Origins: The Abaco Islands - #110

Every place in the world has a series of things that give that spot a special character... and make it different from every other place.  When you look at the ORIGINS of these things, you often end up with a better appreciation of the territory -- and that makes it a lot more interesting to visit.  And sometimes, these ORIGINS help us understand why we live the way we do.

When some of the British colonies in North America decided to declare their independence from the king of England and form the United States of America, not everybody in the colonies agreed with that decision. Many people remained loyal to His Majesty, and when the American Revolutionary War was over they left the colonies. Some went back to England, some went to the island of Jamaica, thousands went to Canada, and six hundred came here to the island of Abaco in the Bahamas.

The Abaco Loyalists came from New York, showed up in 1783, and settled in a spot called Treasure Cay. Their dream was to set up a self-sufficient township for the families that had remained loyal to the king of England.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  They were soon joined by a group of settlers that came in from Harbour Island, which is just to the south of here.  The Harbour Islanders were descendants of groups of people that had come about 150 years before from England.  At first, I thought the Harbour Islanders had arrived to support their follow royalists, to share their belief in the rights of kings, to stand shoulder to shoulder in their vision of Great Britain.  But on further investigation, I found out that the Harbour Islanders showed up because they thought the Loyalist girls were real cute.

The Abacos are a group of islands in the Atlantic Ocean about two hundred miles northeast of Miami, Florida.  Treasure Cay is still here and the inhabitants are still loyal.  However, their present loyalty is directed toward vacationing tourists.

There is no central township for The Abacos. Each island in the group has its own focus and the residents are connected by a series of ferries. Flights into Abaco usually land at Marsh Harbour, from which you can take a ferry to Hope Town.

Hope Town is a picturesque little village inhabited by three hundred and fifty descendants of the original loyalists.

SCHOOLCHILDREN:  “Loyalists, where did you come from?  On your way to Abaco in the sun.  Yea, this was their destiny, all that came, came to be free.  Looking for a nice place to be, in Abaco Islands, especially Hope Town.  When they landed, they found a yard, to settle down was not that hard.  Yea, this was their destiny, all that came, came to be free.  Looking for a nice place to be, in Abaco Islands, especially Hope Town.”

Most families have a place where they store the stuff from their past.  Photographs of deceased relatives... presents that you don’t want but you had better have out at family gatherings... things that have been around so long you don’t even know what they are any more... The residents of Hope Town have actually taken a house and turned it into a collective attic for the community.  It’s called the Wayannie Malone Historical Museum. It’s a great idea. You can get the old stuff out of your house and instead of feeling guilty, you feel a sense of generosity for having made a donation to a historic museum. I love this place.

PEGGY THOMPSON:  One of my favorite things in the museum is a beautiful little vase, and back in the olden days you were a wrecker just like you were a doctor or a lawyer and you would salvage ships that wrecked on the many reefs around Hope Town.  And you had to turn it all over to the government legally, but this one lady who really liked this pretty vase -- as much as I like it -- hid it in her baby’s cradle, so when the inspector came, he couldn’t find it and she got to keep it in her house in Hope Town.

I also like the archaeological dig that they did here in 1991.  We don’t have any source of fresh water here, so we have to dig cisterns to store rainwater, and when somebody was digging a cistern they found a skeleton.  Turns out it was of a Lucayan Indian, and all of the schoolchildren got to come down and did a proper archaeological dig.  And all of the remains and other things that went with it, some tools and stuff are in the museum.  And that’s another one I like.

Down the road is the Hope Town lighthouse. It was built in the 1830s and was a highly controversial project.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  In the old days the reefs around the Abacos were quite dangerous and boats were always banging into them and sinking.  When a boat would hit a reef and start to go down, the local residents would come out to save the cargo.  Actually, seize the cargo would be a better description.  The law at the time required that that cargo go to Nassau and be sold at auction.  A small slice of the proceeds from that auction would go to the government as a tax, a small slice would go to the previous owner of the vessel, and the bulk of those funds would go to the local residents who had saved the cargo.  Well, the people around here became so dependent on that as a source of income, that when the government tried to build a lighthouse, they sabotaged it.

Eventually, however, it got built and today it is a major tourist attraction.  It is one of the few lighthouses in the world that has not been automated.  It houses one of the last hand-powered Kerosene beacons still in use.

