RECORD: Weddell, James. 1825. A voyage towards the South Pole performed in the years 1822-24. London.

REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed by AEL Data 10.2013. RN1

NOTE: This work formed part of the Beagle library.

[page break]




Aabal and Military Magazine.

1834. PART III.




[page] 215


ENGLAND is justly celebrated as having been the subject of a greater number of topographical works minutely descriptive of her territory, than any other nation; able men have also undertaken similar tasks with respect to some of her colonies; and that such labours have in both cases disseminated much solid instruction, as well as amusement, cannot be questioned. It is believed, however, that there is not extant any distinct account of these ancient colonial appendages, the public information relating to them being confined to gazetteers and geographical treatises, in which they receive but cursory and imperfect notice. Their trifling commercial value, as compared with their number and extent, and the secluded situation of the seat of government, have contributed to render them less known than any of our possessions in the same region. This ignorance, indeed, has been manifested in official quarters; for, a few years since, a military acquaintance of the writer being ordered to New Providence, applied at the Horse Guards to learn how he could most easily reach his destination, and was advised to proceed via Halifax; whereas, in the absence of a direct conveyance, the best mode of attaining that object is by proceeding to Jamaica, or New York.

The most memorable event in the history of the Bahamas, and one that in its consequences proved of high importance to mankind, viz., the discovery of the New World, was realized by that of Guanihani, where Columbus first landed in the western hemisphere. Strictly speaking, however, the actual discovery of this portion of the globe was made by that of Walting's island, which is situated about fifty miles directly to windward of Guanihani, and upon which there can be no doubt Columbus saw the light on the preceding night. The instrument of this discovery was too deeply imbued with religious feelings to neglect signalizing his success after the manner of his time; hence, he called Guanihani, San Salvadore, the timely sight of which may be said to have redeemed him from impending death, at the hands of the ignorant companions of his voyage. It is now, however, commonly called Cat Island, a name, perhaps, open to objection, inasmuch as it is irrespective of the great event of which the spot (otherwise unimportant) must ever be considered significant, and which would have been marked with greater propriety by either of the other names. After an unprecedented long absence from land, it is natural to suppose, that the minds of these bold mariners were open to receive the most delightful impressions from an intercourse with a friendly and hospitable race, although differing widely from themselves in external appearance and customs; the face of nature also presented many striking novelties to their admiring view. It cannot therefore be matter of surprise, that their descriptions of such of these islands as they visited abound with high panegyrics of their beauty and fertility, which subsequent examinations have not confirmed. From Guanihani, Columbus proceeded to Conception, from thence to Yuma, or Long Island, and then visiting the Mucaras, he at that point finally quitted the Bahamas, in search of Cuba. To Spain, therefore, of European nations, these islands belonged, but the extensive and valuable

[page] 216

discoveries that were subsequently made for her benefit, by Columbus and others, seem fully to account for the indifference with which she regarded the first fruits of his enterprise, until she made use of them for purposes of aggression. The Spaniards called them Los Cayos, or the shelves, sand banks, rocks, and islets; a comprehensive and appropriate denomination, by which, or rather by that of Lucayos, they are still distinguished on many foreign maps. In the absence of contrary information, it may be presumed they were called Bahamas, by the now extinct race of aborigines, for the euphony of this name accords well with that of those of several of the group, which there is also reason to conjecture retain their primitive appellations. The other islands, from the great space they occupy, and the remoteness of some of them from those already named, were probably discovered at different periods; but no mention occurs of inhabitants being found, except on those visited by Columbus; but as these latter are represented by him as being populous, there is no reason to suppose that the others, generally speaking, were less so. New Providence does not appear to have been known until 1667, when Captain William Seyle, who was afterwards Governor of Carolina, being bound to America, was driven upon it by a storm, and bestowed his own name thereon. It happened remarkably, that in repeating the voyage, he was again driven thither; on which event, with a sentiment of gratitude of which the history of maritime discovery furnishes numerous examples, and one of memorable note already adverted to, he then gave it the name by which it has ever since been distinguished. He imparted the circumstance to his employers, the proprietary governors of Carolina, and some of them procured a grant of all the Bahamas situated between the 22nd and 27th degrees of latitude*, which still, with trifling extension, mark their limits in this direction; their boundaries of longitude are included between the 73d and the 81st meridians. The crown, however, reserved the government.

