During the 19th and 20th centuries, two Scottish brothers, William and Robert Chambers, published a weekly magazine in London. The first edition of Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art circulated in 1832 and was priced at one penny.
Recently I stumbled across an article online in their May 1867 publication. It describes a visit to my Dad’s birthplace in Green Turtle Cay, Abaco, Bahamas. While specific details of dates and passengers on this expedition remain a mystery, the article provides a perspective of the life and culture on the island during that era. My last post, Expedition to Paradise, discussed a similar voyage led by an American team approximately two decades later.
Geographically Green Turtle Cay is small. In this close-knit, maritime community, these guests would not have gone unnoticed. I wonder, Which of my great-grandparents were on the Cay and could have interacted with these foreigners? I searched my family tree. I find all my paternal great-great-grandparents, aged mainly in their forties, were rearing their families on the Cay in the 1860’s: John and Rebecca (Saunders) Lowe; Joseph and Sophia (Lowe) Curry; William and Emaline Curry; and Romelda Lowe Carleton. Several of these names were actual grandchildren of some of the earliest Abaco settlers, including South Carolina loyalists Wyannie Malone and Joseph Curry.
The excerpt from the article is below. I have added selected photographs for a visual boost.
Some thousands of miles across the Atlantic, you come to several green islands, of different size and shape. They are not situated off the stormy and inclement coasts of Newfoundland or Labrader, but far away to the south, where the cocoanut tree ripens its fruit, where the most luscious pine-apples exhale their delicious fragrance, and where the hummingbird finds a congenial home, with a flower-garden to ramble through, and honey-dew to sip. These islands, the smaller of which are called Cays, are situated just off the coast of Florida. The one of which I am about to speak lies off the north coast of the large island of Abaco, which, being almost uninhabited, is very slightly cultivated.
The smaller island of Green Turtle Cay has been settled for, I suppose, about fifty years, and has a population of about a thousand. It is five or six miles long, scarcely anywhere exceeds half a mile in width; is covered nearly all over with dense bush; has a fine natural harbour, protected from all winds; and is itself defended to a considerable extent by reefs of rock, which stem the heavy seas as they come rolling over the North Atlantic. In addition to the harbour just mentioned, there are two considerable inlets or sounds at each extremity of the island, which run in a longitudinal direction, each of them from half a mile to a mile in length.
Situated in nearly twenty-six of north latitude, the island enjoys a very mild winter climate, while its summer is oppressively hot. The means of support and occupation which the islanders in this obscure spot possess, are not so limited as might be supposed, and, in fact, with a little fresh blood direct from England or America, a good deal might be made of the place and neighbourhood. There is abundance of fish in the neighbouring seas; and the weather being almost always fine, and the sea calm, the occupation of fishing can be pursued at all times of the year. There are also lobsters, craw-fish, crabs, and occasionally most delicious turtle. There are no oysters. Prawns, which are caught in such plenty in India, and form the basis of that finest of all dishes, prawn-curry, are not found in the Bahamas. They appear, however, on the coasts of the Windward Islands.
Lobsters are caught in a peculiar manner. They are found in plenty along the side of the inlets, which penetrate the Cays. A boat is rowed along the mangrove-bushes which line the margin of these sounds, as they are called. One man is armed with a two pronged spear; a water glass is used to examine the bottom of the sea; and when a lobster is seen, he is saluted with the prongs, and hauled on board. When the tide is low, numbers are easily speared. Turtle is caught in a similar manner, but without the use of the water glass.
Besides fishing, however, there is a far more profitable occupation in which nearly every one on the island can take part. About fifty miles north-west, there is a splendid sponging-ground, and several times a year, boats proceed to this spot and return after a few weeks, each boat bringing perhaps from three hundred to five hundred dozen of sponges. These are sent to Nassau, and sold to the merchants, so that a considerable sum of money is periodically divided amongst the islanders, from a source which scarcely any other part of the world is in possession of. I have been informed that Nassau receives thirty thousand pounds a year from this trade.
The water glass is absolutely necessary in collecting sponges, which often grow at a considerable depth. A pole, from ten to twenty or thirty feet long, with a double claw fastened to the end of it, is let down to the root of the sponge, which is torn from the rock. The natives pretend this is very hard work; probably, however, it would not compare with ploughing or other of our agricultural operations. The sponges, when collected, are found to be tenanted by the worm, as it is culled, and must therefore be placed in the sun, to allow the animal to die. Afterwards, they are well washed in water, until all the animal matter is got rid of, and the bad smell dissipated, when they are brought to market. A bead of sponges of about a dozen or more may be bought for three shillings on the island of Green Turtle Cay.
These two branches of trade, with what the soil itself can yield – namely, bananas, sweet potatoes, and perhaps Indian corn – might be supposed to be quite sufficient for the support of the inhabitants, who consist of men of European and African origin, with a few of a mixed race. In addition, however, to these sources of livelihood, the inhabitants can, all of them if they like, grow oranges for the New York market. The land is cheap, and there is no tax on the produce; besides which, government land is often occupied and cultivated without having been bought at all, or any rent being paid. A negro of my acquaintance told me that he occupied in this way a small plot of land of about an acre or two, on which last summer, with the help of his son, he grew three thousand six hundred pine-apples, for which he received thirty pounds. This plot of ground is on the island of Abaco, which the people usually call the Main. It is separated from the Cay by only two or three miles of delightfully calm and clear water. My black friend having acquired so much money for a few weeks work, took, I believe, a long rest; in fact, with the help of fish and molluscs, of which there is great plenty, he had no necessity to work any more for that year.
