Friday, December 22, 2006

A few more thoughts on the islands

Often when I'm sitting on the terrace here looking out to sea, I try to imagine what it must have been like to have been a native Bahamian seeing the sails of Columbus' three ships appear on the horizon. Little did they know what a terrible fate the westerly winds had brought to their shores.

When the Spanish arrived, the population of the Bahamas was not much different than today, excluding Nassau and Freeport. Within 25 years, the islands were deserted. The gentle Lucayans were exterminated by disease or transport to a short wretched life in the gold mines of Hispaniola or the pearl fisheries of Venezuela. All for the greater glory of God and His Spanish Majesties, of course.

We know little about the Lucayans. Their tools were perishable bone, shell or wood. Because the islands are entirely soft limestone, you could hardly say they had entered the Stone Age. A few hard stone pestles and hammers were imported from the Greater Antilles. From what archeologists have pieced together, the Lucayans enjoyed the same things that attract us modern snowbirds: sun, sea and balmy breezes.

Then came steel. Armor. Swords. Guns. And, of course, as Jared Diamond reminds us, germs. The pre-Stone Age met the Iron Age. A brutal European wind swept across the Bahamas. The islands had no gold, No pearls. No fertile soil. Nothing of use to the messengers of Christian civilization but the people themselves. Not a single indigenous Bahamian survived.

The present-day islanders are descendants of African slaves, brought here at the time of the American Revolution by loyalist planters from the Carolinas. There was no way to make this sandy soil yield profitable cotton. Within a few generations, the loyalists hightailed it to England, leaving the slaves behind.

Now comes another high-tech invasion (of which I play my own small part). Everything American. Cable television. Gated communities of wealthy foreigners. Conspicuous consumption. Environmental degradation. All for the greater glory of Mammon and His American Majesties. The newly affluent islanders profess to love it -- but at what price?