Harbour Island is known as Briland by the residents who treasure the island as a place of peace and tranquility. The island is three miles long with a protected harbour to the west and a famous pink sand beach on its eastern side. The pink color comes from a calcareous foraminifera, a marine organism with a red shell which mixes with the white sand to form a pink hue after it dies.
Harbour Island occupies a strategic position in The Bahamas between the islands of Eleuthera and Abaco. This puts it at the eastern entrance of the New Providence Channel, a prominent shipping route from Europe to the Americas. This channel first attracted the ships of Spain on a course plotted north of Harbour Island, making it a convenient first stop in the New World.
Lucayan Indians were the first human inhabitants, initially canoeing up from South America a thousand years before the Spanish landed on San Salvador in 1492. Harbour Island was north of Columbus’ route, but it didn’t take long for Spanish slavers to decimate the population. Afterwards since there were no more slaves to capture and no gold, silver or gems to gather from the limestone of The Bahamas, the Spaniards lost interest and the island remained largely uninhabited for over 100 years.
“The Great Harbour of Harbour Island” lies to the west of the island, between it and Eleuthera. It was this harbour, with its easily defended approaches, that made it an ideal place to settle and indeed the island became inhabited early on in Bahamian history.
In 1648 religious refugees from Bermuda landed then subsequently shipwrecked not far away on mainland Eleuthera. While they established small settlements there, it wasn’t long until these early settlers found their way to Harbour Island. The early inhabitants had it rough, surviving on home farming plots for produce and fish, sea turtles and conch plus whatever the islands in the area could offer (like bird eggs). They gathered what they could to swap for household supplies with vessels that called on their small community (some 60 souls by 1700). Trade goods included woods used to make dyes and in ship building, ambergris (a secretion from whales found on the beach and valued for is scent), items salvaged from wrecks and seal oil harvested from colonies of native monk seals, who were quickly driven to extinction.
As the settlers struggled they also had to endure attacks by the Spanish, who would regularly sack Nassau and plunder Eleuthera and Harbour Island. Even French vessels would come through the area stealing goods and supplies, not to mention pirates.
By the early 1700s the residents were working farms on mainland Eleuthera, sailing to and from Harbour Island daily. In 1718 the colony had grown to 60 families and soon boat building was added to the economy. Many fine sloops and schooners were built there. Cargos were traded with American Colonies like Carolina and islands to the south such as Jamaica and Barbados. American goods and building supplies, along with island rum were exchanged for what the island could offer.
Pirates are not just of lore, they were indeed prevalent in the late 1600s and early 1700s. They preyed on ships in the Northeast Providence Channel, using shallow harbours in the area to avoid larger vessels. While the main base for pirates was Nassau, one of their outposts was on Harbour Island. The pirates were actually welcomed for some years by the government in Nassau to help protect Harbour Island from the Spanish. The pirates provided security and lived amongst the settlers sharing plunder that helped sustain the small population. Batteries at the north and south ends of the island were at times tended by them, protecting the harbour and dissuading would-be raiders.
King George of England offered a pardon to the pirates if they ceased their debaucherous ways prior to September of 1718. Successful pirate John Cockram was married into an old Harbour Island family and took the pardon. As an excellent navigator, he created a map of the island and “The Great Harbour of Harbour Island” while Woodes Rogers was Governor.
The island played a central role in recapturing Nassau from the Spanish in 1783. Colonel Andrew Deveaux, a British Loyalist living in St. Augustine after the American Revolution, sailed to Harbour Island on his way to retake Nassau from the Spanish. Over a hundred men and 50 small fishing boats from Harbour Island, Spanish Wells and Eleuthera joined the successful expedition, taking the Nassau garrison of over 600 Spanish soldiers with less than 300 men. For their efforts, Harbour Islanders and men from Spanish Wells were awarded 6,000 acres on north Eleuthera, lands which they had cultivated for years but now took as their own. The land was granted on behalf of the Crown by Lord Dunmore, who had a summer home on Harbour Island and for which “Dunmore Town” is named. During the period, a Reverend Moss described the island as “a tight and orderly community of sixty families, living mainly a maritime life, building their own ships, and growing subsistence crops and raking salt on the nearby mainland of Eleuthera.”
