Origins: Nassau - #113

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.

The most northerly of the islands of the Bahamas lies about a hundred and fifty miles off the east coast of Florida, at about the same latitude as Palm Beach.  There are over seven hundred islands in the Bahama chain, and they swing down to the southeast until they come to an end just above the Dominican Republic.

When Christopher Columbus finally hit land in the New World it was one of the tiny islands of the Bahamas that he banged into.  Spanish explorers following Columbus called the area Baja Mar which means the “shallow sea.”  Eventually the islands came to be known as... the Bahamas.

Today it is one of the most popular resorts in the western hemisphere.  It has some of the finest beaches... places for scuba diving... boating... deep-sea fishing... duty-free shopping... gaming... and spots to just hang out. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The first people to live in the area  were known as the Lucayans which means “people of the islands.”  By all accounts they were a friendly group.  They had started out about two thousand years ago in South America and moved north through the Caribbean.  One of the reasons they kept moving was to avoid another tribe known as the Caribs. The Caribs, like so many modern nutritionists, believed that the more different foods you included in your diet the healthier you would be. The Caribs included the Lucayans in their diet.  And that’s one of the reasons that the word “cannibal” is found in the languages of Europe.  Unfortunately when the Spanish showed up, things did not get better.  The Lucayans got out of the food chain only to find themselves in the chains of slavery.  Within twenty-five years they had all died and the islands were deserted.

Back in England, the king had become head of the Anglican Church and he thought that everyone should follow him.  The Puritan congregations, however, preferred to follow God without the king as a middle man.  The king made life difficult for the Puritans, and many of them decided to look for a new place to live.  Some of the Puritans that left England ended up on Plymouth Rock and founded Massachusetts.  The Puritans who were in Bermuda were also being persecuted by the English government, and they escaped to the Bahamas.  In 1647 they formed this nation’s first permanent settlement of Europeans. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The next meaningful migration took place during the last decades of the 1700’s.  It was made up of American colonists who had decided to stay loyal to the King of England and wanted to have nothing to do with the newly formed United States of America.  The Loyalists who arrived here came with their slaves and enhanced the racial mixture of the islands.  Then in 1843 the British Empire decided to abolish slavery, and much to the credit of all of the Bahamians there was an easy transition to a British colony made up of free citizens. 

In 1973, after more than 250 years under British rule, the Bahamas became an independent nation.  Today it has a democratically elected government, a stable society, and a prospering economy.  But figuring out how to make a living in the Bahamas was not always a simple task.

Most of the islands in this part of the world have a volcanic base which gives them a soil that is ideal for agriculture.  The Bahamas, however, are formed from limestone with very little topsoil.  This is not an easy place for farming.  And that has influenced the history of the Bahamas in some ways that are positive and in some that are not so positive. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Without the ability to grow sugar cane which was the major cash crop for the early European colonies in the Caribbean, the Bahamians turned to other businesses.  For hundreds of years the major local occupation was the salvaging of wrecked ships.  These were dangerous waters, and thousands of boats went down on the reefs surrounding these islands.  The locals made a living by salvaging what they could. 

They also realized that they could improve their business by shifting the shore lights so instead of directing a ship to a safe passage, the light would send the vessel into a rock that was conveniently located for the salvage team.  Efficiency has always been important to a well-run business. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Now, some of the salvagers felt that waiting for a ship to get into trouble, even if they helped it along, was just inefficient.  They wanted  to salvage the ship and everything on it before it wrecked.  Now if you did that for a ship that was from your own country, it was called piracy.  But if you did it for a ship from an enemy country it was called privateering and that was a totally legitimate business.  As a matter of fact, many of the great heroes of the British navy were actually privateers and the Bahamas became a major center for the business.  The Spanish would come along and steal the gold from the native American tribes.  They’d put it on their galleons and sail it back to Spain.  As they passed the Bahamas, the English privateers would come out and try and get the gold from the Spanish.  When they got it, the pirates showed up and tried to steal it from the English.  What a business.

The next significant commercial development for the Bahamas came during the War Between The States.  The navy of the north tried to block the major ports of the south.  Bahamian ship owners made great fortunes by running the blockade, bringing in food and military supplies and taking out cotton.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The end of The War Between The States put an end to the blockade running business.  But, you know, blockade running is a lot like bicycle riding, you can not practice for years and years, then you get back on and your skill level is right there.  When the U.S. federal government passed the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing the manufacture and consumption of alcoholic beverages, many people along the east coast of the United States who did not agree with that law, and many people who owned boats in the Bahamas began to sing the same song.  “Seems like old times...”


“...Having you to walk with...

Seems like old times,

Having you to talk with,

That is still a thrill,

Just to have my arms around you,

Seems like old times with you...”

BURT WOLF:  The Beatles have nothing to worry about.

GUITARIST:  You hear what he said.

The encouragement of free enterprise has always been part of Bahamian history.  Fortunately, today the Bahamian love of business is manifest in three very acceptable forms: international banking, tourism, and duty-free shopping.

