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History
 

The History of the island of Exuma, Bahamas is full of events that still remain an important part of the Island culture today. Peace and Plenty proudly presents you with a brief overview of the history in five parts. In addition, you will see that our resorts and special packages often reflect this history and the culture of the island of Exuma.


Lucayan Indians
Little is known about pre-Columbian times, but it is widely accepted that Exuma, like other Bahamian Islands, was settled by peaceful Lucayan Indians who had migrated northward to escape conflict with the more warlike Caribs. And while the name Exuma is believed to have its origins in some Indian name, its precise derivation has never been established.

The coming of the Spanish, in the wake of Columbus's voyages, brought the first convulsive change to Exuma and the islands of the area. Virtually all the Lucayan Indians were captured, enslaved and put to work in the fields and mines of Spanish-held territory in Hispaniola arid Central and South America. The Bahama Islands were then left empty and ignored unfit about 1648, when Englishmen - calling themselves the Eleutheran Adventurers - settled the northern part of the island now called Eleuthera. While the British settlements expanded in subsequent years to include New Providence and Harbour Island, most of the other Out Islands remained virtually uninhabited until late in the 1700's. On Exuma there was some salt raking activity near Ocean Bight and at the three salt ponds in Little Exuma.

Loyalists from America
During most of the 18th century the islands of the Bahamas, lying astride Spanish sailing routes from the Caribbean, were contested by the British and Spanish - a matter unresolved until the Treaty of Versailles in 1783. In this pact, England gained uncontested rights to the Bahamas while ceding the peninsula of Florida to Spain.

Then, with the arrival in the Bahamas of the British loyalists from colonial America beginning in 1783, Exuma experienced its second major upheaval. This Loyalist immigration ushered in a new era and laid the foundation for Exuma's modem history. The American Revolution had ended, and as a result of the British defeat, many colonists who had remained loyal to the British Crown were in serious trouble. Convicted of treason, their property confiscated, and ostracized by their neighbors they were forced to leave the former colonies, (including Florida recently ceded to Spain). In an effort to aid these loyal, unfortunate subjects, the British government offered some financial compensation and extensive land grants in the virtually empty Bahamas.

Several of these beleaguered Loyalists came to Exuma and, since most of them were from the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida, cotton culture was at the core of their hopes for the future. England was hungry for cotton, paying high prices and the mills in Manchester were operating at capacity to meet the demand, offering the Loyalists an opportunity to recoup the losses suffered in the American colonies. For about 15 years - from the mid 1780's until the turn of the century - Exuma flourished. With a few exceptions the entire island was divided into Loyalist land grants, most of which were cleared by the slash-and-burn technique, and field after field was devoted to the growing of cotton. These new landowners came to the island with slaves brought from the southern colonies since slave labor was a necessity if the cotton economy was to flourish. Additional slaves were imported from West Africa and there was a small slave market at the then Bowe's Tavern, believed to have been on the site of the present Peace and Plenty Hotel.

In this prosperous period, the Port of Exuma was an active, bustling waterfront. There were at least two merchants, Walter Brown and Thomas Teffair and Co., that carried extensive stocks of clothing, food and household needs from England. Vessels departed the island direct for London and Liverpool loaded with cotton and often carrying passengers as well. And, of course, there was frequent boat traffic to and from Nassau - the seat of government. The Loyalists, having become a majority of the population in the Bahamas, gradually assumed - after much political struggle - leadership in the General assembly. Exuma gained its first representation in that body with three members elected in 1784. Several Exumians were prominent in the politics of the colony and John Kelsall, from Little Exuma, was chosen as the Speaker of the Assembly in 1794.

There is no evidence that the plantation houses on Exuma were in any way grand or imposing. Perhaps the Loyalist settlers decided to begin with modest buildings, believing they could be expanded or re-built once the new enterprises were safely launched and thriving. Probably the most extensive facilities of this period were the Kelsall estates in Little Exuma and those on Crab Cay believed to have been built by William Walker. Many of the old walls and foundations of other estates can still be found in Exuma's undergrowth.

A road was built the length of both Great and Little Exuma, probably in much the same location as the present Queen's Highway. Each landowner was responsible for that section of the road on his property and, as a result, was not always in good shape. While much of the intra-island travel was by horse, many of the estates had "back landings" on the south-west side of the island and these properties communicated by small shallow draft sail boats along this lee shore.

Some of the Exuma loyalists held land grants here, but spent much of their time in Nassau occupied with trade, business or the legal profession, their cotton enterprises being managed by overseers. On the other hand there were full time residents on the island and the more prominent ones could be likened to an Exuma Chamber of Commerce. They maintained an active interest in the affairs of the island, serving as Commissioners of Roads, on a committee to build a church, as representatives to the General assembly, etc. The record of these times is replete with such names as John Kelsall, Jacob Winfree, Charles Dames, Thomas Forbes, John Mowbray, Walter Brown, Nathaniel Hall, Nicholas Almgreen, William Clarke, Martin Jollie, Benjamin Morley and John Stewart.

