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Journal of the Bahamas Historical Society, Volume 14 (October 1992)

THE SETTLEMENT OF THE BAHAMAS BETWEEN 1492 AND 1648:
FACT OR FICTION

by George A. Aarons

Bellin Map

Jacques-Nicolas Bellin whose late 18th century map of The Bahamas is here shown, recorded the 1565 French settlement in Abaco. (Courtesy: Ministry of Tourism Fort Charlotte Collection: Department of Archives).

Despite the continuing controversy over the actual landfall island1 and consequently the route traversed thereafter, there appears to be unanimity amongst the pundits2 that Columbus, whatever his origins3 did visit the Bahamian archipelago between October 12th and 26th of A.D. 1492. It is also clear that William Sayle did initiate a series of voyages from Bermuda culminating in a colonizing expedition into the northern islands of The Bahamas in the late 1640's4 which led to the first permanent continuous settlement5 of the islands of The Bahamian archipelago in post-Columbian times

However, between the voyages of Columbus and Sayle, there is a void of a century and a half of Bahamian history which seemingly is filled only by the collapse, decline and last throes of the indigenous Lucayan Taino population,6 the occasional incursions of Spanish, French and English seafarers in search of Amerindian slave labour,7 "fountains of youth"8 or some other mercurial or more material precious commodity, in transit to or from the Greater Antilles or the mainland and Bermudian mariners9 sailing south in search of "wracks", salt, ambergris or some other harvest of the sea amongst the pearls of a necklace that span over a 100,000 square miles of blue water in the North Atlantic. Eminent authority has sought to prove that by the end of the first half of the "siglo de oro" there was not a single Lucayan Taino left in the entire archipelago and for approximately a century the islands of the archipelago remained totally bereft of any permanent human population.10

On the surface, the above scenario appears to be highly credible and well-documented, but is it really valid? A close examination of a variety of largely secondary sources and the increasing evidence of the archaeological record, has brought to the fore a number of fascinating clues which may, in the fullness of time and after a great deal of methodical research of archival primary sources and focussed archaeological field-work begin to fill this aforementioned apparent void with a tapestry of personages and events which uill link the archipelago with the pageant of contemporary circum-Caribbean events unfolding around The Bahamas, thereby producing a more complete record of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries in The Bahamas.

The first clues relate to the Amerindian pre-Columbian population of The Bahamian archipelago. To date, it has been possible to register11 over five hundred Amerindian find-spots and sites from within the archipelago occurring on all the larger land masses and on many of the smaller ones covering virtually the entire axis. It has been assumed that the entire assemblage related to one population group,12 the Lucayan Taino, with the exception of a minority of artifacts that griginated in the Greater Antilles, being deposited in The Bahamian archipelago by virtue of social congress of one kind or the other between the Lucayan Taino, the Antillean Taino or the Antillean Carib, through the process of trade, commercial exploitation or warfare.13

The historical record however, intermittently but persistently points to some other, or at least another, Amerindian presence in The Bahamian archipelago both prior and subsequent to Columbus' 1492 arrival. On San Salvador in October 1492, Columbus noticed14 scars on the bodies of his Guanahani Lucayan hosts and they indicated to him that these had been made by other Amerindians who lived to the northwest.

...

If you are interested in the full text of the article, you may order this issue of our Journal for B$5.00 plus s&h by contacting the society.

END NOTES

  1. Good summaries of the controversy itself and major points on the subject can be found in:
    De Vorsey, Louis and Parker, John In The Wake of Columbus Wayne State University Press and Terrae Incognitae Vol. #XV. Detroit 1983 and Gerace, Donald T. ed. First San Salvador Conference of Columbus and His World. Fort Lauderdale, Fla. College Center of the Finger Lakes 1987.
    A recent mention of it in the published Bahamian Literature is: Hoffman, Charles A. A quick-look at Where Columbus was When. Journal of the Bahamas Historical Society Vol. 12 #1, October 1990 pp. 25-30 Nassau.

  2. Yeara Authority Landfall Islandb
    1500 Juan de la Cosa San Salvador
    1513 Ponce de Leon San Salvador
    1526 Alonso de Chavez San Salvador
    1526-1535 Fernandez Gonzales de Oviedo Samana Cay
    1601 Antonio de Herrera San Salvador
    1625 Juan De Laet Cat Island
    1731 Mark Catesby Cat Island
    1793 Juan Batista Munoz San Salvador
    1825 Martin Fernandez de Navarette Grand Turk
    1828 Washington Irving Cat Island
    1864 Francisco Adolfo de Varnhagen Mayaguana
    1870 R. H. Major San Salvador
    1882 Gustavus V. Fox Samana Cay
    1882 Gustavus V. Fox Samana Cay
    1926 Rev. Chrysostom Schreiner San Salvador
    1939-1940 Harvard Columbus Exhibition San Salvador
    1942 Mauricio Obregon San Salvador
    1943 Rupert Gould Conception
    1947 Pieter Verhoog Caicos Island
    1958 Edwin and Marion Link Caicos Island
    1959 Wolper Landfall Exhibition San Salvador
    1974 Ramon J. Didier-Burgos Plana Cay
    1981 Arne Molander Egg Island
    1983 Oliver Dunn San Salvador
    1983 James E. Kelley San Salvador
    1983 Rupert H. Power Grand Turk
    1984 William F. Keegan San Salvador
    1985 Paolo Emilio Taviani San Salvador
    1986 Joseph Judge/Luis Marden Samana Cay
    1987 Robert H. Fuson Samana Cay
    1987 Phillip L. Richardson and Roger A. Goldsmith San Salvador
    1988 Josiah Marvel Grand Turk
    1988 John Winslow Berry Islands
    1989 Eris Moncur Cat Island

    a. of map references, source or first reference.
    b. being the current names of these islands.
     