Loyalists integrated into the Harbour Island population, some of whom were from Abaco which was settled in 1783. Prior to that the coast of Abaco and wrecks on the reefs there were worked by Harbour Islanders. British Emancipation occurred in 1834 setting the slaves free, but many of the Loyalists had already left The Bahamas as their plantations had failed. A new crop later arose that sustained the colony for years, the pineapple, grown on Eleuthera and shipped in large quantities from Harbour Island.
The Civil War brought blockade running into America and the fine vessels built on Harbour Island no doubt played a role as they did with rum running during American Prohibition, but by the 1930s boat building on the island was in decline and eventually disappeared entirely.
Harbour Island today has transitioned into a tourism based economy, superimposed on the beautiful second homes of wealthy Bahamians, English, Americans and those from other countries. The island gained a celebrity status going back to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who visited the island regularly while the Duke served as governor of The Bahamas during the Second World War. Now it’s not uncommon to see movie stars, famous athletes, billionaires and super models riding around in golf carts. How times have changed.To learn more about history of Harbour Island and other islands in the Bahamas, check out A History of The Bahamas Through Maps. The book and custom map of Harbour Island can be purchased online at this website. Questions? Please call us at 239-963-3497.
In 1492 Columbus made his first landfall in The Bahamas on the island he named San Salvador. That and the other islands he visited are 200 miles southeast of Abaco, shown on a Spanish map from 1500 as “Habacoa,” an Indian word.
The Spanish enslaved the Lucayan Indians in the early 1500s, and the rest likely died from disease. Many artifacts have been found on Abaco, both on land and underwater in blue holes that dot the landscape. The island was said to have had a large Indian population, numbering in the thousands.
After the Indians, the island remained unpopulated for over 150 years except for a short lived French settlement that “may” have been located on southern Abaco and a legendary Portuguese whaling station. Ruins located there were originally attributed to the French, but are now believed to be from the Loyalist period. During that time the Spanish plied the waters around Abaco salvaging ships that had sunk along the ragged ocean reefs and scavenging anything they could find or kill on shore (native monk seals were common and could render oil). In the mid-1600s sailing vessels from Eleuthera and Harbour Island worked the wrecks along the coast, but Abaco wasn’t settled by British Loyalists until after the American Revolutionary War.
The first European settlement on Abaco was a group of some 1,000 Loyalists from New York. “Loyalists” were families that remained faithful to King George III during the American Revolution, suffering the social consequences when England lost to the new Americans who were happy to run them out of their new nation. The settlement they began was named “Carleton” after Sir Guy Carleton, the British Commander in New York City before it was turned over to the Americans. They soon established “Marsh’s Harbour,” today the main town and only traffic light in Abaco.
Early settlers had it tough. Farming in The Bahamas is difficult on the rocky terrain with thin topsoil that is easily depleted of nutrients. It was not what they were accustomed to in America and eventually Carleton was abandoned as many of the early settlers turned to the sea for their livelihoods. This led many to settle the barrier islands on the north side of Abaco Sound where fishing, boat building and wreck salvaging became more important than farming.
The Sea of Abaco and the barrier reefs were full of fish, turtles, conch and crawfish (lobster), which provided the protein base for the settlers supplemented by vegetables grown in home gardens on the islands. However, there was little to export since cotton, tobacco and other crops failed on mainland Abaco as they did all over The Bahamas in the 1800s. British Emancipation occurred in 1834 which freed the Loyalist’s slaves, some of whom left to start their own settlements on Abaco. This didn’t help matters as the traditional plantation model slipped away.
Part of living off the sea meant “wrecking,” which meant salvaging cargo from vessels that wrecked on the reefs off the northern and eastern shores. Wrecks were profitable and there is a story about a preacher who set his congregation up with their backs to the sea so he’d be the first notice if a ship grounded on the reef beyond. Whether true or not, it illustrates the importance wrecking once had.
