Cat Island is perhaps my favorite place in The Bahamas. The island is remote and sparsely populated yet there’s a half dozen little resorts to meet guests from all over the world and 100 miles of untouched beach to explore. The people who live on Cat have always been relaxed, peaceful and accommodating. The island is roughly 50 miles long from the northern tip at Shanas Cove Resort to the southwest point at Hawks Nest, with the only marina on the island. I love driving from one end to the other stopping for meals, walking the beach and visiting landmarks like the historical “Hermitage” on Mt Alvernia, the highest point in the Bahamas (200’+). In the early 1980s I met a young guy building rooms at Fernandez Bay Village, a place I still send people to experience the romantic charm of the out islands. He was the property owner, Tony Armbrister. Tony’s forefathers were British Loyalists who came to Cat Island after England lost the Revolutionary War. The Loyalists had stayed true to King George and were rewarded with large land grants in the Bahamas where they tried to recreate the plantation lifestyle they knew in America. Unfortunately the rocky soils in the Bahamas didn’t cooperate and most of them gave up, leaving their land and former slaves behind who were freed by British emancipation in 1834.
The Bahamas was first discovered by Christopher Columbus upon his 1492 landing in the new world. The generally accepted landing site is San Salvador to the east, but don’t try to convince anyone on Cat Island of that! For over a century Cat was considered the proper spot and was labeled on maps as “San Salvador” or “Guanahani”, the native Lucayan Indian word for San Salvador. I own a number of antique maps that show those names where Cat island is located, it’s interesting how the site moved around randomly and there’s even a Columbus Point on the southeast corner of Cat. The controversy ended in 1923 when the British Admiralty assigned today’s San Salvador as the official landing site.
Cat Island was likely named after pirate Arthur Chatt, though some believe it was because it was home to lots of feral cats. Like all the larger Bahamian Islands, Cat Island was populated by Lucayan Indians until the Spanish arrived and took them into captivity as slaves. The Spanish may have made an attempt to colonize Cat in the 1600s with a settlement on the southern end of the island. During the early 1700s Spanish ships were constantly attacked by pirates who were based in Nassau. The Spanish would in turn attack Nassau. Since Cat Island was far removed from Havana, Spain’s main base, and closer to the pirate’s base in Nassau, it’s logical Spanish defense of a small colony on Cay became untenable and they gave it up. The pineapple industry was once important on Cat Island and it’s a prominent feature on the island’s coat of arms (see right). The “pines” would be shipped to New York or London along with fruit from other islands in the Bahamas. The plants used to start the Hawaiian pineapple industry reportedly came from Cat. There is no longer any commercial cultivation on the island but you can still see the remains of people who once tried and for a while succeeded with cotton or other crops. Two hundred year old plantation ruins dot the island, hidden in the bush where they’ve been largely forgotten. Academy-award winning actor Sir Sidney Poitier grew up in Arthur’s Town in the north of the island. He starred in acclaimed movies like Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in 1965. The movie was on the forefront of racial acceptance in America where Sidney had emigrated from Cat Island as a young man. There are endless beaches on either side of the island with large coral reefs off the east coast facing the open Atlantic. Cat Island is indeed a wonderful place to visit if you appreciate quiet, unspoiled places and friendly people. To learn more about Bahamian history visit our site here and check out The Bahamas: A History Through Maps! Call today to learn more about our other books and custom, decorative maps.
I’ve been frequenting the Berry Islands since the 1980s as I worked on projects from Chub Cay and Whale Cay in the south to Great Harbour Cay in the north with several other Berry Islands in between. In more recent years I've enjoyed the islands even more as I explore them in my old dive boat “Gone Astray”.
The Berry Islands are located on the southern edge of the northeast Providence Channel, a major shipping route from Europe to America. Along that channel a hoard of cruise ships visit the Berry’s Stirrup Cays where guests enjoy great beaches and snorkeling. I hear today they even have zip lines and swimming pigs like those in the central Exumas.
A well-known wrecker named Cameron lived on Little Stirrup in the 1700s, today the island is known as CocoCay. Wrecking was a common occupation in the Bahamas which involved salvaging cargo from ships that wrecked on the endless reefs that surround the island nation. Bahamian wreckers also worked the Florida Keys reef and settled there even before Spain ceded Florida to the U.S. in 1819. A noted settlement on Great Stirrup was Williams Town that had a customs house during the time of Britain’s King William IV. Freed slaves were settled there by Bahamas Governor William Colebrooke in 1836 after British emancipation in 1834. Prior to that, British Navy Captain Allan Bertram was buried on the island, leaving his name on Bertram’s Cove. In 1863 the British Imperial Lighthouse Service built a light on Great Stirrup which still functions today, though now on solar power instead of whale oil and kerosene that was originally used with lighthouse keepers present.
