Sunday, November 01, 2009

Rihla (Journey 9): Bahamas – Abaco Beyond and Bones

Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years.

This one is about Abaco Island, Bahamas.

My First Bonefish
(Caught and released)

Things to do before you…. whatever! I recently had the precious opportunity of being able to satisfy my curiosity about two of these undone things – fly fishing (my brother Paul is an expert fly fisherman but I had never got around to it) and a visit to the Caribbean and the Bahamas in particular. I had always wanted to visit the small Bahamian island of San Salvador where Columbus landed first, or Eleuthera where one of the greatest travellers of them all, Rosita Forbes – my other great traveller heroine is Freya Stark – resided, or the capital Nassau on New Providence Island which was the hotbed home of the pirate heroes and heroines of my childhood: Blackbeard, Vane, Anne Bonny etc.

In the end I did not get to San Salvador or Eleuthera (another time if given half a chance) but did make it to Abaco where a friend of mine Peter Mantle has recently opened a fishing lodge dedicated to fly fishing, what are considered to be the best sports fish in the world, the bonefish.

The lodge, called Delphi-Bahamas at Rolling Harbour on the Southern coast of Abaco, is truly beautiful, and an oasis of elegance and charm that separates it spiritually and physically from all that is disheartening about modern beachside development in Spain, Portugal, Bulgaria, the Caribbean, everywhere. I am acutely aware of the privilege afforded me but that said it is a place where even if you are not a fisherperson you will find respite and a place to replenish your soul.

Abaco (Ha-Bo-Ko-Wa in the Taino language of the original Lucayans meaning ‘large outer outlier' (island)) has an interesting if very recent history. It was colonised first between 500 and 800 C.E. by the Lucayan peoples, a branch of the Taino-speaking Arawak tribes of the Orinoco River delta. These gentle people who had first left their Orinoco home about 2100 B.C.E had been pushed ever northwards to island-hop by the more aggressive Carib tribes pressing behind. This gentleness was to cost them dear after the coming of the Spaniards in 1492 as most of the Bahamian islands were depopulated to provide slave labour for the development of Hispaniola and Cuba where they were to exterminated by disease and mal-treatment.

Abaco was then ignored for 100 years until the French tried to establish a colony there in 1595 (routed by the Spanish) and again in 1633 when the title of Baron des Bahamas was granted to Guilliame de Caen, a French Huguenot on condition he did not settle any of his fellow Huguenots there. It was the English however who were to establish permanent colonies, as a result of migration away from religious or political persecution, a dissent that was to always mark the islands future development. In 1647, seventy English settlers arrived on nearby Eleuthera from Bermuda and a second wave established on New Providence in 1650. By 1713 upwards of 1000 pirates (Teach, Vane, Bonney etc. were operating out of Nassau and the nearby islands such as Abaco until suppressed by the English navy and government under Woodes Rogers in 1718.

In 1783, following the Treaty of Paris, which marked the end of American War of Independence, 1458 loyalists and freed African-Americans from New York left to establish colonies in Abaco. The black migration of ‘freed men’ was undermined somewhat in that they were paired or indentured to a white migrant. By 1788 (the year of a black revolt against the indenture system) only 400 of these white settlers had remained on the island but were supplemented later by inward migration from Harbour Island nearby. This core group of white and black settlers were to remain intensely, if misguidedly, loyal to England to the extent that when the Bahamas was granted its independence in 1973 Abaco petitioned (unsuccessfully) the House of Lords in the UK to remain a crown protectorate. The island’s white people, particularly those associated with fishing and boat building still speak with a quaint early settler accent and pronunciation and derive much pleasure but little satisfaction in bemoaning the shortcomings of the central Bahamian government in Nassau.

Modern Abaco is laid back, a mixture of deep poverty in the shantytowns of recent Haitian migrants, and local pockets of prosperity bought about by the huge amount of money made and retained in the 1970’s when Abaco was a major staging post for South American cocaine transport to the US as well as the tourist infrastructural development. The people are polite and welcoming but the taxis are exorbitant. The only other place that comes close to the cost of taxis in proportion to the per capita income would be another island, Sicily. It reflects the enormous historical power the Taxi unions in the Bahamas wield because of their 1958 strike, which precipitated the beginning and ultimate achievement of Bahamian independence.

And back to Anne Bonny and the gynaecological connection! As I settled in the swing chair, waiting (pleading!) for dinner, I stared southwest towards Nassau and thought of her. Supposingly from my home county of Cork she became the mistress of a notorious pirate John "Calico Jack" Rackham, the designer of the ‘Jolly Roger’ flag of popular renown, until captured with another female pirate Mary Read with Rackham off Jamaica in 1720. Tried and found guilty they were both sentenced to be hung with the remainder of the crew until at that point of sentencing they suddenly pleaded with their bellies’ i.e that they were both pregnant. Under common law, following an inspection by matrons, if proven this allowed a reprieve of the intended sentence until the pregnancy was over. Mary Reed died in prison but Ann Bonny disappeared or was ransomed by her wealthy father never to be a pirate again.

Anne Bonny and Mary Read

(The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography states that "Evidence provided by the descendants of Anne Bonny suggests that her father managed to secure her release from jail and bring her back to Charles Town, South Carolina, where she gave birth to Rackham's second child. On December 21, 1721 she married a local man, Joseph Burleigh, and they had eight children. She died in South Carolina, a respectable woman, at the age of eighty-two and was buried on April 25, 1782.")

In 1931 the Sentence of Death (Expectant Mothers) Act 1931 was enacted. Pregnant women were no longer to be hanged after giving birth and were given penal servitude instead. (Mary Ann Cotton became the last to suffer at Durham Castle on the 24th of March 1873, her baby being taken from her before execution).

Looking Southwest towards Nassau from 'the Chair'

Get to Abaco before you expire. Plead with your belly if you have to!

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