Amidst 17th century religious and political turmoil that pushed the Pilgrim Fathers to leave England and settle in America, approximately seventy Puritans led by Captain William Sayle fled the English colony of Bermuda to seek religious freedom in the Bahamas. Often credited as the first English settlers in the Bahamas, these brave adventurers crossed the unforgiving Atlantic Ocean in a ship, the William.
As the ship neared the Bahama islands, it struck the notorious Devil’s Backbone reef. One human life along with all provisions were lost. The passengers and crew frantically swam to the island’s shore where they found refuge inside a limestone cave, traditionally known as Preacher’s Cave.
These adventurers called the island Eleutheria (now Eleuthera), from the Greek word for freedom.
Puritans in Massachusetts learned about the misfortune of these Bermudian exiles, who were in desperate need of food. In 1650, they shipped provisions to these starving emigrants. In gratitude, the Eleutherian Adventurers sent the ship back to Boston filled with braziletto wood, a source of red dye. The proceeds from the sale of this wood was a large gift to Harvard College.
Preacher’s Cave stands as a reminder of the plight and price of freedom. I share with permission my cousin Joy Lowe Jossi’s memoirs of her adventure in Eleuthera earlier this year…
Some messages flit in and fall. Others gather embellishment to make the original unrecognizable. Two solid rock messages emerged during my winter 2016 Bahamas stay. Pieces of the early Bahamas settlers took rock form for me during my six weeks of quiet delight at Spanish Wells on St. George’s Cay. My niece, Marie Pinder Ratcliffe, heard that I had not seen the Preacher’s Cave on the northern end of Eleuthera. This historic landmark is where the 1646 group of religious refugees sheltered after their ship tangled with the Devil’s Backbone reef. She decided that my love of the Bahamas people history needed a visit to Preacher’s Cave. She planned my highlight experience.
We drove to the Spanish Wells dock in their van, parked and exited. A local operator’s small one-vehicle barge waited for us. He drove the van onto the barge. Secured it. We walked on.
Our expedition group stood around the vehicle in transport. The younger barge operator-owner produced a chair for the senior passenger’s comfort-safety. A short ride in the channel to the mainland of Eleuthera ensued.
Atop the smooth, aqua, warm sea we glided. As I observed this entrepreneur’s business make-do’s, I chuckled to myself in recall of the slogan, It’s better in the Bahamas.
Single side ropes serve to keep us on board. Life jackets do not come with the barge package. Swim ability is expected. I happened to know that our group can swim. Upon arrival at the mainland, Grandma remained seated, watched the younger members clamber up the planks onto the dock. The offered hand of the barge operator helped me walk the plank. Marie’s husband, Richard, reversed the van off the barge. His obedient eye and hand on the wheel followed the operator’s direction.
With safe delivery on Eleuthera land, eight of us scrambled into the four-wheel tour car. Drove a few miles along the scrub bushes to the marked Preacher’s Cave turn off. What is the significance of Preacher’s Cave? From accounts that I heard and read over seven decades, and an old unimpressive picture, I envisioned a small underground cave.
We walked a trail that soon opened to a cleared area. What a surprise! A giant cave opening loomed under a hill cover.
The cave entrance sits on ground level with wide open-arms welcome. Nothing like I had imagined. A hilltop roof runs above the cave. Trees grow on the rock mound.
This cave under a 30-40 foot high hill, sits only 150 yards from the shoreline! I listen and hear the ocean breakers roar on the Devil’s Backbone reef. The reef still rages a white froth message. It reigns in this territory by its hidden underwater rocky threat.
Marie or Richard took a photo of the van’s other occupants. Right to left: their daughters Nicole and Sarah, my son Dan, his son Noah and daughter Gracie, grandma.
We visited this cave of divine providence that offered refuge to the stranded survivors. Our younger explorers headed to the cave back. I sat on a fallen chunk of limestone at the entrance. Soon I’m lost in wonderment to absorb the scene’s rich history. The sandy floor would serve well for rest after the shipwreck experience. The spacious room can easily accommodate more than 100 souls. Facing east, I envision their new day rise to a warm sunshine smile.
This photo, courtesy of Marie’s sister Helen Pinder, looks out of the cave entry along the path we walked. Time and weather have opened a few holes in the cave roof to heavenly sunshine. Farther back in the cave, my family climbed rocks to a passage. Through one hole Dan and Noah climbed the cave rocks to the hilltop.
We wished we could pinpoint the cave’s dig site done under the direction of Florida archaeologist Bob Carr. The DNA tested remains of dwarf bones reveal the fact of a Jewish match. Today at Spanish Wells, dwarfs continue to be born. Without asking, I know of at least six young dwarfs on Spanish Wells today among 1500 residents.
A few miles east of Preacher’s Cave, we can reach Harbour Island. Many Bahamians trace roots to that location. Today an airport for north Eleuthera sits on the mainland between Harbour Island and Spanish Wells. A good road links the two places. Boats assist passengers for both places. A fast ferry runs to Harbour Island and Spanish Wells daily from, and back to Nassau late afternoon.
