Ye Olde Travel Guide: Bahamas 1718

Mark Keating introduces visitors to a new British colony where the seas continue to swarm with dastardly pirates

Vintage map of the Bahamas. (Library of Congress)

This article was first published in the March 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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When to go

For the colonies of the Bahamas any time of year is perfect. The islands boast a warm and breezy air throughout the seasons and mostly avoid the summer hurricanes of the Caribbean which tend towards the Americas instead.

For the traveller not ‘seasoned’ to the Indies, autumn and winter are cooler, with November reflecting a May-like countenance to even the most flushed English face.

What to take with you

Space will be limited on your ship. Lockers will be provided but you should take no more than you can carry over one shoulder. For more sumptuous travel you may purchase a cabin if one is available. This is little more than a screened area below deck but has the luxury of cot or bunk over hammock and at least some privacy.

Costs and money

The Bahamas are home to many currencies so the common coinage is still very much ‘weight’. Spanish coin is the most desired and the silver Spanish dollar worth eight reales is broken into change to become the infamous ‘pieces of eight’ or pesos.

The phrase ‘life is cheap’ can be taken both ways here. Goods are subject to robust taxation (a hat could cost you three times as much as in England) but colourful rogues abound who will trade silks and linens tax-free. Some of the handkerchiefs on sale may not be in perfect condition so study the corners carefully, for there are women employed in picking out the monograms of unfortunate former owners.

With the stamping down on piracy some of the islanders have rediscovered the trade of wrecking or ‘moon-cussing’. Guide-lights are removed or erected falsely to bring ships into the reefs and rocks. Once wrecked, the women wait for bodies to wash ashore for plunder while the menfolk pillage the ship.

Bring a strong stomach if a choice emerald ring is your fancy as you may have to buy it still attached to a finger!

Sights and activities

The thrill of the Bahamas is the ‘sloop-trading’ between the islands. The locals trade with all nationalities, dazzling the tourist with trinkets. The sight of a Bermuda sloop with the wind in her sails will warm even the most land-locked heart. But be careful: not all are friendly merchants. Here be pirates! The sloop is perfect for the pirate as the larger naval vessels sent to hunt them become useless in the shallow waters of the islands.

This year, the new governor of the Bahamas, Woodes Rogers, has sworn to be rid of the pirate menace. His first signature back to London proclaimed: “Piracy expelled. Commerce restored.”

But although Blackbeard and his ilk may no longer be apparent, they still carry on their trade. Up to 5,000 pirates operate in these waters. Traveller beware. (As a unique souvenir there is an old widow in Nassau who will sew you a personal pirate flag for two bottles of brandy. Yo Ho!)

The islands are undergoing an ambitious rebuild after years of pirate defilement.

The old Spanish fort on the eastern point of New Providence is under renovation and work has begun on batteries to defend against Spanish attacks. With rejuvenation come colonists from France, Holland and Germany, all wishing to stake a claim, and they provide the visitor with a fine montage of architecture and cultures.

For those seeking indigenous civilisation, unfortunately nothing remains of the native Lucayan culture; the Spanish having eliminated the entire race over barely 30 years after Columbus first landed among the islands. Such is the price of progress.

Eating

The soil of the Bahamas has proven unwelcoming to English crops. It is unlikely that any future commerce will be agricultural so this alone may be enough to ensure that piracy and wrecking remain the trades of the islands.

For fruit lovers, the pineapple of the South Americas was brought to New Providence with Woodes Rogers. Otherwise the tourist should partake of the abundant fruits de mer, and the African rice which has become slave food and a staple for colonists.

The smart tourist can make a pretty penny if he/she has a slave who knows how to cultivate rice. One African rice farmer could pay for your passage with profit to boot.

Dangers and annoyances

Pirates! Avoid men with fine clothes, no shoes, and long hair. Shorn hair is a mark of the common sailor, cut for prevention of lice. The pirate believes himself a free man and will wear his long hair with pride, not to mention your clothes and pistol if you let him.

Mark Keating is a historical novelist. His latest book, Hunt for White Gold, has been published in paperback by Hodder


Bahamas today

The Bahamas are still all about visitors and gold. These days tourism and offshore finance make up most of the islands’ income, and it is the former that shapes daily life in and around the capital, Nassau. Where once mighty sailing boats jostled for space while crew members plotted dastardly deeds, today cruise ships bring over half a million visitors a year, mostly from the USA.

Trinkets, of course, remain dazzling on the capital Nassau’s main drag, Bay Street. Nassau is still the best spot for pirate fans to besiege, with an interactive Pirates of Nassau Museum that’s just right for buccaneers of all ages. The informative Pompey Museum tells the stories of the slaves who also ended up here. Note fine Georgian government buildings in town, too.

The archipelago is a rewarding place for those who explore further than Nassau, and after a couple of days in this city, there is plenty more to see. Island groups like the Exumas are home to countless enticing coves, so plentiful that it’s not hard to leave the crowds behind. Hikers and flamingo fans flock to the Bahamas National Trust Park.

For history, Clarence Town and Cat Island’s notable African heritage is well worth exploring.

If you like this…

For a Caribbean away from cruise ships try the British overseas territory of Anguilla. If you fancy a more unusual travelling experience, the island of St Helena in the South Atlantic can only be reached by the Royal Mail ship of the same name. You’ll need to go to Cape Town to pick up a ride.

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Tom Hall, editor, lonelyplanet.com. You can read more of Tom’s articles at the website