One of my favorite Berry Island stories involves Whale Cay which was bought by Joanne ”Joe” Carstairs in 1934. Joe was a Standard Oil heiress who grew up in London and became a famous speed boat racer, besting many men of the day. She transformed Whale Cay into her own sanctuary with hundreds of Bahamian employees to tend her home and to play in her marching band which residents in Nassau would boat over to see. Ms. Carstairs had affairs with movie stars Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo and named a beach on Whale “Beach La Femme”. Besides famous girlfriends, other celebrity guests included the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the Duke having abdicated the throne to England before serving as Governor of The Bahamas during World War II.
East of Whale is Little Whale Cay which was owned by American entrepreneur Wallace Groves who created Freeport, Grand Bahama in the mid-1950s. He had a home, a private airstrip and a menagerie of wildlife on Little Whale including peacocks and other exotic birds, many of which survived him.
While the Berry Islands are a popular cruise ship destination, they’re also an ideal cruising spot for private vessels to enjoy the many islands, beaches and secret little coves. I’ll continue to enjoy them on our new boat!For more information on The Bahamas, visit our site and check out A History of The Bahamas Through Maps and our other items! Call us at 239-963-3497 with any questions!
I like the Jumentos Cays because of the remote nature of the long archipelago which stretches from south of Great Exuma to the Ragged Islands off the north coast of Cuba. It’s some 80 miles from one end to the other with several protected anchorages along the way, the only access is via boat. We spent 4th of July weekend there recently and enjoyed it thoroughly while we fished and explored the little islands and beaches that run down the chain. You seldom see anyone and there are no facilities other than in sparsely populated Duncan Town on Ragged Is. (which has the only airstrip in the Jumentos). Duncan Town is interesting since the salt flats a
re still intact, solar evaporation salt production is how it sustained itself in years past.
Adjacent to the Jumentos are the deep waters of the Crooked Island Passage, thousands of feet deep with Crooked and Acklins on the far eastern side. Most of the Jumentos are small islands that have seen little or no attempt at any permanent settlement, though some ruins and remnants of slave built walls remain. While the islands are generally unpopulated, in modern times they’ve seen seasonal fish camps due to the abundance of snapper, crawfish, conch and other catches.
Most written history on the area revolves around Ragged Island/Duncan Town. The town was named after one of two brothers who were British Loyalists, Duncan and Archibald Taylor. Major Archibald Taylor assisted Colonel Andrew Deveaux in taking Nassau back from the Spanish in 1783, a famous ruse where an outnumbered Loyalist force under Deveaux outsmarted the Spanish garrison by shuttling forces in small boats to a shore landing out of site. The soldiers would then lay down in the boats as they rowed back out to Deveaux’s small fleet where they would stand up and be counted again by the Spanish as they rowed back in. The numbers added up and the Spanish surrendered without a fight. Families who remained loyal to the British Crown during the American Revolutionary War were sometimes granted large tracts of land in The Bahamas by King George. This is likely how the Taylor brothers ended up with land on Ragged Island.
The brothers built Ragged Island’s salt ponds with the help of slave labor, and by 1886 the town was flourishing with more than 300 inhabitants. British emancipation freed the slaves in 1834, but Ragged Island continued to trade salt for fruits, vegetables and other materials from Cuba until 1960 when the new communist government came into power. At that point coastal trade with Cuba became difficult and the salt trade all but died. Coastal trade of another sort came to Ragged Island in the late 1970s and 80s, that of drug trafficking. The relatively narrow gap between Ragged Island and Cuba is patrolled by three different entities: the Cuban Coastal Defense Force, The Royal Bahamas Defense Force and various entities of the U.S. government including the Coast Guard. Cuban vessels wouldn’t chase drug-running boats outside of Cuban waters and Bahamian/American craft wouldn’t chase them in Cuban waters. This allowed drug runners the alternative of leaving Cuban waters if Cuban vessels were spotted or entering Cuban waters if Bahamian or American boats were in the area. Some of the drug boats would consequently end up in Duncan Town’s harbour.
I’m not certain of any smuggling activity today but feel that Ragged Island and the Jumentos Cays are a safe location to boat and plan on going there again soon.If you are interested in learning more about Bahamian history, check out our other blog posts and The Bahamas: A History Through Maps! Please contact us at 239-963-3497 with any questions including custom orders.