26 February 2017 | Jumentos Cays & Ragged Islands
So many of the Bahama islands are uninhabited, which is what makes them so lovely for cruisers (or “tourists” as the locals call us). Unfortunately, some of the uninhabited islands also are privately owned (think Hollywood money) and unavailable to visitors (at least when the owners and staff are around). We have been told of one island owned by a movie star whose staff will motor out to boats anchored nearby and offer the crew a bottle of wine if they will relocate. Unfortunately, we have not been the beneficiaries.
The islands that are inhabited typically are sparsely so, with more and more of the population moving to Nassau or, better yet for them, to the United States. Jobs are the issue, and Bahamians need to work to support themselves and their families like any other people. Nassau is the seat of government and financial center of the nation and resources flow there. As a result, the outer islands see their populations decline slowly, year by year. The trend is exacerbated by the fact that very few islands have high schools, and fewer still offer any post secondary education. Thus, when children reach the 7th or 8th grade, they leave their home islands and families and go to Nassau to live with relatives for further education. Once off island, and particularly if they go to the States for college or university (and many do), it is rare that they return to their home islands.
The Jumentos Cays and Ragged Islands are no exception. The only settlement in the entire chain of islands (that stretches over about 60 miles from north to south) is Duncan Town on Ragged Island, presently home to about 40 people. In 2000, a time capsule was buried to be opened in 2050 and at that time, the population was 127. Many years ago, the town was home to some 1800 people (we have heard numbers as high as 5,000, with “a piano in every home” but seeing the size and number of homes or ruins, that is beyond comprehension). The major industries at the time were fishing and salt harvesting and Duncan Town was a commercial center for trading with Cuba and beyond. (The salt beds still are there at the foot of town and families to whom plots are deeded still harvest salt from time to time. It has a slight pinkish tinge and is very tasty in cooking.) Unfortunately, like so many other industries, salt mining fell by the wayside as other operations in other lands proved more efficient. (It is much easier, faster, and cheaper to harvest salt with a bucket loader from land based salt mines than it is to flood fields [like rice paddies] repeatedly, allowing the sun to dry the salt, rake it up, and package it in barrels for export.) There is a boat channel from the Bahama bank (west) side of Ragged Island that proceeds straight into Town to the base of the hill and the government dock where fishing boats and salt barges were loaded, off-loaded, and goods were exported or imported. The channel is some 1 ½ miles long and, we were told, dug by hand. Now, it is used by a few fishing boats and dinghies from cruising boats (like ours, see the photo) going into town for water, groceries, the occasional meal out, and a chance to interact with the locals who are pleased to see us come, but no significant or heavy traffic indicating economic opportunity such as was ascribed to the past.
The question is, how long can Duncan Town hope to continue given the trend? Yes, the Defense Forces are building a new port for their ships used to intercept Cubans and Haitians fleeing their countries. (Would it be better to let the newcomers settle and repopulate the islands? We understand there is a long standing, and deep, dislike of the Haitians by Bahamians, so that might not be a viable option.) The base will include some “dormitory” like structures to house the crews. And, there are plans to build a hangar at the airport so the Batelco and Defense Forces planes can be covered from the sun, but how many jobs (post construction) and how much income will those investments throw off?
At the Valentines Day party held on the 18th, a young woman who is engaged to one of the young men on the islands, said they are planning to live in Duncan Town and she is planning a family of 5 children. She also has dreams of having a movie theater (which may consist of a sheet hung on a wall or between two trees and a projector) to provide entertainment for the people. We have seen other young people on other islands open shops, restaurants, and bars to improve their and their community’s lifestyles. We hope they are successful and are just the spark of rejuvenation the area needs. The southern islands also could benefit from a reopening of Cuba to Americans by being part of a sailing loop from Florida to and through the Bahamas to Cuba and back to Florida.
It is pretty obvious that Duncan Town is about as far away from Nassau, and the government’s attention, as it can be, so without some individual and collective emphasis, we are afraid it will die on the vine. Of course, we may be looking at this from a jaundiced perspective and may not see the forest for the (scant) trees, but we cannot help but wonder what the future holds for these islands. We would love to be here for the unveiling of the time capsule in 2050, but someone else will have to do that and tell us about it.