- Historic Sites
February/march 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 1
On a walk through town, just a block north of Bay Street, traffic thins out, quiet descends, and on every street one can find what that English visitor of 1934 called “old places round which strange memories cling.” The pink octagonal public library, one of the oldest surviving buildings in Nassau, dates from the 1790s. For years it served as the town prison; where the cells once held miscreants, students now slump over books.
Farther up Parliament Street, enclosed in a vast walled and wrecked garden, rise the poignant ruins of the city’s first and grandest hotel, the Royal Victoria. Empty for the past twenty years, the hotel was burned nearly to the ground by junkie squatters in the fall of 1991. Pieces of wall and a glimpse of archway are about all that remain of the flamingo pink Queen of Nassau. The center of city life from its 1861 opening, this was home to the raucous Blockade Runners Ball and to all manner of business and personal liaisons that were played out on the terraces of its tropical gardens and on its thirdstory veranda, which pushed out like the prow of a ship to offer a view of the sea. All the years the Royal Victoria stood empty, plans for its eventual use were hatched and then abandoned. The latest thought is to raise a national museum on this spot, incorporating what little remains of the original structure.
The townspeople know that with the burning of the hotel something important has been lost. At the same time, there is a sense afloat in Nassau that a certain coating of neglect—the lack of a proper museum, the lack of informative markers to guide the visitor along the paths of its centuriesold history—are tied up with a desire to turn away from the colonial past, to let it all fall to dust.
Although remaining a voluntary member of the British Commonwealth, the Bahamas declared independence in 1973, and the black majority took over. Most of the wealthy white Britishers and the international set left, and those who stayed seem to live with a sense of dispossession. In Nassau, at least, one feels they are in hiding behind barbed-wire walls, within sprawling houses whose latticework verandas are so shut against the street that you can’t tell if the house has been empty for years or if its owner has just gone shopping for an hour.
Bay Street was noisy, under a searing sun, and in a moment it seemed to spin back to the vibrant life of another time.
A walk along the luxurious Queen Street, just west of the British Colonial hotel, will bring you closer than anywhere else in the city’s heart to the presence of the slumbering British lion. This is the least altered of residential blocks, rising until it ends in a series of steps that open onto West Hill Street. Here, a pair of walled mansions, one pink, one yellow, stand guard. Behind the old stone walls, cracked and pitted and heaped with vines and bright flowers, a dove utters a warning cry and towering palm trees crowd out the sky. The few people around say nothing, but one senses that on this street, unlike elsewhere where warm greetings abound, a casual visitor isn’t especially welcome.
Still, there are many people of varying backgrounds who share deep roots in the Bahamas and who agree that the past doesn’t deserve neglect, however painful the process of remembering. Bay Street’s oldest building, Vendue House, points the way. A public market since the eighteenth century and a site for the slave auctions of that time, later the home of the electric and telephone companies, the handsome little Georgian structure recently underwent major restoration and opened last summer as a museum of the history of the Bahamian slave trade.