The position of these islands, between the windward passages and the Strait of Florida—the great highways over which most of the wealth of the west passed to Europe,—and their proximity to its sources, pointed them out as a commanding situation from which to annoy the commerce of France and Spain. It might also have been considered, that their occupation by either of those powers would enable them to cripple our American trade. Whatever motives led to their appropriation, the wildest visionary could not have dreamed of their becoming valuable for productive commerce. The first settlement was driven out by the Spaniards, who seem to have been content with that result, nor does it appear that the colony received the attention of its founders for some time afterwards: for in 1688 both New Providence and Harbour Island, which are about fifty miles apart, became noted resorts of buccaneers, for which pursuit were combined the advantages of position above noticed, and the nature of the group, which afforded numerous safe retreats, unapproachable by large vessels. It is probable their atrocities were mostly committed under the English flag, when any symbol of that kind was exhibited, for most of the leaders belonged to that nation, as

* This grant was made to the Duke of Albemarle, Lords Craven, Berkeley, and Ashley, Sir George Carteret, and Sir Peter Colliton.

[page] 217

appears in a scarce work, entitled "An Account of the Pyrates, from their first settlement in New Providence, until their final extirpation in 1718."

These proceedings, however, at last attracted public attention; for in 1717, the House of Lords petitioned her Majesty to the effect that the French and Spaniards had twice, during that war, overrun and plundered the Bahamas; that there was no form of government there; that the harbour of New Providence might easily be put into a state of defence; and concluded by beseeching that methods might be adopted for securing those islands. In consequence of this representation, an order in council was issued in September of that year, wherein, after a recapitulation of the above particulars, it is stated that, "as at this time the pirates have a lodgment, with a battery on Harbour Island, as also that the usual retreat and general receptacle for pirates is at New Providence, her Majesty has given directions for dislodging them, and making settlements and fortifications there for the safety and benefit of the trade and navigation of those seas." It is evident, therefore, that this nuisance had become intolerable, even to the supine indifference with which such transactions were viewed at that time. Hence, in 1718, Captain Woodes Rogers was appointed governor of the Bahamas, and departed from England with sufficient force to fulfil the above objects. It is believed he had not previously been employed by the Crown; but he had shown both skill and enterprise as commander of a private expedition sent to the Pacific by the Bristol merchants, in which Dampier and Alexander Selkirk sailed. His fitness for and success in his present employment is manifested in the subjoined passage from Entick's Naval History. "He took possession of the town of Nassau, the fort belonging to it, and of the whole island, the people receiving him with all imaginable joy, and many of the pirates submitting immediately. He proceeded soon after to forming a council and settling the civil government, appointing civil and military officers, raising militia, and taking every other step necessary for procuring safety at home, and security from anything that might be attempted from abroad, in which by degrees he succeeded; so that by the 1st of July, 1719, to which day the King's proclamation extended, there were not above three or four of these pirates who continued their trade; and two of them being taken and their crews executed, the rest dispersed out of fear; and this crew of villains were dissolved, who for many years had frighted the West Indies and the northern colonies, coming at last to be so strong that few merchantmen were safe, and withal so barbarous, that slavery among Turks was preferable to falling into their hands."

Herein we have a miniature display of statesmanship, which, when conducted on a national scale, has conferred the title of great on some of the most eminent of mankind. This decisive act of government imparted a character of stability to the colony which it has since maintained, and which aided its advance to its present respectable estimation. Of the events which have marked its subsequent history, the principal ones are its capture and brief retention by the Americans in the early part of their war of independence; its capture by a Spanish force from Cuba, in 1782, and restoration in the following year; and the occasional devastation of the islands by hurricanes.

The materials of the foregoing outline of the history of the Bahamas

[page] 218

were gleaned from the few books treating on the subject, that, after the exercise of no inconsiderable research, the writer was enabled to consult. The remainder of the article will contain the substance of such miscellaneous observations as he gathered during a recent voyage among the Bahamas, which included a brief visit to Nassau; and although it is not offered as possessing higher claims to accuracy than such limited means afforded, it may not prove to have been uselessly perused, if it shall incite some individual, whose opportunities are more favourable for collecting local information, to produce a regular volume on the same subject, for which it is believed sufficient materials are abroad, although perhaps they may not be very easily obtained, for most of the islands, including even the largest, are seldom visited, except by colonial craft.

