In 1891, it was widely reported that the entire island of Mayaguana had been sold to a single buyer. It was set to become a giant sisal plantation.

Governor, Sir Ambrose Shea (1815 – 1905) was governor of the Bahamas between 1887 to 1895. Shea was a political and successful business figure in colonial Newfoundland, Canada, where he was born. When Ambrose Shea became governor of the islands, the Bahamas was all but broke. In fact, it’s main source of income was selling Bahamian land to whoever might want it.

(Ambrose Shea)

In 1890, Ambrose Shea thought he had found something that would turn the floundering fortunes of the Bahamas from sand to gold, literally overnight.

Chicago Tribune, Sunday June 28, 1891)

The story goes that a negro brought something to him at Government House, and it was tied up with a bit of rope. Ambrose Shea asked the negro where he got the rope from and the negro replied, ‘I gats it from ya yard sah.’ He went outside to see what the negro was talking about.

(Chicago Tribune, Sunday June 28, 1891)

What Ambrose Shea was looking at, was a weed that grew in the harsh sunbaked soils of the islands. To everyone, this was a useless plant that they could kill fast enough. To Governor Shea, he saw gold.


(sisal plant)

The useless weed was sisal and Ambrose Shea thought that if the negro could make rope that easily from this old weed, then just imagine what it could be done on an industrial scale.  Mass manufacturing of this could mean huge revenues for the Bahamas.

(Chicago Tribune, Sunday June 28, 1891)

Shea ran like crazy man to the white Bahamians of Bay Street and told him what he was planning. He showed them the plant and the rope made from it.

They all but laughed in his face.

It was an old weed that farmers and plantation owners across the islands had been trying to get rid of for decades. In fact, some had already tried cultivating it before, but Bahamians soon found that there were more superior plants which made longer, and stronger fibres for rope.

Chicago Tribune, Sunday June 28, 1891)

Soon though, they weren’t laughing. As more and more Englishmen began buying up land and making their way to the Bahamas to make their fortunes in sisal, suddenly the weed became interesting.

Joseph Chamberlain buys Mayaguana

Joseph Chamberlain – Wikipedia

Joseph Chamberlain was a wealthy British politician. His son, Neville Chamberlain would eventually go into politics and become the prime minister of Britain at the outbreak of World War 2.

Joseph Chamberlain bought the land in the Bahamas to start a sisal plantation. His son, Neville came to the Bahamas for six years to cultivate the land and grow sisal.

Oddly enough they didn’t cultivate a single sisal plant on Mayaguana. A surveyor  decided Andros was better. Chamberlain bought more land, some 10,000 acres in Andros. After several years, their family sisal venture lost £50,000 in the end. Neville spent six long years in Andros trying to make a valiant go of the unfamiliar and unforgiving land. He left Andros finally in 1897, and went on to a political career like his father.

Financial losses which occurred in Andros severely impaired the family fortune.

From the book, The Life of Neville Chamberlain:

“He wasted no time in making his decisions. That very day he learned from Forsyth, a surveyor who had guided him before, that Grand Bahama was unsuitable, while some other reason, perhaps the distance from Nassau, tilted the scale against Mayaguana. But he was told “of a large tract in Andros which seems worth visiting”, promptly engaged one Michael Knowles as an experienced overseer, and on the 27th, after a midday levée in evening dress (“a most terrible affair”), at midnight sailed for Andros.”

Feiling, K. (1946) The Life of Neville Chamberlain. MacMillan: 18

By the year 1896, the soil had given up and wouldn’t even grow the sisal weed for Chamberlain.

30 March; fromJoseph Chamberlain you seem to contemplate as a possibility the entire abandonment of the undertaking in which I shall have invested altogether (with the liabilities I have accepted) about £50,000. This would indeed be a catastrophe. . . . If the worst comes to the worst, we will all make the best of it, and remember our motto, Je tiens ferme“.

Feiling, K. (1946) The Life of Neville Chamberlain. MacMillan: 29

In 1921, Neville Chamberlain was finally able to sell the Andros land. He supposedly sold 7000 acres of land for just £200. The land was deemed worthless.

As was Andros; except seven thousand acres of worthless land”, which in 1921 he reports as having sold for £200, cheerfully investing most of the proceeds in a French cabinet.

Feiling, K. (1946) The Life of Neville Chamberlain. MacMillan: 31

News of the negotiations

(The London Guardian April 8, 1891)

By 1891, the papers had reported that Chamberlain had bought the entire island of Mayaguana from the British.

(The Colonies and India June 28, 1891)