Benedict Thielen "The Bahamas-Golden Archipelago"

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

The Bay Street merchant is a one-man band, beating the drum of commerce with one hand, working the stops on the sweet horn of politics with the other. Since, if he is elected, he may sit in the House of Assembly as a representative of one of the Out Islands, his influence extends far beyond the shores of New Providence. Altogether he is in an enviable position, in spite of the fact that things are not quite as they were in the best of the good old days.

"My first election," a politician confided to a friend of mine, "cost me four cases of gin, salvaged off a wreck. My last one cost me almost four thousand pounds."

Like the £3,000,000 which the Ministry of Tourism annually pours into publicity and advertising the politician's £4000 was money undoubtedly well spent. The return on the government's investments—less than $7 per tourist—comes to around $100 million. Figures on the politician's return are naturally less precise but the general feeling appears to be that it is at least commensurate with the dignity of the office.

Except for a few places like Spanish Wells there are no color barriers to speak of in the Bahamas and until recently membership in the House of Assembly was about evenly divided between white and black. Since the election of 1962, however, when women voted for the first time, the House has been predominantly white. In view of the fact that Negroes far outnumber whites it is obviously the Negro woman who has put the white man in power. At first sight this seemed rather puzzling but the cook of a Nassau family that I know explained it with simple feminine realism.

"I haven't any use for the white man." she said, "But I'm not going to have any colored man telling me what to do."

It is not without reason that New Providence has been called The Gold-Plated Island. The bland climate created by the absence of inheritance, income and real-estate taxes is one / peculiarly suited to the contentment of the excessively well-heeled. greatly improved properties do call for small tax payments, but they are scarcely more than token.

Safe from the dangers of apoplexy caused by thoughts of creeping socialism in Washington, the tycoon can, as far as his temperament allows, relax. In addition, his name when mentioned in Nassau will usually include a respectful built-in parenthesis to indicate the extent of his wealth and power. It you are Mr. X (President of Glorious Motors) or Mr. Y (Chairman of the Board of Dynamic Plastics) the environment must be a pleasant one. If not, the time comes when you feel the need of being in a place where the diet is less rich.

I flew to Cat Island, southeast of Eleuthera's southern tip. I had been to some all-white islands, many racially mixed ones and in the Exumas had gone ashore at small all-black ones. I wanted to stay longer on a large island that was all-black and free of anything done with the tourist in mind. There are other islands to the south of Nassau that would have done as well except they offer no places to stay. Neither, for that matter, does Cat Island unless you happen to know its single white resident. I did which was another reason for going there.

With his hearty appetite for land, the ubiquitous Sir Harold Christie has annexed some sizeable chunks of Cat Island, and Col. Peter Wilson, formerly of the Royal Dragoons and the Trans-Jordan Frontier Force, is in charge of them. Eventually, I suppose, civilization will come to Cat Island and deface it. At present it is scarcely touched by the outside world. More than any other that I saw, it has the feel of true isolation that the words "out Island" suggest.

There are historians who believe that Cat Island, instead of nearby San Salvador, was the place where Christopher Columbus first stepped ashore in the New World. Except for this possible claim to fame, the story of Cat Island is a story of failure: the failure of the white man. Like so many of the Bahamas it was settled in the late 18th Century by Loyalists from the American mainland. Those who came to Cat Island were mostly from the Carolinas and they brought their slaves and their plantation way of life with them. They planted the land in sisal and logwood and pineapples. For a time they prospered but it was a prosperity based on slave labor and, in 1838, when the slaves were freed, it came to an end.

Here and there among the bush-grown fields and hills you can see the ruins of their manor houses, a crumbling wall or a chimney half hidden under vines. At Port Howe the old Colonel Deveraux house is still standing. Its doors and windows are gone but its roof is intact and parts of the graceful wooden balconies still hang from its second story. There is a strangely haunted quality about it. Among the traces of delicate moldings taht show on its cracked walls you can feel the dim presence of the planters and their gently bred women languishing on this alien shore.

Now and then among the island people there are also echoes of this past. There are the aquiline Semitic features of Hausa tribesmen, The dogs still look like dogs that you find only in certain parts of West Africa. One of the great landowners, Lord Rolle, at one time imported members of a particularly savage tribe who terrorized the other slaves. Today a Cat Island will say of someone who causes trouble, "What can you do with him? He's a Rolle's man."

The eastern side of the island is reef-rimmed and forbidding. The few safe anchorages lie along the western and / southern shores. It is here, strung out close by the water, that you will find the island's settlements. Their houses are well kept and freshly painted. Their sandy yards are swept clean with homemade brooms. The paths that lead to their front doors are lined with conch shells and planted with castor beans and flowering shrubs. Bananas, papaws and tomatoes grow in the pot-holes that hold a handful of earth cupped in the rock. These are the houses of poor people but also of people with decency and pride. They made me remember, by contrast, places I had seen in the Deep South and inland Maine.

"It's a hard land," Peter Wilson said as we bumped along in his dusty Land-Rover. "But I've never known anyone to go hungry. They share, and the best thing they have is always for guests." The hills of Cat Island are the highest in the Bahamas and on the highest of these, more than two hundred feet above the sea, is the curious collection of buildings called The Hermitage. With its mixture of Gothic, Byzantine and Tuscan, it is an unexpected thing to come on in this out-of-the-way spot. Its little domes and turrets are like a piece of Italy or the fragment of a Greek island lifted out of context and set down for no reason on the other side of the world. Yet they don't seem out of place.

"What is my theory of building?" wrote their creator, the architect, missionary and Franciscan monk Fra Jerome Hawes. "Well! Just to follow nature and the nature of a thing, and not to coerce it. The hermit's eyrie lair where I dwell just grows naturally out of the rock."

So do the four other churches which Far Jerome, between 1939 and 1952, kept the natives busy building. There is a rugged grace about them like the grace of the native sailing craft. There is a gentle Franciscan simplicity in the murals which Fra Jerome painted on the walls. The Saints and the Virgin are dark-skinned. St. Peter is dressed in blue jeans, and the fish he stands among are all the fish that swim in the waters of the Bahamas.

The people of Cat Island, like the rest of the Bahamians, are natural wanderers. They go to Nassau and they go to Florida as seasonal workers in the winter vegetable fields around Homestead and Lake Okeechobee. The actor Sidney Poitier happened to be born in Florida but his parents were Cat Islanders. Many of the older people once worked in the road gangs of Flagler's railroad when it was put through from Miami across the Keys to Key West. They leave but they return.

Among the men I met on Cat Island was one known as The General, a title widely used in the Bahamas for the local politician who acts as a vote-getter, adviser and liaison man between the island's representative in Nassau and the people. He too had spent many years on the mainland.

"The States are very fine," he said. "I was happy there. But in the States they run all day and never reach."

In a different way you could run all your life through the Out Islands and never arrive—which is what a Bahamian means when he says "reach." It is a long sail from True Blue to Memory Rock, from the Devil's Backbone to Delectable Bay, from Bitter Guana to the Ambergris Cays. Off the edge os Andros the undersea canyon of the Tongue of the Ocean drops down a thousand fathoms deep and there are places in the island's water-veined interior where no man has ever been. There are wild horses on Great Abaco and flamingos by the lakes of Great Iguana. The islands, their waters and their skies lie flung out like a vast preserve of space,of free-breathing openness in a daily more choked and crowded world.

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