History of the Abacos Bahamas

Capt. Jeff

During the two years after Lord Cornwallis' forced surrender at Yorktown, it was a world turned upside down for the British Loyalists who remained in New York.

The fate of these Tories became a sidebar to the American Revolution's peace negotiations in Paris and was sealed in 1783 when Spain and Great Britain signed a peace treaty that was essentially a land swap: East Florida for the Bahamas. Florida became Spanish once again, and the British suddenly owned the Bahamas.The Crown offered few options to the 8,000 remaining Loyalists throughout the former 13 colonies when Sir Guy Carelton, the last British Commander in New York, ordered the Tory exodus. The option given to New Yorkers was resettlement in the Abacos Islands, a Bahamian archipelago about 150 miles east of South Florida.

In the late summer of 1783, the first group of about 130 Tories left New York and founded Carleton, named in honor of the commander, on Great Abaco Island, near today's Treasure Cay. Carleton was a refugee camp, its tents holding pens for the British subjects who were waiting their allocation of land. By November, the last New York refugees arrived at Carleton, and the first group of Loyalists from East Florida set up camp at Marshes Harbour 18 miles to the southeast. Many of these new arrivals had dreams of easily starting cotton plantations after reading a greatly embellished description of Great Abaco in a New York gazette: The Island of Albico (sic) ... is among the most fruitful in produce, and the most important to the Brisitsh government, and wants only inhabi- tants, and a small degree of cultivation, to render it as flourising as any of the West-India-Islands.But what they found was best summed up in a note sent back to Sir Carleton after the first settlers arrived: (They) find themselves in want of many necessities that cannot be obtained at any Price, and they find it will be impossible for them to clear the Land, Plant it, and Reap the Fruits of their Labour sooner than Twelve or Fourteen months, therefore Prays your Excellency will be pleased to grant them the following small request of an addition(al) Six Months Provisions, a few rolls of Osnaburgs (rough cotton cloth), a Thousand pair of Military Shoes, some nails for building Houses, a Cross-cut saw ... a few whip saws, some Medicines as the People are Landed very sickly from the Ships.

In due course the Loyalists were successful planters, but only for a short time, when soil depletion, pests and hurricanes stifled the cotton harvests. By the early 1800s many of the original settlers had moved away and those who remained made their livelihood by boatbuilding, fishing and wrecking. Wrecking was the art of salvaging the valuables from ships that foundered close to shore along the reefs and sand banks. To be closer to the shipwrecks, the wreckers moved their operations to the small outlying cays, east of Great Abaco, bordering the Atlantic Ocean. Green Turtle Cay soon became the wrecking capital of the Abacos. By 1806, Captain Gideon Lowe, master of the wrecking vessel Carpenter's Revenge, was making a handsome living as a salvor. The sea, not the soil, was now the path to success.

Some of the islanders on Green Turtle Cay later moved to Key West for even better opportunities, and a few took their homes with them on barges. In Key West they made their fortunes as wreckers and merchants. John Lowe migrated to Key West in the 1830s with his infant son John Jr. in tow, and both eventually became well-known wreckers. Wrecking was so profitable it made Key West the wealthiest city in Florida and the city with the highest per-capita income in the U.S. just before the Civil War. Today, the surnames of Albury, Curry and Lowe can be found in phone books of both the Abacos and Key West, attesting to their lineage. As late as 1912, 60 percent of Key Westers could trace their ancestors to the Bahamas.

About all that remains of the original Loyalist settlements in the Abacos are Marsh Harbour on Great Abaco, New Plymouth on Green Turtle Cay, Man-O-War Cay, and Hope Town on Elbow Cay. But history can still be glimpsed here and there. Elbow Reef Lighthouse, with its red and white horizontal stripes, is the most recognized landmark in the Abacos. It is worth going ashore in Hope Town to climb the hundred-plus steps to visit the top of one of the last manually operated lighthouses in the world.In New Plymouth, settlers laid out streets reflecting their heritage with names like Loyalist Road and Crown Street. They built clapboard cottages surrounded by white picket fences and adorned them with gingerbread as the years went by. One such 19th-century house, on the corner of Parliament and King streets, is now the home of the Albert Lowe Museum. The museum chronicles the history of life on Green Turtle Cay. A collection of model ships crafted by Albert Lowe and paintings by his son Alton round out the displays in the galleries.

Whether you cruise with your own boat or charter one in the Bahamas, the Sea of Abaco offers thrilling sailing. And do remember to watch your depth finder, as there is plenty of skinny water; sometimes even the local guides run aground.

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