They are a retailer’s seventh heaven and a shopper’s delight.  Ninety percent of the stock is famous brand merchandise.  Cartier.  Fendi.  Christian Lacroix.  Rolex.  Chanel.  Gucci.  Baccarat.  Everything is pre-packed and ready for sale, and ninety percent of the shoppers know just what they want and are ready to make their purchase.  These magical midpoints of marketing are known as duty-free shops.  They are found throughout the world and represent billions of dollars in annual sales.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The idea of duty-free shopping goes back for thousands of years.  One of the easiest ways for a king to pick up a few extra dollars was to place a tax on luxury goods coming into his country.  That tax was added to the retail price of the product and everybody paid for it.  What we now call an import duty.  One of the easiest ways to avoid the import duty was to do your shopping on the high seas, ship to ship, or maybe on a little island that didn’t have a tax agent.  Eventually the kings decided to let sailors buy luxury goods like tobacco and alcohol, without paying the duty. The theory was that they were going to use those products in an area that was not part of the  king’s territory.   So let’s give ‘em a break. 

The modern duty-free business got started just after World War II, when a duty-free shop was opened at Ireland’s Shannon Airport.  The Irish government did not charge an import duty on the goods that were being sold to the passengers.  And the duty-free shop passed on those savings to the purchaser.  In 1948, airlines began selling duty-free liquor and tobacco onboard their flights.  And today, duty-free shops are found at virtually every international airport, border crossing, cruise ship, international flight, and in port towns where the nation has come to understand how profitable this business can be.

The duty free shops in Nassau are a perfect example of what I mean.  The government has posted a long list of luxury items on which it does not charge a duty.  That savings is passed on to the customer by the duty free shop.  And unlike many countries in which there is so much paperwork that it just doesn’t pay to make a duty free purchase, there is no paper work in Nassau.  Everything happens in the shop.  No madness at the airport.  In general there’s a 25 to 35 percent savings over the prices in North America and Europe.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  But remember, your own country will place a limit on the amount of the duty free stuff you can bring back in.  Governments and duty-free shopping have the same relationship as just about everything else that involves the government.  If they don’t get you coming, they get you going.  Which is better than when they get you coming and going.

The idea of taking a vacation in a warm and sunny spot by the sea goes back for thousands of years.  Ancient documents show that over two thousand years ago, the well-to-do of Rome were heading to the seashore near Naples when they needed a break.  The first person to try and put the Bahamas on the vacation map was a man named Henry Flagler. 

During the 1800s, Flagler had put together the railroads of Florida and the tourist industry that went along with them.  He felt that he could do the same in the Bahamas by setting up the Miami-Nassau steamship line and building a new hotel in Nassau to receive his passengers.  Nice try, but too early.  Neither made enough money to stay in business -- but the idea of making Nassau into a vacation paradise hung on.

During the Roaring Twenties the magnificent private yachts of the great industrialists cruised into Nassau.  The Whitneys, the Vanderbilts, the Astors...   if it floated, and you wanted to flaunt it, Nassau was the place.

And then, in 1940, the ultimate seal of approval for the rich: a royal resident.  The Duke of Windsor, the ex-king of England, became governor of the Bahamas.  He was fashionable.  He was elegant.  He had given up the job of king to marry Wallis Simpson, an American.  He was media perfect.  And the Bahamas became the jewel in the crown of vacation spots.

The island of New Providence may not be at the geographic center of the Bahamas but its capital city of Nassau is clearly the political, economic and tourist hub of the nation.  Much of the architecture is from the 1800s, including the public buildings which were the original structures housing the Court, the Legislature, the Assembly, other government officials and the Post Office.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  One of the things I noticed as I was walking around town is that everybody picks up their mail at the post office.  There is no home delivery which I thought was rather unusual for a totally modern city.  The reason turned out to be very simple.  No one has ever gotten around to numbering the homes and no one wanted to try and deliver mail to unnumbered buildings.  Personally, I don’t get it, but everyone in Nassau gets their mail and that’s what’s important.

The Nassau Public Library was built in 1798 as a prison.  Today it holds a collection of books and photographs that deal with the Bahamas.

That’s Government House; it was built in 1901 as the official residence of the Queen’s representative in the Bahamas.  In front is a statue of Christopher Columbus trying to figure out the right direction for the rest of his trip.

As I mentioned earlier, the first permanent colony of Europeans in the Bahamas came in search of religious freedom, and that is certainly one of the hallmarks of this nation.

This is St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church.  It was built in 1810.

The St. Francis Roman Catholic Church was the first Catholic church built in the Bahamas.  It was constructed in 1885.

The Greek Orthodox Church is rather new.  It was built by the Greek community in the 1930s.  A substantial number of Greeks had come to the Bahamas to set up a natural sponge industry, which unfortunately came to an end as the result of a sponge blight.  The sponges were gone, but the Greeks stayed on to soak up the sun.

The largest church in the Bahamas from the point of view of membership is the Baptist.  And to visit any of their gatherings on a Sunday morning is to see one of the great ritualistic expressions of the love of God.

PIANIST:  And I just want you to worship him this morning, in spirit and in truth.  When we begin to praise him, things begin to happen.  Healing comes to us, deliverance comes to us.  We’re going to praise him this morning. 

