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Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Crab it while you can.

You can't tell everything there is to tell about a place, but you can try to paint some little pictures of what it's like. The Bahamas to me is about food and festivities. That's mainly because I go there at Christmas/New Year, sometimes during summer holidays, or for events such as weddings. Like most people in the Caribbean region--and I'm not going to get into an argument here about whether The Bahamas are truly part of the Caribbean because they are physically in the Atlantic area--Bahamians like to celebrate, and they love to do it with nuff nuff food. But I'm going to look a little bit further than my navel, which I can still see and has yet not been hidden by an expanded belly.

The Bahamas are one of the world's geological oddities, being a set of arhipelagoes close to a land mass (the USA) rather than being in the open seas. If you look on a map you notice that there is a chain of islands stretching from the southern tip of Florida to the northern coast of Cuba. All the information you might want about the place, its people and history is on the official website. But some quick snippets for the busy readers.

The islands form a 100,000 square mile chain that extends over 500 miles. The 700 islands, including uninhabited cays and large rocks, have an estimated land area of about 5,385 square miles, with the highest land elevation being 206 feet, on Cat Island. The islands have the world's third longest barrier reef and about 15% of the world's coral. The islands are made entirely of calcium carbonate, mainly produced or precipitated by the organisms of coral reefs. There are no rivers but there are some lakes.

In 1492, Christopher Columbus (the first European visitor) made his first landfall in the "New World" on the island of San Salvador in the eastern Bahamas (called Guanahani by the Lucayan Indians). Other Europeans followed Mr. Globetrotter and in 1648, a group of dissident English Puritans, mainly Presbyterians (known as the "Eleutheran Adventurers") left Bermuda in their search for religious freedom from the ruling Anglicans/Church of England and landed on a Bahamian island then named Cigateo; it was renamed Eleutheria after the group and later renamed Eleuthera (from the Greek word for freedom). Though the adventurers gave Eleuthera its name, they apparently got little back: the soil was poor and they had food shortages, a lack of proper supplies and internal strife split the group into separate communities along Governor’s Harbour and Preacher’s Cave. Seeking peace, the Eleutheran’s leader, Captain William Sayle, set sail for the American colonies and succeeded in obtaining survival supplies from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and then returned to the struggling outpost. The settlers shipped Braselitto wood to Boston in gratitude for the support given by the people of Massachusetts. The proceeds from the sale of this precious wood went to purchase the land for Harvard College, which eventually became Harvard University. Now, if that does not warrant a place or two at Harvard for a bright Bahamian student I don't know what does. So much for legacy. Captain Sayle later led a group of settlers to South Carolina, after the British started to settle in the south east corner of the US; he founded Charles Towne and became the first Governor of South Carolina. There is an eerie linguistic and physical resemblance between certain black people in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and the low lands of Georgia--the Gullahs--and present day Bahamians.

The Bahamian economy had not been based on much by way of solid industry for nearly 400 years into the middle of the 20th century. The late 1600s to the early 1700s were the golden age for pirates and privateers: living off others' wealth, or sponging as the English would call it. Then in the late 1860s, the islands helped to break blockades during US Civil War, which helped develop ports and gave a big boon. The end of the US Civil War brought bust for the economy until it was boosted by the US's introduction of Prohibition in 1919. The Bahamas, never a place to forget its origins, used this to help develop illegal traffic in alcohol, mainly whisky, till Prohibition was repealed in 1934. Ironically, a real industry that had developed happened to be called sponging--the harvesting of natural sponge from the sea--and this too went into decline not long after. A song related to that trade still lives on:

Sponger money never done, we got sponger money
Sponger money is a lotta fun, we got sponger money
Laugh gal laugh...


Tourism begin in late 1890s, but really got to flourish in the 1920s when Prohibition brought well-to-do American tourists to the islands. Then in 1961, when Cuba (with its glitzy casinos and beach resorts) was closed to American tourists, good tourist times began in The Bahamas. Nassau’s harbour was dredged to accommodate up to six cruise ships at a time and a bridge was built connecting Nassau to Paradise Island. No looking back since then.