New Providence is about twenty-three miles in length by ten in breadth, and although inferior in extent and fertility to several of the Bahamas, it is the most populous. It is the seat of government, and probably obtained the preference of the first settlers from offering the best harbour in the range, and from its central position. It is more hilly than most of the islands, the surface being composed of rock and sand intermixed with sea-shells. There are, however, a few tracts of fertile land, which produce a variety of good fruits and vegetables, and particularly fine pine-apples. This kind of fruit forms a considerable article of commerce here; but the most productive pine-grounds are on Harbour Island; vast quantities are sent to British America and to the United States, some vessels of an hundred tons burthen being entirely laden with them. This is the only article of export New Providence affords; but it enjoys a respectable commerce from being the entrepôt of the productions of most of its dependencies, which are collected and brought hither in small vessels, with and without decks. These articles consist of sponge, cotton, indigo, tortoise-shell, ambergris, mahogany, logwood, fustic, and other varieties of wood used in dyeing, or in ornamental work, which are shipped at Nassau for the English or American markets, in exchange for manufactured goods, provisions, and lumber. It is seldom, however, that more than four vessels arrive annually direct from England; but a packet sails monthly to Jamaica, and another to Crooked Island; and communications with the United States are very frequent.

In 1832, the official value of exports from the Bahamas to England was 17,915l.; and of imports from thence, 51,524l. Tonnage, from home and the colonies, 1360 tons; to England and the colonies, 1338. The principal commodities known as colonial produce are not raised in these islands in sufficient quantities for exportation, except cotton, the crop of which, in 1831, was 31,036lbs. The slaves, therefore, are chiefly employed as wood-cutters, herdsmen, cultivators of esculent roots, and seamen: in the latter capacity, the Bahamians are deemed expert; their vessels are mostly sloops and schooners, not exceeding an hundred tons burthen. In 1831 the population of the Bahamas was as follows: whites, 4240, free coloured, 2991; slaves, males 4608, females 4668; total, 16,507. The slaves whose lot is cast here are said to increase their numbers. Emancipation will probably affect both immediate pecuniary interests, and also the existing frame of society, less sensibly here than in the sugar colonies; (assuming that in the latter the quantity of that staple henceforward raised by negro labour will be

[page] 219

diminished;) because, in its preparation, much capital is employed in buildings, machinery, and cattle; whereas in the Bahamas there is none so invested. Besides, the slave population being thinly scattered over the country, and the soil being of such unequal fertility, but generally speaking very unproductive, the negroes will remain more dependent upon their employers for support, and consequently more willing to labour for wages than in the sugar colonies, where the soil is mostly so fertile that a very moderate exertion of industry applied to its cultivation will suffice to procure subsistence. In support of this view of the subject, I may cite the opinion of a respectable native of New Providence, whose opportunities of obtaining information are of the first kind, and who assured me he had never found it difficult to obtain the labour of freed slaves.

The slave proprietors of the Bahamas are more generally resident than those of the sugar colonies, a circumstance that has probably exercised a favourable influence on the condition of the negroes; for, without entertaining a question, mooted among political economists, whether a country be really or only apparently drained of its circulating medium by absenteeism, it is certain that the practice is injurious to a community in far more important particulars than merely the abstraction of money. Finally, in my intercourse with the Bahamians, I thought they did not seem to contemplate the meditated alteration in their social relations with the feeling of uneasiness, in some instances bordering on dread, that I had then recently observed to be manifested at Jamaica. In these particulars there is much resemblance between the Bahamas and the Cape of Good Hope, and the change in the civil condition of their servile populations will consequently be effected with less risk of commotion than elsewhere: the value of slaves, however, is much greater in the latter colony than in the Bahamas. It is said that the prosperity of these islands has been somewhat obstructed by the injudicious manner in which public lands were formerly assigned: in such transactions the public weal seems to have been considered as too secondary to the immediate interest of the grantee; for when these are consulted with prudent foresight, the two will generally be found coincident: hence, a kind of dog-and-manger possession has in some instances impeded that development of the resources of the colony, of which it was otherwise capable. A recent boon has been conferred on some of the holders of crown lands, who, it may be presumed, are not in prosperous circumstances, by the remission of the arrears of quit-rents due antecedently to the commencement of the present reign.

