Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The last days of Pompey


This little island -– Exuma in the Bahamas -– is a peaceful place, with an indigenous population, mostly black, not wealthy, but by all appearances healthy and happy. Certainly they are among the finest people it has been my pleasure to know.

The back story is not nearly so sunny.

When the Spanish arrived in the Bahamas in 1492, these islands were inhabited by a people called Lucayans, with a population density not so different from that of the Out Islands today. Within 25 years the Bahamas were empty, every Lucayan dead from violence, European disease, or being shipped off to fatal servitude in the Spanish mines and pearl fisheries further south. It is a story of gruesome inhumanity.

For a time, the islands were the depopulated haunt of adventurers and pirates. Then, at the time of the American Revolution, Loyalist planters came with their African slaves from the Carolinas and Florida, and attempted to establish cotton culture on this sandy soil. It was only marginally possible until Britain abolished slavery in all its territories, at which point the slave owners of Exuma departed for the mother country, leaving the ex-slaves to shift for themselves. The people of the Bahamas are for the most part descendants of slavery, that horrific chapter of human history.

I'm with Steven Pinker on this one: Humanity is on the whole less violent and rapacious today than at any time in the past. Here on Exuma, a few yards away from a golden statue commemorating a fellow named Pompey, who led a slave rebellion in 1830, there is a government clinic, offering affordable health care to all Exumians (and blow-ins like us). In this little corner of the world, at least, the better angels of our nature are ascendant.