Michael Aye Nautical and Historical Novelist

Exuma by Michael Aye

Ahoy! It’s April and in the United States that means tax time. After getting my worst tax bill ever, I was glad to board a Delta jet and head out with my wife Pat on our annual excursion. This year, our destination was Great Exuma and Little Exuma. The population on the sister islands ranges from under 1,400 to about 4,000 during National Family Island Regatta week.

The Exumas are made up of three hundred and sixty five islands and cays, which fall under the control of the Bahamian government. The lure to these islands starts with their rich history, which is so much a part of the time period in which I based my Fighting Anthony’s novels. It was also a pirate’s haven, which will be helpful as I tackle my new series for Biting Duck Press, “Pyrates”.

Of course, Pat was intrigued with the miles of powdery sandy beaches strewn with sand dollars and conch shells. In fact, conch salad prepared with raw conch is a must for visitors to these wonderful islands. However, for a pricey salad that fits in a cereal bowl made with fruits, veggies, spices and peppers that light up your sinuses, one is usually enough to satisfy you for the entire trip.

In all our visits to the Caribbean, I have never been so awed as by the beauty of the sea surrounding the Exuma’s. The turquoise ocean, with shifting shades of blue, changes from being nearly translucent to a dark radiant blue. Close to the shore, the water is crystal clear and unspoiled by the pollution we have observed around other islands we have visited in the Bahamas.

For all of their history and natural beauty, the Exumas are rampant with poverty. Medical facilities and pharmacies are almost non-existent. Pregnant women travel to Nassau for maternity care, if they receive any. There are no red lights. Shopping is limited to one large grocery, which is the size of our local convenience stores. There are two gas stations – one at each end of Great Exuma.

History records that during the Golden Age of Piracy and again in the 1800s, the Exuma’s were a pirates’ haven. The numerous islands and cays were convenient spots from which pirates could pounce on merchant shipping and slave ships. Vessels laden with salt were also targets.

Blackbeard and Captain Kidd were the most famous buccaneers to ply these waters. That is, unless you include Johnny Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean. Parts of these productions were filmed on Little Exuma. I have pictures of caves where legend says pirates stored their plunder. These caverns are a honeycomb of holes, some a man can stand up and walk in, while others are much smaller.

During the 18th century, the Treaty of Versailles settled the ownership of Exuma and the other islands making up the Bahamas. Until then, the ownership was contested by both England and Spain. With the treaty, England gained control of the Bahamas and Spain was given the Florida Peninsula. When it looked certain that America was going to win the Revolutionary War, there was a mass exodus of British loyalists from the Colonies, including the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida. A good many migrated to the Exumas. Land grants and financial compensation were awarded by the British government to these “unfortunate subjects.”

Plantations were established. As in America’s southern colonies, cotton was king. From the 1780s until the end of the century these new plantations flourished. The new plantation owners grew wealthy, and more slaves were brought to work the fields. Ships regularly dropped their anchors in the harbor at Georgetown to fill their holds with export goods.

The good times did not last, however. The land only had a thin layer of topsoil on top of coral and limestone and a harder coral base. By the 19th century, the clearing of land and repeated planting of crops exposed the soil to high winds and bad weather. Frequent downpours, hurricanes and pestilence proved to be catastrophic.

Another development was the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807, which didn’t abolish slavery, but severely suppressed the trade. Passage of the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 was the final straw. The land was worthless and slaves were free. Plantation owners were ruined. As the planters pulled out, the former slaves were left to make it on their own. Some survived by planting and growing vegetables and fruit, while others turned to the sea for a living.

Interestingly enough, over the years the attitudes in America had changed significantly. Many of the planters returned to the United States and started over where they had left off years earlier. During our week in the Exumas, we traveled the island from end to end and east to west. Little Exuma is connected to Great Exuma by a single, one-lane bridge called The Ferry. On Little Exuma at Williams Town lie the ruins of Hermitage Plantation, the last remaining reminder of the island’s heyday. The area is overgrown and with almost no infrastructure on the island it will probably disappear before too long. A set of crypts are still present and are inscribed: “George Butler 1759 - 1822”, “Henderson Ferguson 1772 – 1825” and “Constance McDonald 1755 – 1759”. A nearby unmarked grave is said to be that of a slave.

Approaching Williams Town, a tall stone monument or beacon on the salt flats was built to signal ships that salt was available for sale.

On Little Exuma, we found the Tropic of Cancer Beach, which is officially called Pelican Beach. The Tropic of Cancer latitude line runs along this beach. It is down a very rough, rocky road, without signs, but we were determined and finally found the secluded beach, with its little cays in the distance. It was an absolute paradise.

I have never advertised in any of my letters, but the best food I’ve ever eaten in the Caribbean came from a little open air shack called Santanna’s Roadside Stand. I had two lobster tails, a Bahamian cooked rice, with caramelized onions, cole slaw and corn. This was washed down with ice cold Kalik’s beer. Not only was the food second to none, but the place sat above a beautiful white sand beach with an unbelievable view and seagulls everywhere. The owner is a very pleasant and sweet lady named Keturah Fox. We were told that Johnny Depp ate there every day that he spent on the island.

On Great Exuma at Rolle Town, named after plantation owner Lord John Rolle, we found three more tombs. Two were inscribed: “Ann M. Kay” and “Alexander M. Kay”. A third was that of an infant dated 1792.

On the northern end of the island sits Barraterre, where we hired a boat and spent an entire day on the open waters. We watched in disbelief as the mighty Atlantic crashed over the cays and spilled into the calm Caribbean. The boat captain pointed out places that were supposedly pirates’ hideouts and fishing villages established by former slaves. We saw homes on islands owned by such celebrities as David Copperfield, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Nicholas Cage and others. We saw where the James Bond movie, Thunderball, was filmed in part. We went to an island that sported swimming pigs and another island where rock iguanas would eat lettuce out of your hand.

At Staniel Cay you could swim with the sharks. We also found a huge sandbar in the middle of the Caribbean nestled among the cays. At Stocking Island, mega million-dollar yachts were anchored in every direction.

All too soon the week was over and it was back on a jet and to our daily routines. To learn more about the Exumas, visit the islands’ website. You’ll be surprised at how much there is to see and do. Well, shipmates, until next year, fair winds.

-Michael Aye