February/march 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 1
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.
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.
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.