There are also nefarious stories of false lights being set at night to lure ships onto the reefs so they could “save” the crew and salvage the cargo. Shipwrecks were common and there were objections to the lighthouse that was eventually built in Hopetown by the British Imperial Lighthouse Service in 1864. It must have been frustrating to see all the precious cargo pass by your struggling town on ships offshore, why not lure a few onto the reef!
There was a brief period of prosperity in The Bahamas during the Civil War, but most of that occurred in Nassau as cotton and other goods from the American South were traded for European munitions and supplies needed to sustain the Confederacy. A few ship wrecks during that period occurred on the Abaco reef, including the Adirondack and San Jacinto, both Union ships whose remains can still be seen snorkeling today.
Sponging, pineapples and citrus were important industries in the 1800s and sisal (used for making rope and less dependent on good soil) was added to the mix, but life was still tough on Abaco. Boat building continued through the tough times and many fine ships were launched in Abaco built from hardwoods that could be found around the islands like lignum vitae, horseflesh, mahogany and Abaco pine. Many smaller Abaco skiffs were built to run about the sound and Abaco designs endure to this day.
The pine forests of Abaco are vast, growing over a large freshwater aquifer. In 1908 the logging town of Wilson City sprang up at the east end of Abaco Sound. The city had electricity, giving Abaco that modern wonder the same time as Nassau. In 1923 regular mail boat service from Nassau came to Abaco with the diesel powered Priscilla. Telegraph service to Hopetown was added and Abaco began to open up to the world after 140 years of remote isolation since the establishment of Carleton. Prohibition and rum running brought another boom to The Bahamas but again it was relegated mainly to Nassau and the Bahamian islands closest to Florida.
Crawfish exports to America began in the mid-1930s, local boats hauling them to Florida in live wells. Today commercial crawfish boats from Abaco can be seen as far away as the Cay Sal Bank off Cuba.
Several Abaco men went to serve in World War II while German submarines cruised the international shipping lanes north of Abaco. After the war, Bahamas Airways began seaplane service to Nassau using war vintage Catalinas along with Grumman Gooses. Abaco native Leonard Thompson played a big role in this, and seaplane service continued until the airport in Marsh Harbour went into service in the early 1960s. Thompson also played a major role in the development of Treasure Cay.
Little Harbour marks the eastern end of Abaco Sound and features the Johnston Art Foundry, a bronze casting studio founded by Randolph Johnston in the 1950s where many famous works have been created.
In 1958 Marcell Albury of Man-O-War started Albury Ferry Service which now connects many of the islands to the Abaco mainland for residents and tourists. Nothing is more relaxing than climbing aboard a comfortable ferry as you make your way to beautiful, historic communities like Hope Town on Elbow Cay and New Plymouth on Green Turtle Cay.To learn more about history of Abaco and other islands in the Bahamas, check out A History of The Bahamas Through Maps. The book and custom map of Abaco Island can be purchased online at this website. Questions? Please call us at 239-963-3497.
In 1492 Columbus made it into Exuma Sound as he rounded Cape Santa Maria at the north end of Long Island. Since there was no sea lane south from there he would have turned around before encountering Great Exuma Island just 30 miles further west.
Spaniards landing on Exuma later decimated the native Lucayan Indian population. By the early 1500s the Bahamian Indians were gone, enslaved to work in areas with “New World” gold, silver, gems and pearls. There may have been over a hundred years of silence in the Exumas after that except for occasional whalers, wreckers or explorers combing the islands for precious metals and gems that don’t exist in the carbonate rock of The Bahamas.
In the 1600s came the pirates; men of little regard for international laws though many were former privateers who had acted on behalf of England, France and other nations to plunder the ships of their enemies. After wars between nations ended, those who continued plundering ships became outlaws. The pirate community that controlled Nassau in the early 1700s numbered over 1,000 and some had hideouts in the Exumas not far away. When Woodes Rogers became British Governor of The Bahamas in 1718, he pardoned former pirates and chased down those who were unrepentant. Several of the latter were caught in the Exumas and hung on the gallows in Nassau as Rogers sought to make an example of them.