A principal, although from its nature fluctuating, source of employment, at New Providence, arises from the resort of distressed vessels for repair or condemnation; and also from the frequency of total shipwrecks upon the numerous dangers with which the Bahamas abound; in most cases, hurricanes excepted, these accidents are caused by the strong and uncertain currents which prevail, the counteraction of which sometimes defies the foresight of the most experienced navigators: accidents of this kind, therefore, are nearly as frequent in fine as in foul weather. The New Providence wreckers, as those of the Bahamas are called, are constantly on the alert, either under way or in a snug anchorage, watching the passing vessels. A general charge is alleged against them of endeavouring to decoy strangers into the very dangers from which they subse-

[page] 220

quently offer to extricate them; and that when the latter end is not promptly attainable, they conjure up all sorts of alarms, and evil prognostics, to induce the bewildered crew to abandon the vessel. On all coasts, however, the predatory pursuits of wreckers expose them to temptations, which induce suspicions of loose morality on this head; and such atrocious conduct has recently occurred in relation to this subject in the two most highly civilized countries in the world, as to leave no scope for severe animadversion on a less instructed people*. It is certain, however, that a liberal sprinkling of wrecks is considered to shed more prosperity on New Providence than an abundant pine season.

During war the colony derived much profit from privateering, and the sale of prizes, as there is a court of vice-admiralty here.

Several varieties of beautiful shells are found on the Bahamas; from some of the smaller kinds a delicate imitation of flower-work is made by females at Nassau. The conch abounds, and the name is familiarly used to distinguish native Bahamians, who commonly have the good sense not to wince at the freedom. The poor of these islands have occasionally suffered severely from scarcity of food, arising from drought and other causes. In this strait, fish, which is tolerably plentiful, is the chief article of consumption. To having experienced this privation,

* Among the inhabitants of remote parts of our own coasts (and these strictures are not intended to apply exclusively to those of the lowest order) there is no error so prevalent as that which delusively justifies to the finder the appropriation of whatever the sea casts up. They recognise the duty of restitution for the highway, but not for the beach. Until recently, at Palling in Norfolk, and in the adjacent villages on that coast, every child as soon as it could toddle was furnished with a pawkey-bag, and when a vessel grounded, the village echoed with the cry "a wreck, a wreck!" and the whole population rushed to the shore similarly equipped, and headed by the parents, who soon taught "the young idea how to shoot" in the pawkey line. Palling is not invidiously named, for the writer has pleasure in repeating the testimony he has heard borne to the activity of its boatmen, in aiding distressed vessels. "Ah, Sir, though the Preventative gets the great things, one good wreck would make me do well again," said a poor woman in the above neighbourhood, and with the most perfect naïveté, to an officer of the Preventive service; and doubtless, but for that check, few even of the great things would ever have benefited the rightful owners. The law has punished some for misdeeds of this nature, and pulpit exhortation may have restrained others from the cruelty of making these unfortunate persons quaff the very dregs of misfortune, who have already drank deeply of the cup; but nothing has so effectually restrained the abuses of wrecking, as the establishment of the Preventive Service or Coast Guard, which has afforded extensive protection to commerce, by saving the lives of seamen, and guarding stranded property, although neither of these objects were contemplated when the service was formed. This interruption of wholesale robbery, pursued in detail, by wreckers and beach-hunters, bids fair to extinguish the pawkeg-bag system. Granted, that these persons in their nightly rambles have rendered timely aid to seamen who might otherwise have perished; but there is ground for more than suspicion, that the gratification of their cupidity has often prevailed over the paramount duty of saving life. In every session of Parliament the expense of the Coast Guard is made a topic of accusatory declamation by the orators of the penny-wise school; and singular to say, the above facts have never been urged as auxiliaries to a defence which, doubtless, is with perfect propriety mainly grounded on the utility of the Coast Guard, with reference to its primary duties, which it as faithfully performs. Nor have they been volunteered by the representatives of the shipping interest, although, as no persons are so profitably acquainted with them, their silence is discreditable. The documents which record the value of property thus preserved are loosely scattered; some are in the hands of merchants, some may be found at Lloyd's, and some are lodged at out-port custom-houses: only those last named could be obtained on parliamentary motion; otherwise, it is much to be desired that such a statement should be made public.

