In 1851, people from Green Turtle Cay hardly bathed for fear of catching cold. We might laugh at this old wives tale, but in the 1800s, before antibiotics and modern medicine, on a small island or cay, far from the capital city Nassau, a simple cold could kill even the strongest man. More often than not, the common cold was the cause of infant mortality, as well as, opening the door to pneumonia for adults.
Green Turtle Cay inhabitants were apparently lazy fishermen, but enthusiastic wreckers. Wrecking brought in more money than could earned doing anything else on this sleepy Cay. Johnny-cake and coffee represented a solid meal before men went out on the sea to strip wrecked ships down to their wooden carcass, and further.
Marsh Harbour, in the Abacos, in 1851, was then one giant orange plantation, owned by an American Mr. Hewlitt. 1,500 orange trees was yielding more than 100,000 oranges at time, packaged and shipped to the United States, from this plantation in Abaco in 1856.
How do we know all of this? Well, there were many intrepid travellers eager to write about life on these far from civilisation places. In 1851, one traveller decided to write about what he saw in Green Turtle Cay and Marsh Harbour in the Abacos.
Green Turtle Cay, Bahamas, 10 March 1851.
This place is a small cay, or island, situated about 140 miles north of Nassau. I digress from my subject for a moment to tell you that my eyes are full of tears! Caused by what is technically called a “smoke pot,” which the cookie is fanning with her straw hat, to make it smoke the more, for the purpose of anigulating the mosquitoes, which I am sure you are so tormenting as to make it almost an impossibility to sit for any length of time, particularly in the evening.
This district consists of the island of Great Abaco, the grand Bahama, the Bimini, and the Berry Island, besides numerous smaller places which I need not trouble you with mentioning.
They extend, however over a very large space, the Biminis being close to the Gulf of Florida, and the Berry Islands being within a few hours’ sail of Nassau. The district is called Abaco, and is one of the three presided over by the three stipendiary magistrates of the Bahamas. I have been over the whole of it.
WAITING FOR SHIPS TO WRECK THEMSELVES ON THE ROCKS AND SHALLOW SHOALS EMPLOYEES EVERY MAN ABOVE 15 and UNDER 100
The people here, indeed nearly throughout the whole of the Bahamas, live principally like lawyers and doctors on other people’s misfortune.
Across the Bahama Banks is the grand thoroughfare for all vessels from the United States bound to the southward of the Gulf of Florida, and not only of all American vessels, but of vessels of all nations bound to any part of America, south of the Gulf, also to Cuba and numerous other places.
The navigation is probably the worst in the world, the whole place being full of shoals, banks, and rocks. The consequence of this is, that wrecks, particularly during the winter, are so numerous, that many people devote their whole time to the occupation of wrecking.
It is, however, conducted according to law! The scene of tumult that occurs when there is news of a wreck, reminds one of the nest of hornets rushing out to repel some invasion of the premises. There was one here today. Every male over 15 and under 100 leaves the settlement. Nothing but women and children left. It really is seldom that a man is left behind.
Off they go in open boats, sloops, and schooners, and small craft of every description, in a state of excitement that requires to be seen to be believed. The salvage, of which sometimes amounts to nearly the full value of the goods saved, is decided on, according to the risk, by the Admiralty Court at Nassau. All have equal shares. A certain share is allowed for the vessel, and generally all share alike from the captain to the cook. You may suppose they are rather and unquiet race, these wreckers; and after the spoil is shared, there is generally a drunken riot.
Mr. Hewlitt an American Who Owned Practically All Of Marsh Harbour Turning It Into A 1,500 Tree Orange Plantation
The last settlement I visited was Marsh Harbour, situated on Great Abaco, about 20 miles from here. It is the only part of the district where there are orange plantations, and there I visited one which was so beautiful that it deserves some notice.
Mr. Hewlett, the owner, and American, came over there about 10 years ago, which is about the time that an orange tree takes to come, not to perfection, but to commence to bear well. He came to a wilderness, or rather a forest, which he attacked axe in hand, and he has succeeded almost single-handed in producing one of the most beautiful plantations in the world.
He has now 1500 orange trees, every one of which is a picture. They were in blossom when I was there, with some ripe fruit here and there. The plucking season is October. Last October he pulled 40,000, and this season he will double them number. Although the whole settlement is an orange grove, there is nothing to be seen like Mr Hewlitt’s, which is per se.
I have shown one tree of which 1500 oranges was said to have been taken in one season. I think I should before having an orange plantation to any other, it is so very beautiful as well as profitable. I am sure that if one of Mr Huletts trees could be taken to the Great Exhibition in full bearing, it would be admired not the least even amid the crowd of curiosity is, which no doubt are collected there.
100,000 prime BAHAMA ORANGES large and sweet, just received per schooner Trent, in six days’ passage from ABACO, for sale in lots to suit purchasers. Apply to.
