eight Mile Rock, Savannah Sound and Castle Island, Pleasant By and Pure Gold.

Sooner or later someone is bound to tell you that Nassau is not the Bahamas. When you look out at the boats in the harbor or look up at the Viscounts and the venerable DC-3's of Bahamas Airways flying overhead, you know it is true. Nassau is the heart, the hub from which the sea- and air-roads fan outward. Beyond it, scattered over 90,000 square miles of ocean, are the 700 islands and the 2,400 cays (pronounced keys) and rocks that make up the Out Islands.

Where to go? it is not easy to make a choice from what the Ministry for Tourism in its informative booklet calls 700 Pieces of Paradise. Nassau is filled with displaced Out Islanders and if you ask the advice of one he is sure to tell you that the island where he was born is the loveliest of all. Filtered through time and distance, its hills are greener and its waters clearer than those of any other. When the goombay bands fall into the gently sentimental strains of My Little Island he will remember the pines of Abaco or the bays of Eleuthera or some windswept rock in the Exumas. His advice will be colored by nostalgia and possibly the fact that he still owns a parcel of land which, like most Bahamians, he is willing to let you buy. Exacting a promise from a Nassau friend of mine that he would show me no real estate, I went with him to Eleuthera—a half hour's flight eastwards from Nassau.

In London in 1647, an investment of £100 would buy a membership in the Company of Eleutherian Adventurers, entitling a man to 300 / acres in the main settlement, thirty-five acres for each member of his household and 2,000 acres outside the settlement. Aside from these practical considerations the Adventurers, like the Pilgrims, were seeking religious freedom. The Greek word eleutheros means free, but for a time, after they were wrecked on the island of Eleuthera, it meant largely a freedom to starve. It also apparently meant ample leisure to insure the Company's continuance in full strength. According to local tradition, when the Adventurers finally settled in what is now Governour's Harbour, all the women were pregnant, The island where they built their first houses is still appropriately known as Cupid's Cay.

It so happened that my arrival on Eleuthera coincided with the annual Eleuthera Fair, held each April to raise funds for the upkeep of the Governour's Harbour hospital. I suppose you could say that an occasion like this was not typical;. On the other hand it offered a concentration of the entire island population, both black and white, such as you wouldn't find on an ordinary day. Awestruck or graciously smiling, according to their positions on the social scale, they wandered about the fair booths or stood listening to speeches by the governor, the premier, the commissioner of education and half a dozen other dignitaries. A band played, the wheels-of-fortune spun, flags and bunting and banners lettered Welcome to Our Governor and God Save The Queen flapped in the hot wind above the dust, the smoke of barbecues and the drifting pink wisps of cotton candy.

They were all here. There was the lady from Upper Bogue whose woven purse won a prize in the exhibition of native crafts. There were the four Thompson brothers, pineapple growers from Gregory Town, splendidly dressed in identical ruffled silk shirts and scarlet blazers embroidered with a gold pineapple for a pocket patch. There was Mrs. Austin Levy from Hatchet Bay, who gave the hospital in the first place and who today endeared herself even more by taking off her shoes and resting her feet in the shade of the causaurinas by the side of the fair grounds. Miss Enid Bethel, a direct descendant of the Eleutherian Adventurers, a business-woman of wide interests and treasurer of the fair, dashed tirelessly about making change and scooping up shillings and pence. Anglican clergymen in round collars, priests in black soutanes, an army officer looking imperturbably British and cool in the thickest of blue-serge uniforms, gave off a benevolent air of approval.

< 1 2 3 4 5 6 >