West Indies

Hopetown, Elbow Cay and the history of Island Settlement

Hopetown, Bahamas and the History of Island Settlement in the Caribbean

How did settlers survive the early days of settlement in the Caribbean?

They sometimes ask how your family can live so far apart – Seattle and Minneapolis and Manhattan. Madrid and Brussels and Grenoble and Braunschweig. But a family far apart celebrates a reunion with a vengeance, and that makes up for it.

That furious reunion needs an antithesis, and that means a thick book. If anything, it’s a morning escape before brothers and sisters and cousins pour the first rums and tonics and grenadine. I picked up a copy of Desperate Journeys, Abandoned Souls - Edward E. Leslie’s healthy volume of true accounts of castaways. It looked thick, it looked long and it looked like a good place to get lost.

A shot of gold rum, a shot of coconut rum, a shot of triple sec, a squeeze of lemon and It's hard to get lost on this tiny island. It's hard to get lost on the islet of Elbow Cay - a six-mile length of Northern Bahamas sand. It is easy to get lost in a good book here. Leslie’s book is long and thoughtful accounts of survival and distant places. Genuine tales of castaways.

Hopetown, Abaco, Bahamas

Church in Hopetown, Elbow Cay, Bahamas

I was thinking about these various accounts while walking on the narrow roads of the Hopetown settlement - the only town on the island. The romance of the castaway has never intrigued me as much as the romance of a planned settlement in the islands. To understand Hopetown's history, curiously, we have to examine how both intertwined here. The Swiss Family Robinson style fictions, after all, were modeled after Robert Louis Stevenson novels, which were modeled after a real survivor. The real survivor – Alexander Selkirk – had his story annotated by a man who set the pace for British settlement in the Bahamas. This note-taker was Captain Woodes Rogers. Fiction and history, castaways and settlers.

Hopetown wraps around a West Indies harbor, but also peers out over the Atlantic Ocean. No cars allowed on its narrow streets, but cats are a different matter. Owing to a history of cat lovers, the settlement is profuse with them. Raggedy and glare eying, they stare down from their perches in gum trees and atop clapboard houses painted always in two contrasting shades of pastel. Hopetown looks pretty much how it did two hundred years ago. Only more cats, fewer wooden masts.

The castaway does not intend his fate, I wrote in my journal, and in most cases, his predicament ends in death. For the settler, however, there is a choice, and the choice necessitates a variety of skills and plans set up beforehand to cope with and then prosper in the islands. What skill-set is required to prosper in a place like this, with poor soil and blistering sun? What happens when the facts you depart with turn out to be fictitious, and your settler livelihood in a dangerous frontier proves unsuitable?

There are plenty of books and essays which discuss the loyalists who settled these cays after 1783. However, there is little in the way of direct accounts that describe how they survived those first years.

I wanted to find out, and so I went with Jane to the Wyannie Malone Museum in downtown Hopetown, to inquire which American library might have the best set of references on how the loyalists settled these cays. The attendant said, "There are no such books, check the internet!" Great, I thought, the internet - land of gossip and second-rate research.

Leading up to the American revolutionary war, about a third of the Atlantic Seaboard had allegiances to the English crown. There are a variety of reasons - wealth associated with the crown. Distrust of American soldiers. Love of the King. Perhaps, just pure English conservatism.

During the war, they had places to go. New York City was controlled by the British towards the end of the Revolutionary War. Florida did not join the colonies in its revolution. These became fleeing grounds. Loyalists fled en masse to places like New York and Florida. As defeat for the British became imminent, loyalists knew they had to flee once again. One option was Canada. If you were wealthy enough, back to England for you. The last option, and an option suggested by the 'what do we do now?' British Government. In desperation - send 'em off to the Bahamas.

Since the wealthy generally had better places to go, the folks who decided to join the meetings in shady halls deep in New York City were generally laborers - blacksmiths, carpenters, shipbuilders, farmers.

The Florida loyalists, holding their own meetings, were charmed by the accounts of delicious soil, perfect for growing cotton. Many loyalists had an armada of slaves, and everything seemed to fit: Southerners had aspirations for cotton plantations and mild weather and free land – if the Americans would win, they could re-create their lifestyle to the east.

1/2 ounce of grenadine, 1 shot mango rum, 2 shots pineapple rum and a ship bound for England, with a note from Woodes Rogers.

Reading Desperate Journeys, I was shocked to find a reference to the name Richard Parker. Richard Parker, curiously, was also the name of the tiger in the newest castaway fiction, Life of Pi, by Yann Martel. In this fiction, a boy survives the wreck of a ship whose cargo includes a variety of zoo animals. Boy and tiger become timid shipmates aboard a twenty-six foot lifeboat. Although the book is playful and certainly fictitious, we know that Martel did his research on survival. The original Richard Parker, curiously, turns out to be a young man aboard a lifeboat, who happens to be the youngest man aboard. Because of his youth, and therefore because of his lack of family, he is voted by the other three members to be the first person eaten.