[page] 221

may perhaps, in part, be ascribed the strong desire manifested by many of that class to proceed to Honduras in the transport under my orders; and indeed several effected their purpose clandestinely, being much favoured in its prosecution by the embarkation of a detachment of the 2d West India regiment and their families, which comprised a very motley assemblage. That corps garrisons both places, between which, in other circumstances, no direct communication would take place; hence, this intercourse has imparted to the Bahamians a knowledge of the "flesh-pots" of Honduras, where the slaves are better fed than in any of our colonies, and the lower class of free people are equally at ease in this important particular; thus enjoying a compensation for dwelling in one of the most wretched spots located by the enterprise of our merchants, although it would be a paradise for frogs and Dutchmen*.

The chief town of the Bahamas is Nassau; indeed, it is the only one worthy of the name in the government; and its appearance will agreeably surprise those whose conjectural estimate may have received a sombre tinge from contemplating the aspect of this insular group, which presents nothing to the eye of the approaching voyager but low-wooded coasts of grotesque configuration, occasionally relieved by a sand-hill or white cliff. Nassau stands on the north coast of New Providence, upon the side of a hill, rising with a moderate ascent from the harbour; the principal street, or rather single front of buildings, is parallel to the latter, and about half a mile in length; the others are projected rectangularly from it to a short distance, but are sufficiently wide. Most of the houses are isolated: in West India towns this is commonly the case, and nowhere are the latter better planned. Nassau contains as many good houses for its size as I have seen elsewhere: good, at least, in relation to the mode of life pursued in a community wherein riches do not abound, and where the inhabitants when questioned concerning the natural resources of the colony, make so candid and unaffected a confession of its poverty, as most of those did with whom I associated. Notwithstanding, there prevails throughout an appearance of respectable comfort, whereas, in most West India towns, one now sees capital mansions "hastening to decay" from the sheer inability of their owners, in their altered circumstances, to keep them in repair.

On the ridge of the hill in rear of the town stands Government House, a substantial building, enclosed within an iron palisade, and commanding an extensive prospect. In advance of the house (which

* At home, the value of the settlement of Honduras is commonly estimated solely with reference to the mahogany and logwood it affords: its real importance, however, is more strictly commercial, as being an outlet for our manufactures; for, although in 1832 the entire population amounted only to 4643 souls, the official value of imports from England was 792,278l.; not more, however, than a fiftieth part of this amount was consumed at Belize, the bulk having been dispersed in Central America. This commerce attracts to the little port of Belize numerous small craft, and even canoes from the adjoining coast, which pay for the commodities in specie. Sometimes the demand is so brisk, that purchases are made and delivered from the ship without having been landed at Belize. In this respect Honduras is of much greater commercial importance than any of our West India possessions, Jamaica excepted, besides being held at a trifling expense. Mahogany and logwood may be obtained as cheaply in foreign countries, but the exchange would not be attended with the above described advantage.

[page] 222

moreover is situated at the head of one of the best streets) is placed, with excellent effect, a colossal statue of Columbus, in pale yellow stone, executed in England at the expense of the late governor, Sir Carmichael Smyth, who, by erecting this appropriate monument, evinced a judicious taste emanating from a cultivated mind. This act of liberality, combined with some of his administrative measures of unquestioned utility, will insure grateful remembrance when the irritation arising from other parts of his political conduct, as the official organ of laws framed to equalise the civil condition of the population, shall have subsided. Here would willingly be terminated further allusion to this subject; but an humble admiration of the sculptor's art leads me to mention with regret information I received, that some persons, more blinded by party hostility, than alive to the interests of their town—nay, it may be added of humanity also—had attempted to deface the statue soon after it was displayed to public view, thereby to be avenged upon its founder. The sole palliation this act of Vandalism can receive arises from the consideration, that in this region the productions of the chisel are so rare, that the beneficial influence of the fine arts, in subduing the asperity of human passions, and in rationally embellishing and elevating the pleasures of life, cannot be so properly appreciated as in countries where such productions are more common. The only other specimens that I know of, in our West India possessions, are, the figures of Rodney at Jamaica, and of Nelson at Barbadoes, which, as if poetically typical of those heroes, have withstood the war of elements that has raged terrifically around them, and have also been respected in the civil strife which has afflicted these communities. Let it not, therefore, again be said, that a memorial of a "greater than these" has been profaned, among a people who have a singular interest in honouring his memory.