CHOIR:  (Singing)

The gospel music that fills Nassau’s Zion Baptist church has its beginnings in the 17th century religions of West Africa.  The tribes believed that there was one High God, a group of less important gods, the spirits of the recently deceased, and the ordinary spirits who had been reincarnated in the newborn.  All of these spirits acted as messengers between this world and the world of the gods.  The best way to get in touch with a messenger was to join in a “ring shout.”  A “ring shout” was a combination of song and dance -- part religious, part secular -- it allowed the group to enter into an altered state of consciousness -- to contact the spirits -- to make confessions and offerings, to ask for help, and to talk to ancestors.

The rhythms, the hand clapping, the calls and responses, the physical closeness of the group during the singing and moving­­, are all part of the tradition of the “ring shout.”

Because these ceremonies were viewed with suspicion by the slave holders of the new world, much of this musical energy was channeled into the church where slaves were able to express themselves more freely.  The Christian God was substituted for the African High God and the African ring dance moved inside the church to became an essential part of black Christian worship.

There’s a good deal of good music in Nassau.  And on a note that is less spiritual than the Zion Baptist Church but just as inspiring, there is something called “rake and scrape.”

EDMUND MOXEY:  The name “rake & scrape” was introduced in the late 60s.  As I boy I knew the music that we now play that we call rake & scrape was called “Goombay.”  Goombay music is a marriage of Africa and Europe.  Goombay from the African word jimbi, which means “big drum.”

The original African inhabitants of the Bahamas arrived without their traditional instruments.  And the trees and the roots that had been used to create the drums were not part of the Bahamian landscape.  So they improvised with the materials that were available.  They took old cans and old barrels and stretched goatskins over an open end.  They weren’t the big drums of Africa, but they were better than nothing. 

The European influence showed up in the instruments used to present the melodies -- the guitar, and the bass, and sometimes an accordion.  The old dances were adapted from European quadrilles and polkas.

The other essential element of rake & scrape is the distinctive percussion.

EDMUND MOXEY:  In Africa they had an instrument called the satchika, which was made out of the bamboo beads.  And we had no bamboo beads.  And as a result, they adapted the common carpenter saw, which we use in place of the bamboo bead instrument.  So you had a combination of the European guitar, the carpenter saw, and the African drum.

As you might expect, while I was in Nassau, I came across a few restaurants I enjoyed.  The first was next to the Nassau Yacht Haven Marina.  It’s called The Poop Deck, and it’s a hangout for local lovers of the sea.  A relaxed, informal spot with a great view of the boats.  They’re famous for their chowder with homemade hot pepper vinegar... Mama Mary’s Steamed Fish, which is actually not steamed, but sautéed and then covered with a sauce made from tomatoes, onions, celery and green peppers.  The side dish is peas and rice.

Down the road a piece is a spot called Sugar Reef.  It describes itself as a “harbourside bar and grill,” which is a perfect description.  The Sugar Reef tables are set out on a pier that juts into the harbor.  And the colorful seascape that surrounds it is matched by the interior decor.  It’s party time! 

Great crab cakes served on a bed of spicy black bean salsa along with avocado and papaya sauces... a grilled jerk pork sandwich with a sweet onion jam... and a side of raisin coleslaw.  And for dessert, an apple tart with cinnamon ice cream.

Next is a kitchen that really cooks for the locals -- it’s a neighborhood spot called Mama Lyddy’s Place.  There’s no name on the outside of the building, but on the inside there’s some very traditional Bahamian home cooking.  That’s Mama Lyddy, and that’s her with the rest of her family.  The building was the family’s original homestead.  It’s at the corner of Cockburn and Market Streets, in an area called Grantstown.  They specialize in cracked conch, which is breaded and deep-fried... grits and peas... and a knockout coconut meringue pie.

Finally, there’s Compass Point -- it’s quite a place.  It has eighteen cottages on the beach... a pool... and one of the most enjoyable restaurants in the Caribbean.  It’s decorated in the style of Junkanoo, which is the annual folk parade of Nassau.

Compass Point was put together by Chris Blackwell, the record producer who introduced Bob Marley, U2, and the Cranberries.

The chef is Richard Haja, and the meal he made for me was pasta and shrimp... grilled lamb chops with guava sauce... and his “accidental goat cheese cake.”

RICHARD HAJA:  We were in the kitchen one day and I was making cheesecake and I had all the ingredients inside the mixing bowl.  We had Philadelphia Cream Cheese as well as the goat cheese and I said to my assistant to put the cheese in.  I figured he knew that I was using the Philadelphia cheese, but it was the goat cheese he put in and as it turned out, we were committed to it because it was the eggs and the vanilla and what have you.  So we just mixed the goat cheese up and went with it and it turned out to be quite a pleasant surprise.  Quite a nice accident.

Sigmund Freud said that there were no accidents, but on the other hand, Freud didn’t know much about cheesecake.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Well, that’s a brief visit to the Bahamas.  I hope you will join us next time as we travel around looking at the history, culture and folklore of some of the world’s great places.  I’m Burt Wolf.