The History of the
island of Exuma, Bahamas is full of events that still remain an
important part of the Island culture today. Peace and Plenty proudly
presents you with a brief overview of the history in five parts.
In addition, you will see that our resorts and special packages
often reflect this history and the culture of the island of Exuma.
Little is known about pre-Columbian times, but it is widely accepted
that Exuma, like other Bahamian Islands, was settled by peaceful
Lucayan Indians who had migrated northward to escape conflict with
the more warlike Caribs. And while the name Exuma is believed to
have its origins in some Indian name, its precise derivation has
never been established.
The coming of the Spanish, in the
wake of Columbus's voyages, brought the first convulsive change
to Exuma and the islands of the area. Virtually all the Lucayan
Indians were captured, enslaved and put to work in the fields and
mines of Spanish-held territory in Hispaniola arid Central and South
America. The Bahama Islands were then left empty and ignored unfit
about 1648, when Englishmen - calling themselves the Eleutheran
Adventurers - settled the northern part of the island now called
Eleuthera. While the British settlements expanded in subsequent
years to include New Providence and Harbour Island, most of the
other Out Islands remained virtually uninhabited until late in the
1700's. On Exuma there was some salt raking activity near Ocean
Bight and at the three salt ponds in Little Exuma.
Loyalists from America
During most of the 18th century the islands of the Bahamas, lying
astride Spanish sailing routes from the Caribbean, were contested
by the British and Spanish - a matter unresolved until the Treaty
of Versailles in 1783. In this pact, England gained uncontested
rights to the Bahamas while ceding the peninsula of Florida to Spain.
Then, with the arrival in the Bahamas
of the British loyalists from colonial America beginning in 1783,
Exuma experienced its second major upheaval. This Loyalist immigration
ushered in a new era and laid the foundation for Exuma's modem history.
The American Revolution had ended, and as a result of the British
defeat, many colonists who had remained loyal to the British Crown
were in serious trouble. Convicted of treason, their property confiscated,
and ostracized by their neighbors they were forced to leave the
former colonies, (including Florida recently ceded to Spain). In
an effort to aid these loyal, unfortunate subjects, the British
government offered some financial compensation and extensive land
grants in the virtually empty Bahamas.
Several of these beleaguered Loyalists
came to Exuma and, since most of them were from the Carolinas, Georgia
and Florida, cotton culture was at the core of their hopes for the
future. England was hungry for cotton, paying high prices and the
mills in Manchester were operating at capacity to meet the demand,
offering the Loyalists an opportunity to recoup the losses suffered
in the American colonies. For about 15 years - from the mid 1780's
until the turn of the century - Exuma flourished. With a few exceptions
the entire island was divided into Loyalist land grants, most of
which were cleared by the slash-and-burn technique, and field after
field was devoted to the growing of cotton. These new landowners
came to the island with slaves brought from the southern colonies
since slave labor was a necessity if the cotton economy was to flourish.
Additional slaves were imported from West Africa and there was a
small slave market at the then Bowe's Tavern, believed to have been
on the site of the present Peace and Plenty Hotel.
In this prosperous period, the Port
of Exuma was an active, bustling waterfront. There were at least
two merchants, Walter Brown and Thomas Teffair and Co., that carried
extensive stocks of clothing, food and household needs from England.
Vessels departed the island direct for London and Liverpool loaded
with cotton and often carrying passengers as well. And, of course,
there was frequent boat traffic to and from Nassau - the seat of
government. The Loyalists, having become a majority of the population
in the Bahamas, gradually assumed - after much political struggle
- leadership in the General assembly. Exuma gained its first representation
in that body with three members elected in 1784. Several Exumians
were prominent in the politics of the colony and John Kelsall, from
Little Exuma, was chosen as the Speaker of the Assembly in 1794.
There is no evidence that the plantation
houses on Exuma were in any way grand or imposing. Perhaps the Loyalist
settlers decided to begin with modest buildings, believing they
could be expanded or re-built once the new enterprises were safely
launched and thriving. Probably the most extensive facilities of
this period were the Kelsall estates in Little Exuma and those on
Crab Cay believed to have been built by William Walker. Many of
the old walls and foundations of other estates can still be found
in Exuma's undergrowth.
A road was built the length of both
Great and Little Exuma, probably in much the same location as the
present Queen's Highway. Each landowner was responsible for that
section of the road on his property and, as a result, was not always
in good shape. While much of the intra-island travel was by horse,
many of the estates had "back landings" on the south-west
side of the island and these properties communicated by small shallow
draft sail boats along this lee shore.
Some of the Exuma loyalists held
land grants here, but spent much of their time in Nassau occupied
with trade, business or the legal profession, their cotton enterprises
being managed by overseers. On the other hand there were full time
residents on the island and the more prominent ones could be likened
to an Exuma Chamber of Commerce. They maintained an active interest
in the affairs of the island, serving as Commissioners of Roads,
on a committee to build a church, as representatives to the General
assembly, etc. The record of these times is replete with such names
as John Kelsall, Jacob Winfree, Charles Dames, Thomas Forbes, John
Mowbray, Walter Brown, Nathaniel Hall, Nicholas Almgreen, William
Clarke, Martin Jollie, Benjamin Morley and John Stewart.