There is a neat and very home-looking church in the town, and another of similar, but appropriately more rustic, character on the skirts of it. Near the middle of the town a spacious court-house is placed, in which the public business of the colony is transacted,—these islands, forming a chartered government, of which a council and assembly are parts. Behind the court-house stands a noble silk-cotton tree, which, from its size and apparently great age, is probably a relict of the original forest that may have covered the site of the town. At about a mile from Nassau, the main road across the island leads through a settlement of liberated Africans, each family of whom have a house and plot of ground allotted for part of their support. Unless, however, the soil contains some properties of fertility, of which, when I saw it, the surface gave but little indication, it cannot be supposed that "each rood of ground maintained its man." The notice of this spot leads me to observe, that a similar experiment is in course of trial upon a small island near New Providence, which is entirely settled by liberated Africans. Proceeding onward a few miles, the extent of my personal survey in this direction, the face of the country continued to present the same sterile, cheerless aspect, being partially covered with stunted bush, coarse grass, and water, and reminding one somewhat of the moors of Cumberland. Hog Island which is long and narrow, is situated opposite the town, and about half

[page] 223

a mile from it, the included space forming the harbour which is snug and commodious. The western entrance, which is the best, is indicated by a light-house upon the end of Hog Island. The eastern entrance is more intricate, but is much used by small vessels from the south-eastward. To the S.S.E. of Nassau is the New Anchorage, wherein frigates of the largest class may lie; the Barham, of 50 guns, bearing the flag of Vice-Admiral Fleming, having anchored there. Strangers bound to Nassau from the N.E., if deficient in good charts and directions, may, on first seeing the stone beacon and vane at the Six Shilling Passage, mistake it for a steeple; such, at least, was our predicament. With daylight, however, a short time will suffice to dispel the error, as on nearing the object, no sign of human habitation is visible in its barren and comfortless vicinity. New Providence is low land, and the forts and houses of Nassau may be seen as soon as the surrounding country. The other principal islands are the following, viz.:—Great Abaco, which is the largest of the entire group; it affords timber well adapted for moderate-sized masts, which, however, are not used for that purpose to the extent which it is presumed they might be; Indian corn of good quality is also raised here. Off the south-eastern extremity there is a remarkable rock called the Hole in the Wall, which has been perforated by some terrene convulsion, or by the action of the surf. In 1832, an American vessel from Virginia bound to New Orleans, and haying on board 165 slaves for the southern market of the par excellence free and enlightened republic, was wrecked here. The negroes were released from slavery, and are located on this island.

Great Bahama—in the Veneto Atlante, published in 1690, and in De Witt's Atlas of a somewhat later date, this island, or Abaco, is named Lucaioneque; but in these and in contemporary works, the hydrography of the Bahamas is so much distorted, as compared with that of the other shores of the Western Atlantic, as to leave it doubtful to which of these islands that name was therein intended to be assigned; and also affords further proof how little the Bahamas were then known. In some foreign charts, one of the above-named islands is still named Lucaya. The accurate delineation of them must, in these days, have been a difficult task; for, even with the aid of modern improvements in the art, a fairer field than they present can hardly be imagined for the display of skill in marine surveying. Much live stock is raised in Great Bahama Island, as sheep, goats, swine, and poultry: the larger quadrupeds, however, as horses and oxen, are said not to thrive.

Andros.—The coasts of the Bahamas, that are situated on the banks, but of this island in particular, produce some of the best or velvet-sponge, and much of inferior quality; none, perhaps, being equal to that which is obtained from Turkey. This zoophyte grows in large bunches at the bottom of the sea, the spots being plainly discernible by their dark colour on the white sand; the sea water in this region being so remarkably transparent, that the bottom may commonly be seen through a depth of ten fathoms. Upon these patches iron creepers are dropped, and detach portions of the sponge, which is then piled in heaps on the beach until the vegetative principle is extinct, when the sponge is more easily cleansed from the gelatinous matter, sand, and fragments of rock which adhere to it when landed. At Nassau it sells from one

[page] 224

shilling to eighteen pence per pound; a price very disproportionate to that for which it is retailed in England, where, however, a very heavy duty awaits it. It is difficult to comprehend the policy, either that originally levied, or continues to exact this impost, which, in effect, considerably limits the sale of the article among the poor, for purposes of cleanliness and dressing of wounds: for the latter use, its easy compressibility and soft texture renders it superior to any substitute. A relaxation of duty would in nowise injure the growth or manufacture of any home production, but might cause an increased consumption of sponge, and consequent extended employment to these islanders, without diminishing the receipt of the Exchequer.

