Abaco’s first-known inhabitants were the peace-loving Lucayans, who began migrating north from Hispaniola and Cuba as early as 700 AD to escape the brutal, marauding Carib Indians. It’s believed that as many as 10,000 Lucayans lived in Abaco.
The Bahamian Lucayans survived by farming, fishing and hunting. From the soil, they made Palmettoware, pottery tempered with pieces of shells. They fashioned tools and utensils from coral and conch shells, wove intricate straw baskets, and carved wooden spears, bowls and even rudimentary chairs called duhos. From solid logs of native horseflesh and cedar, they hand-carved paddles and massive, flat-bottomed canoes.
In October 1492, Christopher Columbus, seeking a direct passage to Asia, landed on the shores of the southern Bahamas. After exploring the Bahamian archipelago for several weeks, Columbus and his Spanish crew sailed south, taking several Lucayans with them.
Later, when they discovered gold in Hispaniola and Cuba and had exhausted the local labour supply, the Spanish returned to the Bahamas and enslaved and carried off the Lucayans, forcing them to labour in gold mines, on plantations, and as pearl divers. Without immunity, many Lucayans succumbed to European diseases such as measles, smallpox and yellow fever. Thousands were quite simply worked to death.
Within just five years, the entire Lucayan population in the Bahamas — estimated by the Spanish to be about 40,000 – had been wiped out.
When the last Lucayans were gone, Abaco remained essentially uninhabited for several centuries.
For a brief period during the early 1700s, however, the shallow waters surrounding Abaco’s cays were popular with pirates such as Henry Morgan, Blackbeard (Edward Teach), Charles Vane, Calico Jack Rackham, Anne Bonny and Mary Read.
The islands’ sheltered harbours provided ideal cover for pirates to hide from enemies, clean and repair their vessels and keep watch for potential prey. By the late 1720s, however, Governor Woodes Rogers had successfully driven most pirates out of Bahamian waters, and Abaco would remain uninhabited for half a century more.
By the late 1700s, the American Revolutionary War had ended. Having lost the war, British Loyalists who’d fought for the crown were subjected to torture and torment and many were forced to flee. Some sailed north to Canada. But the southern Loyalists preferred to relocate to warmer climes in which they could continue their plantation lifestyles.
Sir Guy Carleton, Commander of the British forces in America, recommended to the British Government that Bahamian land be parceled out to these Loyalists. He arranged for transportation and six months’ worth of supplies to enable the Loyalists to settle into their new home.
Between 1783 and 1788, several thousand British Loyalists – mostly modest white families, former soldiers and farmers, slaves and free blacks – arrived in the Bahamas. Their surnames included Curry, Bartlum, Key, Cornish, Adams, Weatherford, Cook, Harris, Malone and Archer.
Abaco’s first-recorded Loyalist settlement was Carleton, named in honour of Guy Carleton and located at the north end of what is now Treasure Cay beach. There, the new settlers planted coffee, cotton and guinea corn, and felled mahogany and lignum vitae for export to the U.S. and England. To transport the abundant cotton and produce they were certain they would soon harvest, they built large ships.
Their hopes, however, would soon be dashed. Agricultural production turned out to be meager at best. Abaco’s soil was so shallow that, during the dry season, the sun heated the rock beneath and burned anything they planted. Water from the wells they dug was salty and undrinkable.
Not surprisingly, friction soon arose between Carleton’s 650 or so residents. Before long, two-thirds of the population moved 18 miles southeast, where they established Marsh Harbour. Some free blacks, perhaps fearful of being re-enslaved, chose to settle in other parts of Abaco.
Those left behind in Carleton soon realized that whereas the Abaco mainland was still and humid, the nearby cays offered cool ocean breezes and as a result, fewer insects. Many chose to relocate to what would become Green Turtle Cay, Guana Cay, Man-O-War and Elbow Cay (Hope Town).
Before long, what was left of the deserted Carleton settlement would be wiped out by a hurricane. Today, all that remains is a monument marking its original location.
Early in the 19th century, Eleuthera’s Harbour Island, south of Abaco, had become overpopulated, overlogged and overfished. When an 1806 hurricane leveled much of that settlement, its residents began migrating north.