The light and the base that turns it were made during the early 1900s in Birmingham, England, and they still work perfectly.  The light source is provided by a kerosene vapor lamp that burns with the brightness of 325,000 candles.  Just below the lantern room there is a hand pump that is used to pressurize the kerosene.  The kerosene travels up a tube into an atomizer that sprays it into a mantle.  Some camping lanterns operate on the same principle.

The mantle light is concentrated by five bull’s-eye lenses into a piercing beam that is directed out to the horizon.

A cable of weights is pulled up to the top of the tower.  As it descends it turns a series of bronze gears that rotate the lamp every fifteen seconds.  The lighthouse keeper must pull up the cable every two hours.

The system weighs three tons and floats on a circular tube that is filled with mercury.  The mercury reduces the friction at the base of the housing and allows it to turn. The turning mechanism is like a huge grandfather or cuckoo clock.

The light is 120 feet above sea level and shines for 15 miles.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Between the climbing up the 101 steps to the top of the lighthouse and pulling up those weights every two hours, the lighthouse keeper gets a pretty good workout.  All he really needs is something for his abs, which shouldn’t be hard to find, after all, we are in Abaco.

The next island north of Hope Town is called Man-O-War Cay.  The residents are very proud of their history and determined to preserve their way of life.  They will not allow any hotels or resorts to be put up on their island, and no liquor has ever been offered for sale.  A reminder of their puritan past.  Man-O-War was the center of Abaco’s shipbuilding industry and still has a number of successful boat yards.  Most of the boats that are in for maintenance come over from Florida.  The owners like the traditional craftsmanship of these yards; they also feel that they get a good price for the work and they love the idea of waiting in the Bahamas while the work gets done.

Most of the people on Man-O-War can trace their family heritage back to Pappy Ben Albury and Mammy Nellie Archer who settled here in the 1820s.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Nellie was a young teenager who came over to this island one day with her father to work on a small farming patch that they owned.  While they were weeding away, they began to hear sounds from the beach.  And when they came over to investigate, they saw a group of young Bahamian sailors coming ashore after their ship had wrecked on the reef.  In charge of the group was young Ben, only sixteen years old at the time, but it was love at first sight.  They courted, they married, and moved back to this island where they first met.

These days the Alburys and the Archers represent most of the residents on Man-O-War.  They still meet, they still fall in love, but they only marry if they are second cousins or more distant.  It appears that love conquers everything but genetics. 

A few cays north of Man-O-War on a strip of land called Green Turtle Cay is New Plymouth.  New Plymouth was once an important commercial center: lots of boat building, and a major pineapple plantation, but over the years it has settled back into a less stressful existence as a fishing village, with houses that look a lot like the saltboxes of New England.

This New Plymouth saltbox was built in 1826 for a successful businessman. Today it is the home of the Albert Lowe Museum. It was the first historical museum in the Bahamas and it is dedicated to the history of the British settlers who founded New Plymouth in the 1700s, and to the shipbuilding business that they developed.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  As you come into the museum, one of the first things you see is a portrait of Albert Lowe.  He was a great lover of the sea, but he was also a great builder of model boats.  He liked to build replicas of the boats that had actually been built in full scale in the Abacos and used commercially.  This is a good example.  A lot of these boats were used to transport lumber that was cut from the forest in Abaco for sale in the United States.  They also did a little trading in pineapples.  There are half a dozen absolutely beautiful models here that he made.  There are a number of paintings along the wall, some of them over a hundred years old and they show you what life was like in the old days, though, it really hasn’t changed very much.  This is a guy named William Curry.  He loved his house, which was here in Abaco, and one day he decided to move it -- all the way to Key West.  He broke it down, packed it up, and shipped it over.  I’m very impressed with this, because even if he got a great deal and he went first class, the overweight was going to be enormous.  Now remember, everybody here was a loyalist.  They believed in the King and Queen of England and their power, and there are a number of paintings that represent that attitude.  This is Queen Victoria at her wedding to Prince Albert.  Boy, Albert was in good shape -- he’s wearing very tight pants.  This is Queen Victoria at her coronation; this group here are all of the ladies-in-waiting where we see the Queen with her ladies-in-waiting.  Waiting was a small town just to the south of London and they were in there all the time.

“QUEEN VICTORIA”:  “We are not amused.”