More permanent settlers came to the Exumas in the form of British Loyalists in the late 1700s. “Loyalists” were individuals or families remaining loyal to England’s King during the American Revolution. When the war was lost, they were granted large tracts of land in The Bahamas. They came on ships filled with their possessions and African slaves who had worked the land on their plantations in America for generations. Many had become rich with large land holdings and dozens of servants, why not remain loyal to England who had made it possible? They were determined to recreate that wealth in The Bahamas.
George Town, Great Exuma was named after King George III and became the Port of Exuma on one of the best water bodies in the country, Elizabeth Harbour. There were prosperous times in the late 1700s and the islands flourished. The soil had not yet been depleted of the nutrients that slash and burn farming produced and crops of cotton and other goods were exported. Merchants in George Town carried modern English goods in their stores and vessels sailed directly for Liverpool and London with loads of cotton and happy passengers going back and forth. But these times were not to last.
The soil turned out to be unsuitable for sustained agriculture as they had known in America. By 1800 this was becoming obvious and insects made things worse. In the late 1700s the Chenille worm ravaged the cotton crops along with another red bug that would stain the fibers. Other crops were failing as well and the productive times of Loyalists in the Exumas and The Bahamas was over.
British law freed the slaves and most of those who hadn’t already left did so, leaving their former servants behind. Descendants of those form the basis of the population in Exuma today. Loyalists sometimes held their slaves in high regard as they struggled together to make ends meet on the harsh, rocky islands. In some cases they left their land to them, as on Great Exuma where Loyalist Lord John Rolle turned over significant property holdings to his former servants upon his death in 1842.
After the Loyalist period ended, the Exumas fell on hard times and reverted to subsistence farming and fishing with a few goods traded to Nassau for household supplies. Salt production by solar evaporation on low lying “salt pans” continued with some success.
Brief periods of prosperity in Nassau presented opportunities for Exuma men who emigrated there. During the American Civil War in the 1860s, cotton from the South was traded for European guns destined to be run through the Union blockade of southern ports. While that boom was short lived, sponge diving became a more permanent profession in Nassau employing thousands. In the 1920s Prohibition brought more wealth. Jobs were created not just by selling liquor to rum runners but with infrastructure improvements the tax revenue funded. Bahamian men and women flocked to Nassau for these reasons and many families have their roots in Exuma.
The Exumas are an incredibly beautiful chain of islands that stretch from Hog Cay in the south to the Ship Channel Cays in the north, well over 100 miles away. One of the first Land and Sea Parks in the world was established in 1958 stretching from Conch Cut to Wax Cay, The Bahamas National Trust Exuma Cays Land & Sea Park.
Tourism has become the life blood of the Exumas chain with billionaires and famous performers from around the world owning private islands. Huge yachts can be seen anchored on the leeward west side of the chain while the east side features thousand foot water depths in Exuma Sound with excellent sport fishing and scuba diving. During the 1970s and 80s, at the peak of the drug trafficking years, the Exumas became an epicenter for the illegal trade and Norman’s Cay was controlled by Colombian traffickers for a time.
The “Out Island Regatta” in George Town, Exuma is one of the largest events in The Bahamas each year. The regatta attracts sailing competitors from many Bahamian islands and thousands of spectators.
Flying down the Exuma chain in a small plane is one of the most beautiful flights in the world. The author has done it hundreds of times and every guest he has taken on that flight will agree. There’s no doubt why astronauts on the International Space Station keep taking pictures of the Exumas while orbiting overhead. They are truly the pearl of The Bahamas if you love boating, beach combing and the peace and quiet of islands in shallow seas.To learn more about history of the Exumas and other islands in the Bahamas, check out A History of The Bahamas Through Maps. The book and custom map of the Exumas can be purchased online at this website. Questions? Please call us at 239-963-3497.