Prince Mather’s Nutshell History of Harbour Island
Retired local teacher Prince Mather expressed his passionate interest in
preserving the history of Harbour Island by publishing the booklet,
“History of Harbour Island 1647-1973,” which is available from Island Treasures shop next door to Island Services. “We must learn from history to avoid its mistakes,” he says.
Mr. Mather discussed the historical highlights summarized below in converstions at the library, which is across the street from his home. But to get the real scoop, check out his book or one of the several others available on island. He particularly recommends the work of Dr. Gail Saunders, from whom he says he has learned much.
The first Bahamians
The initial landing of Christopher Columbus in the Bahamas in 1492 was bad news for the indigenous Arawak population. The Spanish conquistadors who followed enslaved and decimated the Arawaks by the mid 1500s.
No people meant no history for the next 100 years or so in the Bahamas.
From proprietary government to colony to democracy
Some folks’ idea of political heaven might be the first 79 years of settlement on Harbour Island. It started in about 1650 when a band of privateers and ministers fleeing religious persecution in England established an independent government. That party ended in 1717 with the surrender of rights to the British Crown that made Eleuthera part of the colony of the Bahamas. But the good news was the coming of representative democracy 12 years later when Harbour Island sent four representatives to the first parliament in Nassau. The Sugar Mill monument at the foot of Government Dock commemorates that breakthrough.
Saving lives and saving loot
Life was harsh in those years, and wrecking became an important source of income. Residents of Harbour Island had licenses to assist wrecked ships in return for a third of the recovered goods. Legend has it the wreckers promoted their business by luring ships onto reefs. But some historians counter that the locals were just as likely to prioritize saving lives over saving the loot.
A loyalist lays out a town
When the revolutionary war broke out in the United States, the Loyalist governor of Virginia fled to the Bahamas where he was awarded with the title of Lord Dunmore, Governor of the Bahamas. He laid out what is today Dunmore town at the center of Harbour Island, giving shape to the village you see today. His own summer home sat on the site of the current Dunmore Cottage, the commanding red and white Victorian residence on Bay Street.
Freed slaves and political independence
Escaped slaves from the United States are believed to have added to the population throughout the island’s history, although the early settlers held their own slaves until the Emancipation Proclamation came into effect in the Bahamas in 1834. Independence for the country came July 9, 1973, as the Bahamas became a member of the British Commonwealth with its own parliament, flag, and national anthem.
From shipbuilding and farming to tourism
Shipbuilding and farming of citrus, pineapples, and tomatoes made Harbour Island fairly prosperous until World War I brought worldwide depression. The first regular tourist business that today provides the bulk of the island’s livelihood began with weekly Bahamas Air flights in1941. Electricity, phone service, television, and most recently e-mail and social media have put Harbour Island in reach of the several hundred visitors a week that today experience her charms.
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