In 1791, a bill was introduced before
the General assembly in Nassau "to purchase a piece of Ground
on the Island of Great Exuma and thereon to lay out a Town".
The bill was finally approved in 1792, the town established in 1793,
and lots were offered for sale in 1794. The new community was named
"Georgetown," (spelled as one word in those days) after
George III, King of England. This year, 1993, we celebrate the 200th
Anniversary of its founding.
In those years, the state religion
was the Church of England - or the Anglican Church - where the Loyalists
worshipped. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, the Anglican
missionary arm, sent out the Rev. Twining to Exuma in 1787. After
the ministry of several missionaries, a church building was erected
and consecrated in 1802 The present St. Andrew's structure is reported
to be the third church building to stand on this site. The Anglicans
never gave much consideration to the slave population and it was
not until early in the 1880's that the "dissident" churches
- the Baptists and Methodists - actively proselyted the slaves under
the banner of emancipation. A school, apparently very modest, was
constructed by the Church.
Failure of the Cotton Culture
The beginning of the 19th Century introduced to Exuma (and to the
other islands of the Bahamas) the third, and tragic, turning point
in its history: the failure of cotton crops. It was a slow, creeping
catastrophe for the Loyalists and from this time on their fortunes
took a steady downward course.
The original soil of Exuma had limited
capacity at best with only a thin layer of topsoil atop coral sand
or harder coral base material. While these conditions supported
some virgin growth, virtually all the soil was removed as the Loyalists
cleared the land for their cotton fields. As a result the soil was
then exposed, vulnerable to high winds, the occasional downpours
and the rare hurricanes that beset the island. The land was then
overplanted and exhausted with no means to revitalize it and the
weakened plants also became infested with chenille bug, a caterpillar-like
worm that turned the cotton fibers a reddish color.
The government of the colony attempted
to act, but its efforts were ineffective. Investigations were conducted;
questionnaires were sent to the prominent planters asking for opinion
and advice; and the assembly was quickly adjourned to permit the
members to return to their troubled fields. But even the most experienced
and knowledgeable planters saw little hope for successful cotton
growing in the future. By 1802, the reign of the cotton economy
was dead, never to rule again on Exuma or elsewhere in the Islands.
Planters began to drift away. Some went to Nassau to enter business
or trade, some few went to England, others returned to the United
States where the climate had improved for returning Loyalists. A
handful stayed on in Exuma, hoping to resuscitate their cotton fields,
and some probably had nowhere else to go. Efforts were made to sell
properties. but under these depressed conditions sales were rarely
successful. In many cases, the lands were simply abandoned and the
slaves left to shift for themselves.
Coincidentally with the decline of the cotton estates, the abolition
movement was gaining momentum and strength in England. This led
to the fourth major event that would influence Exuma's future: the
emancipation of the slaves. Beginning in the first decade of the
1800's, the Parliament in Britain began enacting resolutions designed
to restrict the slave trade, improve the treatment of slaves, and
establish certain slave rights. Most of these measures, opposed
by the Colonies in the West Indies, were reluctantly ratified by
the Bahamas General assembly and not strictly enforced. But the
tide favoring the abolition of slavery continued to rise, and the
result was predictable. There were several instances of slave unrest,
in 1829 there was a revolt on the Rolle plantations in Exuma and
in 1833, Governor Smythe had to send 55 armed men to Exuma to stabilize
the situation. In the same year, the Emancipation Act Was passed
in the British Parliament.
The Bahamas General assembly bowed
to the inevitable and enacted laws that would free the slaves. An
"apprenticeship" period was to begin on August 1st, 1834
with full freedom to be realized in 1840. This so-called apprenticeship
was vacuous, impossible to administer and all slaves were actually
freed on August 1st, 1838.
By this time, the old Loyalist estates
in Exuma were in shambles. The end of slavery destroyed the last
hope of reviving a viable agricultural economy on the Island and
most descendants of the old Loyalists families had died or left
years before. But a few did remain and, for example, there are some
present day Exumians who trace their ancestry back to Nicholas Almgreen.
The slaves were now free, but they
were essentially abandoned on worn-out, non-productive land, having
few skills aside from farming. Under these conditions they subsisted.
In most cases, they had assumed their slave master's names and continued
to work the land for their own support. Since Lord John Rolle was
by far Exuma's largest land owner and slave holder, the Rolle name
is proudly borne by many, many Exumians - reported to be near one
third of the population. On much of tile land property titles were
confused. But by purchase, grant, gift, inheritance or squatting
most of the land gradually came to be owned by the former slaves
and their descendants.
It is indeed a tribute to the strength
and fortitude of Exumians who persisted during the next century,
raising families and supporting themselves with a number of aid
and support from the colonial government. It was not until World
War II, and the years that followed that tourism began to provide
some measure of prosperity for the Island. As more and more people
from the United States and Europe came to appreciate Exuma's beauty
and advantages, tourism, yachting and winter residents began to
contribute to the economy. Jobs were created, local enterprises
started up and a new era of slow growth was begun.
Finally, in Exuma's fifth major milestone
the Bahamas became an independent nation in 1973, casting off its
last colonial links with Great Britain. This transition from colonial
status to independence was achieved peacefully and smoothly, much
to the credit of its citizens, the Bahamas is now a democracy in
its own right with free elections and a free press and with Exuma
playing a significant role as one of tile major Family Islands.