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Clocks, chairs, tables, doilies, hundred and fifty-year-old lamps...Hold on -- a love letter:  “Richard -- when it comes to giving...”  I don’t think we’re going to share this.

New Plymouth is also the site of The Memorial Sculpture Garden, a national monument honoring the early settlers in the Bahamas and their descendants.  There are twenty-four sculptures; each likeness represents a person who stands for a particular achievement in Bahamian history.  At the center of the garden is a plaque dedicated to the American Loyalists.  It deals with a part of the Revolutionary War that is usually not well-covered in American history books. The first paragraph reads:

“Divided by civil war, defeated in battle, stripped of property and possessions,    persecuted and exiled by their neighbors, American Loyalists were forced to   abandon their homeland and seek their king’s protection in the Bahama Islands.”

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Not quite the same text that was in my high school year book.  Clearly, there are at least two sides to every story.

Time to eat!  And the place is Wally’s Restaurant.  During the mid-eighties, Barbara and Maureen Smith came to the family islands from Canada to help their dad begin his retirement.  Which turned out to be a restaurant -- a restaurant whose specialties are Grouper Nantua, which is a grouper salad served on toast.  They also make a mean mahi-mahi burger, which is mahi-mahi good.  Also on the menu: a grouper in a spicy tomato sauce...  traditional British fish and chips, and finally, Wally’s signature dish, Bahamian lobster salad.

They also have a nice little boutique.  There’s John Blackman, my sound engineer, spending his hard-earned money.  Hey John -- you’re supposed to be recording my voice!  John!  JOHN!

We also had a good meal at Mangoes in Marsh Harbour.  Libby Roberts did all her cooking at home until 1989, when she decided to turn pro and opened a little restaurant right on the water.  After extensive marketing research, she decided to call it “Mangoes,” because that was her favorite fruit.  The restaurant specializes in grilled fish.  Grouper with black olive sauce is the most popular dish.  Everybody in the crew also enjoyed the chicken salad and the jerked ribs.

The Abacos are one of the world’s great centers for yachtsmen and many of the resorts are designed for people who sail up as well as drive up. The Great Abaco Beach Resort is a good example.  The resort is half hotel and half marina.  The marina contains 185 slips with hookups for fresh water, electricity, telephone, television, and what appears to be the most essential facility for yachtmen -- a laundry!  Yachts from all along the east coast of North America pull into the resort to relax and unwind after their passage to the Bahamas.  And they also use it as their home port as they travel through these islands.

The hotel property is spread out over twenty-three acres of beachfront.  Most of the rooms are set into villas that have been placed just above the shore.  There’s a pool, an outdoor bar and all the other amenities that are normally associated with a tropical resort.  Plus a very pleasant hotel staff who are interested in doing what they can to help you relax.

Clearly, Abaco beach is a good spot to head out for some deep sea fishing.  Two of the great deep sea fishing tournaments -- The Bertram-Hatteras Shoot-out and the Bahamas Billfish Tournament -- are based out of Great Abaco Beach.

STEVE WILLIAMS:  Typically, we’ll arrange the charter for you, pre-book it; you’ll arrive here, everything will be ready for you.  We provide the tackle, the bait... the mate, the captain will all be here.  And basically all you have to bring is your sunscreen.  And we try to tailor our trips to the experience level of the angler.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Big game fishing as a sport got its start in Western Europe in 1496 with the publication of the first book on the subject.  The book was called A Treatise On Fishing With An Angle.  Fishing with an angle meant fishing with a hook as opposed to a net or a spear or a harpoon.  Gear in those days included a rod made of local wood, line that was made from braided horsehair, and a hook cast from iron.

In 1655, Izaak Walton wrote a book that became the most famous fishing book ever published. It is called The Complete Angler, and it introduced the idea of the reel. The basic equipment has changed very little over the years, although the materials and the construction techniques have taken advantage of our most modern technologies.

Boating became popular right after World War Two and big game fishing became the ideal activity to occupy the powerboater.  The introduction of plastic made the gear lighter and stronger. (“Stay with him, Helen!”)  Monofilament nylon line could withstand hundreds of pounds of pull and still be light enough for long casts.