On the inside, a 76-yr-old little girl jumps with glee for this experience on North Eleuthera. On the short walk to the beach, my eyes viewed the signal line of whitecaps above the reef. Local mariners have a wary respect for the Devil’s Backbone reef. Safety dictates distance.
Offshore the north Eleuthera mainland, the wide row of whitecap waves roll. Experienced mariners know that these indicate the presence of the Devil’s Backbone reef. It still waits to undo unsuspecting ships. This treacherous area requires knowledgeable, wise seaman. Impassable at times, the shoreline must be hugged to evade the reef.
Captain William Sayle, with a group from Bermuda in 1646, learned too late about this reef—the William wrecked here. One passenger only did not make it safe to the nearby shore. Once on land no doubt they scouted the terrain. Saw the green hill rise 30-40 feet. Close to the beach, and at ground level, a HUGE cave opening waited for them. In the 70-80 feet wide entry, I see God’s wide-stretched welcome. This shelter He prepared for them. I imagine and feel their grateful praises and songs for safe delivery from the Devil’s Backbone.
Who came to the rescue of these Eleutheran Adventurers? English merchants had financed the expedition. Our Father God of love provided them shelter. He gives faith for us to trust Him for our needed sustenance. Coconut milk and meat, abundant fish, wild berries, and more supply available. Virgin woods ready to cut. History records the fact of wood collected by the survivors and donated to build Harvard University in exchange for needed supplies.
A second solid rock story from our early Bahamas settlers lures my mind to sail along. West of Preacher’s Cave, and within sight of Spanish Wells, lies a point called Ridley’s Head. Who was Ridley? I’ve seen that early Bahamas surname RIDLEY in research records!
Yes, we find the name Daniel Ridley of Bermuda, born about 1630. His daughter Elizabeth Ridley married Daniel Pinder, son of Timothy Pinder. A guestimate gives Elizabeth Ridley and Daniel Pinder birth dates about 1660. They named a son Ridley Pinder, born about 1690. This Ridley Pinder named his son Daniel Pinder. Descendant generations in the Bahamas repeated the name Ridley Pinder.
Papa Daniel Ridley remains on watch for his Spanish Wells PINDER descendants – we see their houses in the photo background.
A few Pinder families—one in my maternal line—sailed northwest about 1800 to live at Great Abaco and joined the American Revolution Loyalist newcomers. Abaco is closer to Eleuthera than its 100-mile distance to Nassau.
We note these solid evidences God has left for us. His divine sculpture stands through centuries in the brown, saltwater-weathered rock. This tall story looms 30-feet high in Ridley’s profile. Our Almighty God preserves for us this rock history.
Today the Pinder surname dominates the Spanish Wells telephone directory pages. Do today’s Spanish Wells children know the truth etched in the name, Ridley’s Head? Have they learned to appreciate this landmark?
To descendants of Preacher’s Cave Dwellers—I am one—most interesting facts bubble up when we stir the pot. Paper trails show blanks. Dead ends now open with DNA fireworks glow. Brings bright hope in facts, while the sparkles fade and fall. New paths invite us. I am left with more questions. My mind search finds rest in the truth of our common fore parents, Adam and Eve. Related we are. Externals vary while we share common heart needs. Our Creator-Maker prompts the inner longing to discover our people. I find my life purpose when I turn to Him.
The reef encounter caused wrecks and loss. Who first found the nearby cave dwelling? Divine provision encourages us to forge ahead. Did the wreck result in the hardy, resilience found in our island people?
Fast forward to us in 2016. We seek to reconstruct family history. History does repeat itself.
My nephew Colin Lowe, instructed me, “We can see the distinct profile of Ridley’s Head from one vantage spot on the sea near the shore as we pass the rock en route from Harbour Island to Spanish Wells. I have a photo of it.” Colin shared his photo of the shoreline head, long known as Ridley’s Head. Wow! News to me. Engraved and preserved in rock by the Master Sculptor.
The color photo of Ridley’s Head promontory shows Spanish Wells on Saint George’s Cay in the background. As I walked the beach on Spanish Wells each morning, I watched the sun rise behind Ridley’s Head. Unknown to me was the fact that the man’s silhouette in rock-bold form lay with a message to us. Papa Ridley’s head stands as a historical marker of an Eleutheran Adventurer. His outlook declares to us, Beware of the Devil’s Backbone.
On a high rock point, Papa Ridley reminds his highly blessed and favoured descendants, Give assent to your pioneer parents. We are called to preserve in story the solid rock evidences left by our Father. The reminder to future generations almost causes me to hear Ridley sing, On Christ the Solid Rock I stand. All other ground is sinking sand.
Life on Eleuthera was extremely hard. Some of the settlers returned to Bermuda. Those resilient few who stayed established foundational Bahamian settlements including Spanish Wells and Harbour Island.
These are the earliest known beginnings of our roots in the Bahamas.