Spring Break

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From early times the Bahamas have enjoyed the notion of themselves as the “Isles of Perpetual June,” and more than one piece of tourist literature has assigned that sentiment to George Washington, who supposedly visited as a young man. In fact, there is no proof to tell us that Washington spoke well of the Bahama Islands, or that he slept here. But his countrymen certainly have—by the millions. Some came as refugees, some as tourists, some to pursue the cause of war, and some to drink elixirs forbidden to them back home by the Volstead Act.

In 1923 an Englishman on holiday observed: “The Bahamas are so much nearer to the United States than to England that, if you take an American off his guard, you will find him speaking of them as if they were an additional state, or at least a territory.”

Last March, when winter still blew chill in New York, I caught a wave into Nassau, a vast American wave called Spring Break. College kids by the exuberant hundreds poured into the oncestately British Colonial hotel just as I arrived; on the receding wave an equivalent number were checking out. Spring Break lasts a good, long month in Nassau, an intelligence some of us over the age of thirty discovered and quickly shared, feeling slightly sheepish about our elder-statesman status. And a little cranky. Even after a relatively short flight, the last thing a traveler needs to hear is “Your room won’t be ready for three hours; why don’t you go out and get familiar with the town?” Remembering to slip a broad-brimmed hat from my bag, set amidst luggage that grew like a Lego set around the front desk, that’s what I obediently did.

Only to discover that the fleet, in a sense, was in town too. At the docks that edge Bay Street rose decks and stacks of huge cruise ships. Their passengers thronged Bay Street, buying from its fast-food emporiums, its Cartier boutique, and its straw market. Bay Street was a jumble and a jostle; it was noisy with traffic and the sun was searing, yet after a minute or two it seemed to spin back to the color and life of another time.

Later I read in a 1934 guidebook, “Here modernity is merely a cloak worn over an interesting old body whose pulse still beats to the tempo of the more leisurely ages.” Nearly sixty years after that observation, even as “modernity” has multiplied a thousandfold, the older Nassau still speaks.

Seven hundred islands and close to twenty-five hundred islets make up the Bahamas, with Bimini the nearest to North America. Although many places are claimed for Columbus’s first landing, the Bahamian island of San Salvador still is considered a prime candidate. In 1992 various commemorations were under way, as the argument raged over whether the New World had gained or lost the more by the incursions of the old. Exhibits and lectures throughout the islands mainly focused on the original Arawak Indian culture that was wiped out by the first Spanish visitors.

The English arrivals of 1648, members of a Pilgrim sect fleeing religious persecution in Bermuda, fetched up on the shores of an island bearing the native name of Cigateo or Segatto. They renamed it Eleuthera from the Greek word for freedom, and there they forged what Bahamians pride themselves as being the first republic in the New World. The Article and Orders of the Company of Eleutherian Adventurers, published on July 9, 1647, states, “The peace and happy progress of all Plantations doth much depend upon the good government thereof, the equal distribution of justice, and respect of all persons.” However much seventeenth century life on Eleuthera may have fallen short of this standard, the document itself is extraordinary, embodying, as Paul Albury, a Bahamian historian, says, “some vital germs of democracy.”

Despite that noble start, the nearly 350 years of Bahamian history that followed have been colored by the most raffish and nose-thumbing events. The location of the vast lacework of islands in the heart of the North Atlantic and Caribbean shipping lanes allowed the privateer and the pirate to see their advantage, take it, and, perhaps, never let it go. In 1982, writing for National Geographic , Peter Benchley passed along warnings found in newspapers and boating magazines “about yachts attacked and boarded by drug-runners seeking ‘clean’ boats on which to sneak into the United States.” (Lately things have quieted down, and the Bahamas have been removed from the State Department’s regularly revised travel advisory.)

For the merchant pirate of the 1700s, Nassau was the commercial heart. And it was gunpowder stored at Fort Montagu on the edge of town that inspired a raid by the fledgling American navy in February 1776. Commodore Esek Hopkins didn’t attempt a permanent base; those who did were British Loyalists of the 1780s who brought their slaves and misguided dreams of a cotton culture. Their plantations early succumbed to worms and insects, but the refugees remained to set their stamp on Bahamian life as shipbuilders and commercial leaders.

Although periodically decimated by fire and hurricane, Nassau always roared back to life, enjoying vast profits, for instance, by harboring blockade-runners during the Civil War, and, again, by allowing rumrunners to flourish during America’s years of Prohibition.