Tahiti Beach

Tahiti Beach on Elbow Cay

Eaten. Most castaway accounts end up that way, it seems. It’s not always a matter of human flesh, but always gruesome. There are no direct accounts of castaways in the Northern Bahamas. But we know they were there. The Abacos were the gateway to the new world. The Northwest Providence channel – the main route to the new world for the Spanish trade routes. For the pirates that trailed them. The first chance in a cross-Atlantic voyage for an unsuspecting ship to be caught on a shoal, tossed and crushed in shallow seas. The men aboard were no doubt more resilient than their ship. Most cases meant a mile or less to shore.

Just a mile to the shade of mahogany and pine.

Because these ships would wreck in increasing multitudes, there was no doubt - regardless if you were Spanish, French or English, if you lived you were cast onto a shore dotted with bearded and sun-poisoned versions of your adversaries.

Woodes Rogers led expeditions into the South Seas in the beginning of the eighteenth century. His tales would come to be known as some of the greatest in the history of British sailing. Curiously, he rescued a man named Alexander Selkirk who had been marooned on an island off the South American coast for four years. Roger’s accounts of Selkirk’s life on ‘Greater Land’ Island, Leslie explains, was the springboard for the castaway genre.

After his career at sea, Woodes Rogers' dream was to colonize the Bahamas, largely as a means to rid it as a breeding ground for pirates. That’s what the Northern Bahamas was – it was men who had been cast ashore in wrecks. It was men who left their fleet for the bounty of other ships spoils. It was whalers in untouched terrain. It was, at the time, one of the roughest places in the new world.

Elbow Cay

This mix of whalers and pirates and castaways would ultimately teach the loyalist settlers the details of survival. It was these salty dogs that the loyalists would turn to.

Yann Martel writes in his fiction,

Butchering a turtle was hard work...It was its blood that tempted me, the "good, nutritious, salt-free drink" promised by the survival manual...I took hold of the turtle's shell and grappled with one of its back flippers. When I had a good grip, I turned it over in the water and attempted to pull it into the raft. The thing was thrashing violently...I held on to one of the turtle's back flippers with one hand and I pulled on the rope to the lifeboat with the other...I jerked the turtle in the air and brought it onto its back on the tarpaulin...{the survival manual} advised that a knife should be, "inserted into the neck" to sever the arteries and veins running through it…I jammed the knife just to the right of the turtles head, at an angle. The turtle retreated even further, favoring the side where the blade was, and suddenly shot its head forward, beak snapping at me viciously…the blood I managed to collect gave off no particular smell. I took a sip. It tasted warm and animal, if my memory is right. It’s hard to remember first impressions. I drank the blood to the last drop.

For the Abaco castaways, turtle meat was the first means to quenching hunger. The easiest thing to catch - and with some turtles weighing in at 2,000 pounds, they provided a bounty of protein. The castaways would later learn to hunt the local rodents – agoutis and hutias – big fat rat-like mammals, and to fish.

When the loyalists came, these castaway customs became their survival guide.

When the loyalists stepped foot on islands like Elbow Cay, they were shocked to find that the reports of a bountiful land of good harbors and fertile soil were completely false – they had been swindled into their lot in the Abacos. They were told that cotton grew with ease. It did, but only for a few years. The soil was such that in a few years - pests and erosion - it would quickly go bad.

Survival became a matter of tending subsistence vegetables in the shallow soil, and learning to cope with a new set of export commodities. Their first lunch - the green turtle - became prize meat, and would soon be exported to Florida and the Carolinas for its beautiful flesh.

Freshwater wells were scarce, and the loyalists figured they could build pools above their homes to collect rainwater.

That they tended to be laborers, and that their slaves were generationally tied to subtropical climates proved to be invaluable – they could build, they could repair, they could grow. They built boats and ships to compete with Boston and New York. They experimented with exporting pineapples. The same hardwoods they used for ships could be exported in their own right. They believed in cotton, but they sawed timber and picked sponges off the ocean floor.

One cup fresh lime juice, two cups simple syrup, three cups amber rum, four cups orange juice and four dashes bitters, and big brother is married. Celebrations and reunions are like beach fictions – they have a beginning and a happy end.

History, of course, like those true tales of castaways, never wraps up as neatly as the fiction it inspires, and I wanted to know more about the mysteries of early settlements of the Caribbean. The English and African American families who pitched soil here hardly left record enough to enlighten us. It’s a small history, but it’s also a colorful patchwork history with missing parts.

If only I could see for myself – if only there was a place that hasn’t changed since the eighteenth century. I guess that’s why I’m on a plane now, heading 2,000 miles south to the other side of the Caribbean Basin.

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