But despite all these advantages, the angler still has to find the fish, a task which has became easier because of fish-finding sonar.  It uses a radar-like device to search the bottom of the sea and send back a signal outlining the fish.  Trolling from the boat allows the anglers to cover a large area of the sea and send their lines down to considerable depths.  A massive rod with a heavy reel is set into a socket in what is called a fighting chair.  The fisherman is held into the seat with a harness and the battle between man and big game fish begins.  Or the battle between man and boredom.

But how big is a big game fish?  Well, recent records have included a white shark at twenty-six hundred pounds, a black marlin at sixteen hundred pounds, and a bluefin tuna at fifteen hundred pounds.  Now, the bluefin tuna is particularly impressive when you realize that that single fish was responsible for over ten thousand individual tuna sandwiches.  Which reminds me -- I owe you a recipe.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  One learns to live with disappointment.

George Malone is the chef at The Great Abaco Beach Resort.  Being a true Bahamian he prefers to do his cooking outside whenever possible.  Right now he’s preparing the fish that I did not catch -- grilled grouper fillets with a citrus sauce.

He starts with a marinade which eventually turns into a basting sauce and then into a serving sauce. Very efficient. One cup of orange marmalade goes into a mixing bowl, followed by a quarter of a cup of white horseradish and three tablespoons of chopped garlic. Then a quarter of a cup of chopped parsley is added and a teaspoon of Tabasco sauce.

The next set of ingredients consists of the juice of one lemon, a cup of pineapple juice and a quarter of cup of dark rum.  The rum is optional.  A little salt and pepper.  A little mixing.  And finally a quarter of a cup of vegetable oil is whisked in.


The boneless, skinless fish filets rest in that mixture for and hour and a half... at which point they go onto the grill to cook.

At the same time, the marinade goes into a saucepan and over the heat where it is brought to a simmer.  As the fish is cooking, the marinade is used as a basting sauce.

BURT WOLF:  If I can’t get grouper, what else could I use?

GEORGE MALONE:  You can use grouper, you can use tuna, you can use wahoo...

BURT WOLF:  Big fish.

GEORGE MALONE:  Yeah, any big fish that’s good for grilling, no small fish.  You know, small pan-fried fish that we call, like, grunts.  Basically big fish.

BURT WOLF:  You got it.

When the fish is finished cooking, it comes off the grill and is served with the warm sauce on top.

And as long as we are out here and the coals are still hot, George is going to make grilled chicken breasts with a traditional Bahamian sauce.

GEORGE MALONE:   Alright, we’ve taken a piece of chicken that’s already been seasoned with salt, pepper, and lime juice.  And we take it and throw it on the grill for about fifteen, twenty minutes.

BURT WOLF:  Ah, the wind...the magic ingredient in outdoor cooking.  The magic ingredient we’d like not to have in the outdoor cooking.

We cook the chicken with the skin on because it will keep the meat tender, but anyone who is trying to lower the fat and cholesterol content of their diet should take the

skin off after the chicken is cooked.

While the chicken is cooking George prepares the sauce.  An ounce of vegetable oil is heated in a saucepan.  Two ounces of bacon cut into pieces are added -- not great for fat watchers, but there are limits to the sacrifices I’ll make.  Then a cup of chopped onion, a cup of green pepper strips and a cup of chopped celery are added.  All that simmers for ten minutes.

At that point two cups of diced tomatoes and their juices go in, plus four ounces of tomato paste.  Two minutes of heating and stirring and it’s time to add two cups of chicken stock and the seasonings, which are two tablespoons of Worcestershire Sauce, one teaspoon of thyme and a pinch of salt.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  George and I are joking about the wind, but it really is an important factor in outdoor cooking.  If you’re looking at a recipe and it calls for grilling the meat for ten minutes outdoors, and there’s a heavy wind, that wind is going to move the heat away, and you may need fifteen or twenty minutes.  So if you’re cooking outdoors and you’ve got a wind, try and put up something that will block that wind so the heat can go directly to the food.

Five more minutes of cooking and the sauce is ready.  And so is the chicken. Bahamian peas and rice and coleslaw are the side dishes. The chicken joins in and the sauce goes on top. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Just one more story.  In 1973, when the Bahamas gained their independence from Great Britain, everybody here was thrilled -- everybody but the people living on Abaco.  They were Loyalists, and they wanted to remain loyal to the king and queen of England, and stay part of Great Britain.  What a neighborhood!  And talking about loyalty, I hope you will join us next time as we travel around the world.  I’m Burt Wolf.