F. T. MONTELL
87 Smith’s Wharf
(The Baltimore Sun, Thursday 06 November 1856)
Talking of this, they are sending even from this poor place some articles to be exhibited. They consist of shell-work by the ladies of Nassau, and are certainly very beautiful.
I can see from my window the Violin, the crack schooner of this place, coming in covered with flags and streamers. She must have got something valuable from the rack of yesterday. All vessels that go wrecking are obliged to have a license; and when they have wrecked property on board, are bound to hoist the wrecking flag, which is white, with the number of the license marked in the centre. The Violin has that flag hoisted amongst others.
I saw one captain and passenger, whose vessel had split in pieces, except part of the quarterdeck, on which everyone remained for three days and nights, with nothing to eat and drink but a little walk pork and a small bottle of Turlington’s Balsam, a kind of medicine used on board vessels for cuts, et cetera et cetera.
They were all saved, in spite of the awful weather. You observe, therefore, that the wreckers do some good occasionally. They save a great many lives, though as they are compelled to do so, they have the less merit. The other day at Marsh Harbour a wreck occurred. I went up the hill, the usual look out to see it.
Johnny-cake, Bonsais (pea soup) and people too lazy to fish
There I found a host of all the women snuffing the carcass from afar. I said I thought the vessel was at anchor outside the reef.
“No,” said one of the ancients, “she’s just where she should be,” i.e. on the reef, which proved to be the case.
On this occasion a one eyed man, said to have the gift of second site, got up in the middle of the night roused his wife for fire, coffee, and johnny-cake, for the wreck which he said would take place in the morning.
So he went off with a good breakfast under his belt, which the rest went without, for they would not stop to save all their kith and kin from purgatory when a wreck is in the case, far less for breakfast.
I think I have now given you enough of wrecking for the present,. They are a wild set of lads, though they cannot always be called w– reckless! Excuse the pun if you can.
Time here occasionally hangs heavy enough. The mosquitoes make sitting still for any length of time almost impossible; and in summer, I am told, they are a thousand times worse than a present, so that some out of door occupation is very desirable. I occasionally go a fishing in a bold, shoot a wild duck now and then, &c. &c.; exedra; but the boats and small crafts are constantly employed at present, that is difficult to get one.
The cook has come up just now to know if she should kill a rooster (a cock) for dinner; adding that she can’t catch him; but “I’ve got some Bonasis (pea) soup.”
We are rather badly off for prag ; the people are too lazy to fish; there is no beef or mutton within these oxless isles; the poultry we keep disappear too fast, and vegetables are very scarce. We consequently depend very much on supplies from Nassau, – hams, tinned provisions, &c. As to salt beef and pork, we eschew them, and cannot chew them.
FEAR OF CATCHING COLD STOPS GREEN TURTLE CAY INHABITANTS FROM TAKING REGULAR BATHS
I suppose you heard how Jamaica has been decimated by cholera. Should I come here it will go hard with the Cay. The food of the people, the way in which the houses are huddled together, the filthy habits of the inhabitants, who never wash for fear of catching cold, and the want of all medical assistance, will possibly be the means of solving a medical problem.
There has been no opportunity for Nassau since I began this letter, so when you may receive it I know not. A vessel arrived from there this morning. The English mails is due on the 11th had not arrived yesterday (14th of March); so I conclude that the steamer has been delayed, which is not unfrequently the case in the winter months.
There have been no end of works lately and some of the wreckers have had a fine harvest. One of the vessel is cleared $101 for each man. As long as this lasts they continue on shore, and then go off to look for more. A few such trips might make them independent, they are most improvident race like all who get the living on the deep. In many cases the cargo is recovered by means of divers, so you may suppose the cash is hardly enough.
DIVER FORGETS TO COME BACK UP AGAIN
Fancy a man diving in 7 fathoms, and bringing up a barrel of pork or a box of sugar. This is quite common, and the length of time the divers remain underwater is incredible. The other day one of them lost his way in a sunken vessel and forgot to come up again.
I am again sitting around with “smoke pots”, and my eyes watering like the fountain– anything rather than the mosquitoes.
I find the best smoke comes from oakum.
I hear the bells of the Methody chapel (this being Sunday), and I think I shall go and listen to the nasal psalmody.
N****S AND WHITES ARE MOSTLY METHODISTS
Nearly all the niggers, and a great proportion of white population in these islands are Wesleyan Methodists. After the prayer the people groaning concert like the low howling of wild beasts.
EATING FLAMINGO AT GRAND BAHAMA
I have been haunted for some days past by a snipe! Please the piper, tomorrow I’ll shoot him.
(A snipe is a wading bird of marshes and wet meadows.)
He is whistling away close by as if there was no such thing in the world as a gun; but I’ll show him the difference, or “there is no snakes in Virginny.”
I ate a young flamingo the other day at Grand Bahama. It’s doing about 3 feet high and was by far the most delicious bird I have ever tasted, more particularly the tongue and liver – the latter something wonderful, and very large. A dish of flamingoes’ tongues is considered a great delicacy, but I should say a dish of livers would “bang the bush.”