The Bahamas has a population of 305,000; 70% of the people live on New Providence Island (home of the capital city, Nassau). Most are black of west African descent (notably the Senegambia region). Their ancestors were slaves brought to the islands to work the cotton plantations, until Britain abolished slavery in all its territories in the mid-1830s. Most white residents are descendants of the Eleutherans. Some are also related to the Loyalists who fled the southern United States during the American Revolution and built enormous plantations here.

After the abolition of slavery, life in the islands changed drastically. The plantations were dissolved, and both blacks and whites turned to the bountiful sea (sponging and fishing) or tried to farm. The lack of fertile cropland prompted the islanders to become a nation of seafarers, and the skills were used for legal and illegal purposes, as mentioned above.

Bahamians take great pride in their past and their family origins in the "Out (or Family) Islands"--places other than New Providence, such as Andros, Inagua, Bimini, and of course Eleuthra. They can be especially proud of their names. Common names include: the Gibsons, reputedly from Scotland; the Alburys, Malones, and Russells are said to be descended from Irish Loyalists; and the Eleuthera Bethels say they came with the religious freedom seekers. Black Bahamians' roots go back just as far, as evidenced by the many who took the name "Rolle," after Lord Rolle, a wealthy and much-loved planter in The Exumas who, after emancipation, gave his land to his former slaves.

Now, for a few points about food--just a few now. I am only going to touch on the first meal I had on this trip, Crab 'n Rice, an island favourite which is more easily prepared when crab is plentiful (May-July). Now, if you know Bahamians you know that they are different and see themselves as truly special--like everyone on every Caribbean island. So, they must have special animals too. These crabs don't live in the sea, they live on land. (I know you see land crabs in Barbados but they are fleas compared to the monsters here.) These crabs are big, with legs that can spread a foot from side to side. They live in burrows among the mangroves and in low-lying broadleaf coppice where the water table is close to the surface.

In suitable habitats, there may be as many as a thousand crab burrows to an acre. The burrows go down as much as a yard to the water table where the crabs can immerse themselves in water and keep their gills moist. In The Bahamas, most crab burrows are well away from human habitation, but I understand that in Florida they can be somewhat of a nuisance where they dig up lawns and eat garden vegetables! Land crabs are primarily vegetarians, eating leaves, fruits, berries, flowers and some vegetables. Occasionally they will eat beetles or other large insects.

The annual trek of hundreds of thousands of crabs begins three nights before the full moon. The eggs are released in the sea and soon hatch out.

The island of Andros has a large population of land crabs and has recently established an "Andros Crabfest", which occurs in June at the time the crabs take to the road--quite literally--on their journey from their burrows to the sea where they must go to lay their eggs.This is not to be confused with activities in Caribbean islands further south, such as carnival or Crop Over, when what could be mistaken for crabs with legs and arms several yards apart, but in florid costumes, take to the road and do a lot of burrowing.

In the islands few people know about the hidden life of the land crab--most are more focused on the hidden pleasures of land grab or landing crab onto a plate. They never see the crabs until they emerge from their burrows and begin the trek to the ocean to lay their eggs. Then, the islanders come out in their dozens to catch the crabs as they run across the roads on their way to the sea. "Why did the crab cross the road?", children ask. Some islanders, apparently, make a very good living from the crabs, bringing them from Andros to Nassau; today are being sold for US$ 25-30 a dozen. On some islands, the crabs are an important source of protein. For the crabs though it is all unfortunate. They get killed just before reproduction, which is the quickest way to kill off a resource. Let's hope that enough crabs don't get grabbed and make it through for the species to survive.

None of the Bahamians I know have any really good stories about going crabbing. I met some vendors from Andros today who told me that the funniest thing that happens is when someone tries to catch a crab for the first time and it's the crab that does the catching. The crabs love to put their pincers on the fingers or something else that is pendulous. If you are quick with your flashlight you could try to stun the crab. Some of the crabbers are not so brave and use a stick to hold the crab in place before lift it into the crocus bag, which can hold about 6 dozen crabs. The black crab is supposedly sweeter to eat. But I'm not giving up on the search for an inside scoop on crabbing. For the moment, I will content myself with having eaten a sumpteous feast of crab 'n' rice already.

2 comments:

ESTEBAN AGOSTO REID said...

Very familiar with those crabs and they do make a delectable meal.RESPECT!!

Garry said...

I must admit I love big juicy crabs, best place for them is cooked and on my plate.