In 1791, a bill was introduced before the General assembly in Nassau "to purchase a piece of Ground on the Island of Great Exuma and thereon to lay out a Town". The bill was finally approved in 1792, the town established in 1793, and lots were offered for sale in 1794. The new community was named "Georgetown," (spelled as one word in those days) after George III, King of England. This year, 1993, we celebrate the 200th Anniversary of its founding.

In those years, the state religion was the Church of England - or the Anglican Church - where the Loyalists worshipped. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, the Anglican missionary arm, sent out the Rev. Twining to Exuma in 1787. After the ministry of several missionaries, a church building was erected and consecrated in 1802 The present St. Andrew's structure is reported to be the third church building to stand on this site. The Anglicans never gave much consideration to the slave population and it was not until early in the 1880's that the "dissident" churches - the Baptists and Methodists - actively proselyted the slaves under the banner of emancipation. A school, apparently very modest, was constructed by the Church.


Failure of the Cotton Culture
The beginning of the 19th Century introduced to Exuma (and to the other islands of the Bahamas) the third, and tragic, turning point in its history: the failure of cotton crops. It was a slow, creeping catastrophe for the Loyalists and from this time on their fortunes took a steady downward course.

The original soil of Exuma had limited capacity at best with only a thin layer of topsoil atop coral sand or harder coral base material. While these conditions supported some virgin growth, virtually all the soil was removed as the Loyalists cleared the land for their cotton fields. As a result the soil was then exposed, vulnerable to high winds, the occasional downpours and the rare hurricanes that beset the island. The land was then overplanted and exhausted with no means to revitalize it and the weakened plants also became infested with chenille bug, a caterpillar-like worm that turned the cotton fibers a reddish color.

The government of the colony attempted to act, but its efforts were ineffective. Investigations were conducted; questionnaires were sent to the prominent planters asking for opinion and advice; and the assembly was quickly adjourned to permit the members to return to their troubled fields. But even the most experienced and knowledgeable planters saw little hope for successful cotton growing in the future. By 1802, the reign of the cotton economy was dead, never to rule again on Exuma or elsewhere in the Islands. Planters began to drift away. Some went to Nassau to enter business or trade, some few went to England, others returned to the United States where the climate had improved for returning Loyalists. A handful stayed on in Exuma, hoping to resuscitate their cotton fields, and some probably had nowhere else to go. Efforts were made to sell properties. but under these depressed conditions sales were rarely successful. In many cases, the lands were simply abandoned and the slaves left to shift for themselves.


Emancipation
Coincidentally with the decline of the cotton estates, the abolition movement was gaining momentum and strength in England. This led to the fourth major event that would influence Exuma's future: the emancipation of the slaves. Beginning in the first decade of the 1800's, the Parliament in Britain began enacting resolutions designed to restrict the slave trade, improve the treatment of slaves, and establish certain slave rights. Most of these measures, opposed by the Colonies in the West Indies, were reluctantly ratified by the Bahamas General assembly and not strictly enforced. But the tide favoring the abolition of slavery continued to rise, and the result was predictable. There were several instances of slave unrest, in 1829 there was a revolt on the Rolle plantations in Exuma and in 1833, Governor Smythe had to send 55 armed men to Exuma to stabilize the situation. In the same year, the Emancipation Act Was passed in the British Parliament.

The Bahamas General assembly bowed to the inevitable and enacted laws that would free the slaves. An "apprenticeship" period was to begin on August 1st, 1834 with full freedom to be realized in 1840. This so-called apprenticeship was vacuous, impossible to administer and all slaves were actually freed on August 1st, 1838.

By this time, the old Loyalist estates in Exuma were in shambles. The end of slavery destroyed the last hope of reviving a viable agricultural economy on the Island and most descendants of the old Loyalists families had died or left years before. But a few did remain and, for example, there are some present day Exumians who trace their ancestry back to Nicholas Almgreen.

The slaves were now free, but they were essentially abandoned on worn-out, non-productive land, having few skills aside from farming. Under these conditions they subsisted. In most cases, they had assumed their slave master's names and continued to work the land for their own support. Since Lord John Rolle was by far Exuma's largest land owner and slave holder, the Rolle name is proudly borne by many, many Exumians - reported to be near one third of the population. On much of tile land property titles were confused. But by purchase, grant, gift, inheritance or squatting most of the land gradually came to be owned by the former slaves and their descendants.

It is indeed a tribute to the strength and fortitude of Exumians who persisted during the next century, raising families and supporting themselves with a number of aid and support from the colonial government. It was not until World War II, and the years that followed that tourism began to provide some measure of prosperity for the Island. As more and more people from the United States and Europe came to appreciate Exuma's beauty and advantages, tourism, yachting and winter residents began to contribute to the economy. Jobs were created, local enterprises started up and a new era of slow growth was begun.

Independence

Finally, in Exuma's fifth major milestone the Bahamas became an independent nation in 1973, casting off its last colonial links with Great Britain. This transition from colonial status to independence was achieved peacefully and smoothly, much to the credit of its citizens, the Bahamas is now a democracy in its own right with free elections and a free press and with Exuma playing a significant role as one of tile major Family Islands.

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