Some of the new arrivals from Harbour Island were Loyalists with surnames such as Curry, Lowe, Saunders and Adams. Others were descendants of the Eleutheran Adventurers who, seeking religious freedom, settled in the Bahamas during the 1600s. These “old inhabitants,” as they were dubbed a century later by Loyalist newcomers, included Russells, Tedders, Bethells, Alburys, Sands, Sawyers, Roberts and Pinders.
To this new, merged society, the old inhabitants contributed seafaring experience and a work ethic born of pioneer life. The Loyalists brought education, culture and gentility befitting their southern roots. And together, after decades of poverty and want, they would forever change the history of Abaco, transforming it into one of the most prosperous regions in the Bahamas.
A SERIES OF REMARKABLE OPPORTUNITIES
With an abundance of Abaco timber and an infusion of Loyalist manpower, the old inhabitants set about using their superior skills to build a healthy and profitable shipbuilding industry.
International trade was growing. Ships traveling from New York, Boston and Baltimore to the West Indies sailed just east of Abaco’s shores.
A combination of rudimentary navigational aids and an unforgiving north wind meant that countless ships drifted dangerously close to, and often on to – the 100-mile barrier reef that stretches along Abaco’s east coast. Wrecking – salvaging goods and rescuing crews from shipwrecks – creative lucrative employment for Abaconians.
THE FOUNDING OF KEY WEST
Some Abaco wreckers preferred to ply their trade in the waters around the Florida Keys.
In 1825, when the U.S. Congress passed the Federal Wrecking Act, stipulating that salvage from any vessel wrecked in American waters must be brought to a U.S. port, Abaconians began relocating to the then virtually uninhabited Key West.
With them, they brought boat building, fishing, turtling, sponging and of course, their wrecking expertise. By 1860, two-thirds of Key West’s 3,000 residents were of Bahamian descent.
For those who stayed in Abaco, the American Civil War would prove lucrative.
When President Lincoln blockaded 4,000 miles of southern coastline, he left the Confederate states desperately in need of manufactured goods such as guns, ammunition, clothing and medicine.
From transshipment points in Abaco, enterprising Abaconians — some motivated solely by adventure and profit and others committed to the Southern cause — became blockade runners.
They smuggled British-made ammunition and goods into the southern states, and returned with vessels laden down with cotton, which was in great demand in European mills. Fortunes were also made in supporting industries, such as shipbuilding and construction.
When the Confederate states surrendered in April 1865, however, the heady days of blockade running ended overnight. And, as the age of sail gave way to steam, the cry of “Wreck ashore!” grew less frequent. But, for the residents of Abaco, there would soon be sweeter opportunities ahead.
Abaconians soon discovered that the sandy soil that proved so unfit for the crops of their Loyalist ancestors was in fact ideal for the cultivation of pineapples, citrus and later, sisal. Around the same time, world demand for Bahamian sponges increased dramatically. Ships laden with Abaco oranges, pineapples, turtles, sponges and sisal sailed regularly for northern U.S. and European ports.
Together, this sequence of ventures – wrecking, boatbuilding, agriculture and sponging – converged to create a period of extraordinary prosperity in Abaco. The population of tiny New Plymouth, on Green Turtle Cay, for example, grew to almost 2,000 (compared to just 450 or so today.)
Tidy rows of gracious, lavishly appointed, two- and three-story wood and quarried-stone homes with breezy verandas and dormer windows lined the streets of the Abaco Cays.
Hotels were built to house U.S buyers’ agents and shoppers from South Florida. (At that time, Miami’s population was one-sixth of Green Turtle Cay’s, and South Floridians routinely travelled to Abaco for supplies and provisions.)
As the 19th century drew to a close, however, economic storm clouds were already gathering. Abaco’s pineapple fields began yielding less fruit each season. Farmers in California and Florida began cultivating citrus. Acres of sisal plants throughout the Bahamas began showing signs of stunted growth. And the Bahamian sponge industry was dealt two blows – the first when Cuba began exporting sponges, and second when a mysterious blight destroyed many of local sponge beds.
Thanks to Henry Flagler’s newly built railroad, Miami was experiencing a giant building boom and jobs were available for every Bahamian who wanted one. Between 1900 and 1920, it’s estimated that one in five Bahamians emigrated to the U.S.