Eleuthera, Yuma, Exuma, San Salvadore, Watlings, Samana, and Inagua Islands, and Rum Cay—all these are inhabited, except Inagua, which is even less elevated above the sea than its low neighbours. All, according to their various degrees of fertility, are capable of affording some return for labour. Exuma is the property of Lord Rolle, to whom it is believed the enactment of the Emancipation Act will prove a greater boon, than to the few hundreds of negroes who are his slaves. Eastward of most of these are situate a close group, aptly named the Crooked Islands; one of them derives importance from being the chief post-office station of the Bahamas,—the homeward-bound Jamaica packet calling there for the mail. This circumstance, together with a trade in salt, has imparted sufficient consequence to a small nest of houses and a battery, to be denominated Pittstown. The easternmost of the Bahamas are a cluster of islands of little extent, but of some intrinsic value. They are called, respectively, Turk's Island, Salt, and Grand Cays*. The first named is the principal; it is about five miles in extent, but affords neither wood nor water, except the supply of the latter derived from rain. Salt is made on it by slaves, who subsist chiefly on fish and turtle, which abound. A small detachment of the 2d West India regiment is stationed here. The inhabitants of the two Cays are similarly circumstanced and employed. The quantity of salt produced on all of them is considerable, as may be inferred from the fact, that the hurricane which devastated these islands in 1813 destroyed two thousand five hundred tons upon Grand Cay alone. This article is sold to our colonies and the United States. Of the smaller Cays which fringe the Bahama banks, and others that are situated within the range, some afford water and cultivable soil, and are partially inhabited; others possess one only of these inducements to human occupation; and some, neither. Of the whole Bahama group, there are about five hundred, which include an estimated area of three hundred and twelve square miles. On the passage to Nassau, we were engaged nearly a

* The terms Cay and Island are often used indiscriminately, in relation to objects that are precisely similar; for, if the above application of them be reversed, the ear of custom only would be offended; and the same remark applies to the Island of New Providence and Rum Cay. The inconsistency of this loose and arbitrary use of terms, which are respectively definite, and also the occasional inconvenience of the practice, in navigation, are forcibly exhibited in a little work, entitled "A Revision and Explanation of Hydrographical and Geographical Terms," by Lieut. John Evans (b), R.N, which has not received the encouragement it merits. Cay is sometimes written Kay: this is improper, as the word is derived from the Spanish Cayo.