    In Summary 10 different islands (island groups) have been named since A.D. 1500 with the strongest most recent claims being made for San Salvador, Cat Island, Samana Cay, Grand Turk and Egg Island coalescing into 3 basic hypotheses: a northern route: Egg Island; a central route: San Salvador, Cat Island or Samana Cay; a southern route: Grand Turk. THe overwhelming majority and the strongest cartographical, historical and archaeological/anthropoligical logical evidence points to the former: San Salvador. All, however, are to be found in The Bahamian archipelago.
  3. This controversy is well discussed in: Taviani, Paolo Emilio: Christopher Columbus: The Grand Design, London. Orbis Publishing 1985.
  4. Craton, Michael. A History of the Bahamas, San Salvador Press 3rd edtn. 2nd imp. 1987 pp. 54-9,
  5. Probably mid-1648: Paul Albury says that Sayle et al left Bermuda "perhaps in the early part of 1648" (The Story of The Bahamas. MacMillan. London, rpt. 1976 p. 42); Craton says that Sayle "set sail for The Bahamas in the Summer of 1648" (op. cit. N. 4 p., 57); Gail Saunders says they "arrived in Eleuthera in about 1648." (Slavery in The Bahamas: 1648-1838), Nassau Guardian, 1985, p. 1) and in 1648 (The Bahamas: A Family of Islands,) MacMillan, London 1988 p. 17); Sandra Riley says "some time between the Spring of 1646 and the Fall of 1648 William Sayle set out ... (from Bermuda) [Homeward Found: A History of the Bahama Islands to 1850, Island Research, Miami, Florida 1983 p. 29]; Steve Dodge says they "left Bermuda in 1648" [The Complaet Guide to Nassau, White Sound Press, Decatur, Illinois, 1987 p. 81].
  6. This is described by Julian Granberry in three articles each entitled "Spanish Slave Trade in The Bahamas: 1509-30. An Aspect of the Caribbean Pearl Industry. Journal of the Bahamas Historical Society Vol. 1 31 pp. 14-15, (1979); Vol. 2 #1 pp. 15-17 (1980) and Vol. 3 #1 pp. 17-19 (1981).
  7. Such as that described op. cit. N. 6. above and in Irene A. Wright "The Early History of Cuba: 1492-1558, New York 1916 pp. 79 et seq The well-known voyages of John Rut in 1527, Palmier de Gonneville in 1522 and William Hawkins in 1543 may have traversed The Bahamas with such intent: op. cit. N 4 pp. 46-7 for Rut and Hawkins and op. cit. N 54 (Aarons) page 3 for all 3.
  8. This was the main purpose of Ponce de Loen's 1513 sail through the archipelago to Florida: Molander, Arne B. Ponce de Leon belongs to The Bahamas: Journal of the Bahamas Historical Society Vol. 6 #1 October 1984 pp. 40-7 and Peck, Douglas T. Reconstruction and Analysis of the 1513 Discovery Voyage of Juan Ponce de Leon. Privately published: Bradenton, Florida 1990 present differing versions of the same peregrination.
  9. Such is described by George Gardyner in his "Description of the New World" (1651) as quoted in Craton op. cit. N. 4 p. 55 but written by the former in the early 1640's.
  10. Op. cit. N.6 This was being stated emphatically as early as 1645 by Gardyner: op. cit. N.4 p. 55. Castell's work is "A Short Discourse of the Coasts and Continents of America", London.
  11. Aarons, George A. Register of National Archaeological Sites: Prehistoric Sites in The Bahamian Archipelago: Interim Conclusions July, 1990 unpbl. ms. DOA Nassau and Map: Lucayan Sites and Find Spots in the Bahamian Archipelago and Data Sheets 13 August, 1990 unpubl. ms. 13 August, 1990, DOA, Nassau. As at the 30 June, 1991, there were 538 Lucayan open-air and cave sites and "find spots" for The Bahamian archipelago with 25 duho finds and 33 individual Lucayan burial sites in with 92 individuals: cf. N. 6 p. 13 ms. "Reconstructing a Canaye": An exercise in Experimental Archaeology: Article for the Journal of the Bahamas Historical Society October 1991/1992 (10 June, 1991), also by the present author.
  12. See for example Keegan, William F. New Directions in Bahamian Archaeology. Journal of the Bahamas Historical Society Vol. 10 No. 1 October 1988 pp. 3-8.
  13. Op. cit. N. 12.
  14. This is referred to in all the versions of the "Diarioa Bordo." The Department of Archives, Nassau has inter alia sections of "D. Ferdinand Columbus" The History of the Life and Actions of Adm. Christopher Columbus and His Discovery of the West Indies call'd The New World Now in Possession of his Catholick Majesty Vol.Ii, 1974 p. 586 column 1.