ABACO’S LUMBER INDUSTRY
In 1906, an American group calling itself the Bahamas Timber Company obtained a 100-year contract to log pinelands in Abaco. Just south of Marsh Harbour, they built a state-of-the-art sawmill and an adjacent town, Wilson City, to house employees.
Wilson City was a modern marvel, complete with street lights, electricity and an ice plant. It boasted Abaco’s first tennis court and a large store stocked with fabric and other supplies from the U.S. Mill employees enjoyed low-cost housing as well as a medical plan.
In 1919, the U.S. ratified the U.S. National Prohibition Act or Volstead Act, which made it illegal to manufacture, transport, sell, import or export alcohol in the U.S. Obliging Bahamians, some fondly recalling the adventure of Civil War blockade running, were only too happy to serve as middlemen. West Indian rum, English gin and Scotch whiskey were shipped to the Bahamas and smuggled to the U.S. on fast boats by “rum runners.”
COBBLING TOGETHER A LIVING
As has often been the case in Abaco’s history, the glory days of rum running proved short. And before long, many Abaconians were forced to cobble together a living through subsistence farming and fishing, sugar cane cultivation, turtle harvesting and straw work.
A short-lived shark-fishing industry on Green Turtle Cay (sharks were valued for their skins and their livers, which are rich in Vitamin A) provided employment for a handful of men.
Between 1926 and 1932, Abaco was hit by a series of powerful hurricanes, which collectively dealt a brutal blow to the local economy. Many Abaconians were forced to migrate to Nassau in search of work.
TOURISM IN ABACO
Though a handful of Americans and Canadians began buying real estate in Abaco as early as the late 1930s, the region’s tourism industry did not begin in earnest until a decade later.
As travel resumed following World War II, visitors to the Bahamas began venturing beyond Nassau in greater numbers. Small resorts and fishing lodges began sprang up around Abaco. During the 1960s, the Treasure Cay Resort and Treasure Cay Airport were built.
When the Bahamas gained independence from England in 1973, Abaconians commemorated their Loyalist roots in several ways.
In 1976, The Albert Lowe Museum – the country’s first historical museum – was founded on Green Turtle Cay. Hope Town’s Wyannie Malone Museum followed soon after. In 1985, Hope Town residents commemorated the bicentennial of the Loyalist’s arrival with a reenactment, and in 1987, a Loyalist Memorial Sculpture Garden was established on Green Turtle Cay.
During the mid-1980s, Hope Town celebrated the bicentennial of its founding by Loyalist Wyannie Malone, and a Loyalist Memorial Sculpture Garden was dedicated on Green Turtle Cay. And more recently, Man-O-War introduced Sojer Day, to commemorate that island’s Loyalist beginnings.
In the decades that followed, more sailors, cruisers and tourists discovered Abaco, making tourism the primary cornerstone in the region’s economy.
On September 1, 2019, Hurricane Dorian – the most powerful storm ever to make landfall in the Bahamas – took direct aim at Abaco.
After ravaging Elbow Cay, the storm churned across the Sea of Abaco, submerging Marsh Harbour, Abaco’s commercial hub, in up to 12 feet of storm surge. Many people drowned. Some were washed out to sea and never seen again. We likely will never know for certain how many souls were lost to Dorian, although Abaco residents and aid workers on the ground put the number at hundreds.
From Marsh Harbour, Dorian scraped north along Abaco, leaving Man-O-War Cay, Guana Cay, Green Turtle Cay, Treasure Cay and Cooper’s Town devastated in its wake, before veering west and stalling over Grand Bahama.
In the days immediately following Hurricane Dorian, a lack of shelter, food and water and concerns about sanitation and the possible outbreak of disease forced many Abaconians to leave the island. Some were evacuated to Nassau, others to Eleuthera, Harbour Island and Spanish Wells, and still others to the U.S.
As of September 2020, Abaco’s recovery has been painfully slow. Most Abaconians do not yet have reliable electricity. Some don’t yet have running water. And of course, the Covid-19 crisis has caused many foreign non-government aid agencies to temporarily withdraw, and forced the Bahamian government to close the country’s borders.