[page] 225

week in working through the Providence N.W. channel, a distance of about an hundred miles, our progress having been much retarded by a strong current. One forenoon the ship passed near the Great Stirrup Cay, one of the Berry Islands—observing a Union Jack flying near a house, and a tempting sandy beach beneath, I landed to procure a clue to our perplexing navigation. The "Lord of the Isle," a mulatto named Ellis, received and conducted me through the Bush to the house, a very comfortable one, built with drift lumber. He informed me that about ten years ago he settled here, and that subsequently he had obtained a government grant of the Cay, in perpetuity. It is nearly seven miles in circumference, the surface tolerably level, and mostly covered with good soil; it is wooded, except twelve acres cleared by his family, which produce vegetables and Indian corn. In average seasons the crops exceed the consumption of the inhabitants, of whom there are ten, half of them being slaves. Of live stock there were some kine, many pigs, goats, and poultry. He also possesses several boats and a small sloop; she conveys the surplus produce to Nassau, and goes wrecking. To my inquiry how she was then employed, they replied, "she is gone sponging." Never having heard this phrase used, except in a degrading sense, I did not quickly comprehend its purport, and felt disposed to think harshly of people who unblushingly avowed such meanness. Signifying my embarrassment, it was removed, as has appeared under the head of Andros. Ellis and his wife said they were happier here than they had been at Nassau, which the former had not revisited for two years, nor the latter but one. This is reasonable: in this obscure spot they are exempted from feeling the humiliating effects arising from the invidious distinctions that in innumerable forms will pervade and vex a society of mixed colours, until the end of time. Here they not only possess the necessaries of life, but are thriving, which ought to afford grounds for contentment. In short, with a grateful heart for the enjoyment of these blessings, what more is requisite? When life is passed in innocent and useful occupation, free from want, as great happiness is offered as it can afford. This place has been described, not only because it exhibits an interesting display of human industry, although recently applied; but also to diffuse the information that it affords, although in a limited degree, water, live stock, and vegetables, —supplies which, from the position, bold shore, good anchorage, and convenient access of this Cay, may be obtained here more easily than at any other place in the immediate vicinity. It is not unusual for twenty sail of Americans, of from one hundred to four hundred tons burthen, to pass the Great Stirrup within musket-shot, and even within hail, in one day. These, for the most part, are proceeding from the United States to Cuba and the Gulf of Mexico. They make the Hole in the Wall, then the Stirrup: here, if the weather appears threatening, they pass through the N.W. channel; otherwise, they shape a course across the Great Bahama Bank to the southward of the Cat Cays, where they enter the Florida Strait, and pursue the voyage from a point where the Gulf Stream runs with rather less velocity than farther to the northward. On this track we spoke a ship from the Elbe, bound to New Orleans, with emigrants.

When the Gulf Stream runs most strongly through the Florida Strait, the easterly offset round the Maternillo may be presumed to partake of

U. S. JOURN. No. 71, OCT. 1834.

[page] 226

the increased rate. At such a time, vessels from the south-west bound to New Providence, should the wind be dead-foul for the N.W. channel, on their arrival off Great Isaac, may possibly make quicker passages via the Maternillo and Hole in the Wall. In most instances, however, the N.W. channel will be found far more eligible, as a favourable slant will carry you through in a day. In adopting this route with a foul wind, it seems most advantageous to avoid Great Bahama Island, at least when to the eastward of the Gingerbread Ground; then get hold of the edge of the Great Bank, which thenceforward to the Stirrup Cays will be found clear: tacking off, as prudence may direct, and having the stream-anchor ready to let go on it, in calms or in light winds, when the tide is adverse, the current being almost always so, although varying considerably in velocity. On the edge of the Bank, in the above limits, the soundings are very regular, shoaling or deepening in the most gradual manner conceivable. We made the passage from Montego Bay, Jamaica, through the N.W. channel, in twenty-three days, of which eight were passed between Great Isaac and Nassau; and I was informed that his Majesty's ship Ariadne, from Honduras (the distance to Great Isaac being nearly the same,) was thirty-three days, via the Maternillo; the passages occurring in May and June, 1832 and 1833, respectively.


Colchester, March, 1834.



THE name of the Caffre chief, Islambi, I'Sambi, or Llhambi (the orthography being yet undetermined,) is to be found in the pages of almost every author who has attempted either graphic or historical writing on subjects connected with the Cape colony. A prince, acknowledged by many savage tribes,—an hereditary enemy to the colonists,—a noted warrior in his youth,—an untameable spirit in his declining years, he had established a name on the eastern frontier of our possessions in South Africa, which commanded the respect that is not denied to determined courage and superior talent, even when met with among the uncivilized races of mankind. From the termination of Lieutenant-Colonel Willshire's operations in 1819, against this chieftain in Cafferland, to the date of this sketch at the close of 1824, a long series of border raids, of murders, of marauding and reprisal, equally harassing to the savages and to the colonists, had been carried on with but little interruption. The Commandant of Caffraria, therefore, at length determined to attempt the remedy of these evils; not, indeed, by the often tried and no less frequently failing experiment, of a war of extermination,—but by endeavouring, if possible, to prevail on the several chiefs among the savage borderers, themselves to repress the predatory incursions of their followers, and thus to preclude the necessity of those measures of violence and severity which had been pursued for a long term of years. With this view, Islambi was invited

This document has been accessed 1070 times

Return to homepage

Citation: John van Wyhe, editor. 2002-. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. (

File last updated 15 October, 2013