Fruit is very cheap: one hundred limes were offered me for sixpence, a few months ago. Pine-apples are abundant, and the finest in flavour I ever tasted. The pine-apples are plucked before they are quite ripe, and shipped for New York, which port they reach in perhaps eight or ten days. There they are immediately sold to a dealer, who soon finds purchasers for them. The oranges come later in the season; they are plucked green, and ripen during the voyage.
There are two or three fruits on this island which I have not seen in other parts of the world; one of these is the alligator pear, which is of the shape of an English one, and grows on a small tree. It is not much of a fruit, but is very nice for breakfast in hot weather, when it is eaten with pepper and salt. It is one of those fruit for which one acquires a liking in a short time. It is only in season in the summer. The sapodello is another fruit which is not found in any part of India that I am acquainted with. This is a very nice fruit, und resembles bread-pudding, but is very sweet.
There are so many reefs and ledges, sounds and sandbanks, in this part of the world, that wrecks are considered a regular source of income, and the most profitable of all. In fact, although I resided on the island scarcely six months, there were not less than seven wrecks within reach of our boats. The share for salvage which the natives obtain is about half the value of the goods saved; moreover, these being sold by auction in the town, the inhabitants are able to purchase at a cheap rate many of the necessaries and even luxuries of life. In incidentally alluding to the subject of wrecking, I approach a topic of great importance to the real and permanent welfare of the Bahama Islands. It is a matter which has engaged the serious attention of the present governor, who is most laudably desirous of substituting some other occupation more in accordance with the true interests of the inhabitants, than the precarious and demoralising trade of wrecking; the gains from which are at times so great as to deprive the natives of the necessary stimulus to those industrial pursuits which their social wants inculcate. The certainty of the occurrence of a shipwreck sooner or later, naturally diverts the mind from the subject of horticulture, which ought to engage their attention. The temptation also to theft is very great, and too often yielded to. Numerous, however, as are the moral objections to the practice in question, not less so are the difficulties which stand in the way of its reform.
There are several-light houses scattered over the Bahamas, and no doubt many more are required. Still it should be borne in mind that, to make them thoroughly efficient, the keepers should be placed beyond the temptation of a bribe. A salary of eighty pounds a year, with rations for one individual, is sadly insufficient for such a purpose. When residing in that part of the world, I accidentally heard of a keeper who, in spite of the severe economy inevitable with such a salary, contrived both to drink champagne and amass a fortune of several hundred pounds. One is reminded, in short, of the Frenchman’s stone broth, which proved so delicious a repast.
One of the greatest evils connected with Green Turtle Cay is the painful uncertainty of communication. European letters are received at Nassau once a month by the mail from New York and there they will often remain for ten or twenty days, when at length, after patience is worn out from repeated disappointment, a schooner is seen approaching the island, the letters arrive, but cannot be answered until another mail has come from New York. The natives of the place, however, care very little for this uncertain communication, as they have no friends in Europe, and are not given to epistolary correspondence. They find amusement in their boats and schooners, and their daily round of occupation.
At Green Turtle Cay I made my first acquaintance with the humming-bird. His power of wing is wonderful. You are puzzled to decide whether the marvellous little creature is perched on some small twig, or standing in the air, so still is he, whilst his wings are working with tremendous rapidity. Suddenly, he will tumble two or three feet down, and instantly be suspended in mid-air, his wings giving forth their monotonous hum. Then, approaching a flower, he inserts his long bill, still standing in the air, and having extracted its sweets, darts off in another direction.
In the beginning of February, another pleasing visitor makes his appearance-the mocking-bird arrives. His song is something like that of the thrush. The natives of the Cay, however, do not appear to pay any regard to such visitants; all their interest centres in the sea, and the cry of “A wreck!” will send every man running to his boat.
But the ocean here has attractions of another kind. The Bahamas are celebrated for their shells. Some very fine ones are occasionally found on this island, which entirely put to shame anything of the kind which is found on the coasts of India or England. A week’s sojourn on the Cay, if they could suddenly be transported there, would be an immense treat to the frequenters of Scarborough or Brighton. The variety of bushes (some in flower), ferns, &c, would afford amusement to those of horticultural tastes; while the gyrations of the humming-bird, of which there are several species, would be a perpetual source of delight both to old and young. What a never ending source of interest would be offered by that great treasure-store, the sea! What untiring pedestrians would circumambulate its shores! How persevering would be the idolaters of the little shrines, with their doorways of pearl, and their sculptured ornament, fabricated by the creatures of these clear green waters!
For Christmas my wife gave me the recently published coffee table book Those Who Stayed by cousin Amanda Diedrick. The book is illustrated with historic photos and impressive paintings by Bahamian artist Alton Lowe. A must-read for any Bahamian or guest who desires to drop anchor near this charming fishing settlement village, its narrow streets, clapboard homes and colourful flowers reminiscent of a New England town.
To my pleasant surprise, the author included an excerpt of the Chambers article in her book. She discovered this “fascinating glimpse” in Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald published in September 1867. How amazing that this small, remote settlement on Green Turtle Cay charms lands across the globe, even during the 1860’s!