As settled populations began to grow after the arrival of the first colonial governor Woodes Rogers in 1718, and sixty years later with arrival of plantation owner Loyalists and their slaves, the demands imposed on the soil to produce, was tremendous. In the end, it would prove far from ideal for the long term mass farming production which began in the 18th and 19th centuries.
After several glacial expansions and contractions which affected sea levels, eventually exposing the limestone rock which would become the Bahama islands, natural erosion and winds patterns began to slowly help soil to develop. The topsoil was characteristically thin. (Hunnington and Milford 1915). Further research would reveal the relative levels of naturally occurring minerals and nutrients. Derived data labelled the soil as sterile and for good reason. (Willias 1922).
The problem of Bahamian soil is attributed to the underlying elements of its formation and composition.
All Bahamian land, islands, cays, islets, and rocks are composed of CaCO3 – calcium carbonate. The calcium carbonate with comprises this limestone is still, by geological age, very young. The age of the limestone gives it a pure characteristic which differentiates it from older examples of limestone found around the world. It is the relative purity of the rock, the calcium-carbonate, that when it breaks down, during natural erosion patterns, to make soil that scientist have found, there are very little nutrient components in the young limestone. When limestone erodes through natural weathering, all of its mineral elements dissipate. When acidic rainwater falls on limestone, a chemical reaction happens. The run off becomes soil, what is left is weathered rock. The soils, due to the mix of acid and calcium carbonate produce soils which are alkaline. Bahamas soils are usually in the range 7.5 to 8.5 on the Ph scale. In terms of the fertility of soils, anything over Ph 7 is alkaline. But anything over 7 to about 8.3 offers challenges for the ability of a plant to absorb water. This is characteristic of chalky soils which are often shallow, stony and free-draining which makes them difficult to keep fertile. It is for this reason, some have called the native soils of the Bahamas, sterile.
In determining soil characteristics, the endemic or purely local plant species of the Bahamas were identified to determine how adaptive and distributively represented they were throughout and within the islands. Given the age and area, “it was noticed that the difference usually seen between the distribution of the endemics was not nearly so large as usual. This may be due to one or more causes; it may be that the peculiar conditions of the Bahamas, with their sterile soil and considerable droughts, suit the endemics—which must have been developed in them, and have had, as just explained, a strenuous struggle to become established, and which, therefore, should be unusually well suited to the local conditions.“(Willias 1922, p65)
Black soils are the most plentiful soils and have formed the basis for much of the farming activity throughout the islands (Sealey 2010). In the 18th and 19th, the early farmers would need to clear hundreds and hundreds square acreage of bush by burning to get access to the soil. Burning would add nutrients. But as future inhabitants would find, this method of cultivation would be short-term, often only good for a year or so, then the bush needed to grow back before the process could be repeated. This meant that farmers might have one good year of bountiful and plentiful crops like cotton, potatoes or oranges, then several bad ones, where very little or nothing plentiful would grow (Derevenski, 2000)
White soils are essentially sand dunes. While this type of soil has depth, it is sediment, not rich crop growing soil and so has limited nutrients and minerals needed for cultivating large amounts of fruits and vegetables.
Red soils are the unusual part of the mix as they are, as we have seen, soil grains blown in from the Saraha in North Africa over hundreds of thousands of years. They are essentially a compound of minerals commonly referred to as laterite. Laterite is characteristic of brilliant red coloured soils. However the long journey across the Atlantic takes a nutrient toll on this Saharan soil. Though highly producing for a time, red soil would eventually becomes non-producing, giving nothing for long periods to come once it began to be cultivated commercially (Derevenski, 2000 p.30). The history of the pineapple industry in the Bahamas reflects the organic history of the journey of the red soils.
Hunnington, E., and Milford, H., (1915) Civilisation and Climate, Yale University Press p.29
Willias, J.C. (1922) Age and Area: A Study in Geographical Distribution and Origin of Species, Cambridge p65
Sealed, N., (2010) Soil and Land Resources of The Bahamas (based on Land Resource Study by Little et al, 1977, Volume 27 Summary). http://legacy.iica.int/Eng/regiones/caribe/bahamas/ATT/Documents/Soil%20and%20Land%20Resources.pdf [Accessed 18th June 2013]
Derevenski, Joanna S., (2000) Children and Material Culture, Routledge, p.108 discusses slave plantation life in the Bahamas and how on some plantations, like the Whylly Plantation in 1818, when the slaves had nothing to do as there was no planting going on due to the poor soil for growing. Slaves were encouraged to work for themselves and their diet was heavy in conch and fish from the sea as plantings were very sparce.