Monday, April 6, 2020

Historic Places: Nassau, Bahamas

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.....

Me & Columbus
Bahamas Government House
And while he is remembered as the discoverer of America, where Christopher Columbus actually landed was The Bahamas. Of course, the islands were not known by that name at the time. "Baja mar" was how Columbus referred to the islands and the shallow sea that surrounded them. The Lucayans that populated the islands before "discovery" by Europeans died out over the next several decades due to new diseases carried across the sea and enslavement (the modern native population of The Bahamas is largely the descendants of African slaves). Exploration of this side of history is what has called for an end of modern Columbus Day celebrations in the United States.

But let's get back to The Bahamas. We appreciate Bahama's islands for their natural beauty and tropical weather, but 17th & 18th century pirates went there for the ease of escaping authority and hiding treasure amid the hundreds of islands. During this time, Nassau was established as a commercial port, but it was a volatile area fought over by Spanish, English, and French, leaving Bahamian natives the ones to suffer the most. By the end of the 18th century, The Bahamas were a English colony.

The American Civil War (1861-1865) caused an economic boom in The Bahamas as blockade runners and smugglers used the islands as a base for sneaking illegal goods into ports along the eastern coast of both northern and southern states. The economy was given a boost by the United States once again in 1919 when Prohibition put smugglers back in business, and The Bahamas were as convenient a port as ever.

Parliament Square of The Bahamas
Today, it is tourism that is the lifeblood of the Bahamian economy.  The two times that my family has been to Nassau, one of the first places we've visited is Parliament Square. The trio of pink and white buildings blends the formality of government authority with tropical style. Built in 1815, the center of government in The Bahamas far predates their 1973 independence.

Not far away, the Government House is built in a similar architectural style with a statue of Christopher Columbus out front. It is the official residence of the governor of The Bahamas.

Cannon at Fort Fincastle
Fort Fincastle sits atop Bennet's Hill overlooking the city and sea beyond for the purpose of protecting the town from pirates. Named for the governor who ordered its construction, John Murray Viscount Fincastle, the fort was built in the shape of a ship, a unique design found in Europe but rare in the Americas. The fort has been used as a prison and lighthouse but is now open to the public.

The Queen's Staircase
The fort is reached by climbing the Queen's Staircase, which is impressively carved from the limestone hillside. It was built with the labor of hundreds of slaves between 1793-1794 for greater access between the town and fort. In the 19th century, the stairs were named in honor of Queen Victoria for her work in abolishing slavery. A small waterfall follows the course of the steps from the fort to the town. Climbing them, or even descending them, is a good workout, and you should reward yourself with a tropical beverage at this point.

Nassau's Public Library is a cute little stop that most tourists overlook. It is worth stepping inside and climbing the steps to the top, especially if you love the smell of old books.

Balcony House Museum
My planned final stop on both trips to Nassau has been the Balcony House Museum. At more than two centuries old, it is believed to be one of the oldest wooden structures in The Bahamas. Unfortunately, each time I've arrived, it has been closed. But it sure does look cute from the outside.

Of course, The Bahamas has beautiful beaches, turquoise water, and plenty of seafood with fruity drinks on the side, but the next time you are there make sure you check out some of Nassau's history as well.

All photographs are the property of Samantha Wilcoxson

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