Like all of the Caribbean, Exuma has an interesting and rich history. From pre-Colonial natives to the introduction of plantations and pirates, Exuma has a riveting past.
Not much is known about life in Exuma before Columbus times. It’s widely accepted that the Lucayan Indians inhabited Exuma, like the other Bahamian islands. They were known for being peaceful and even migrated north to escape the more aggressive Carib Indians.
Many people who visit Exuma question the origin of the name. It’s believed to have its roots in an Indian name, but the exact derivation hasn’t been established yet.
As with most of North America, everything was rocked by the arrival of Columbus and his voyages. Spanish colonist flooded the area, capturing and enslaving almost the entire Lucayan population. Most were put to work in the fields and mines in the Spanish colonies of Hispaniola, and Central and South America. Exuma was left virtually empty for many years because of this.
It wasn’t until the British arrived in Eleuthera Bahamas in 1648 that Exuma was rediscovered. Englishmen, who called themselves Eleutheran Adventurers, initially settled the Northern half of Eleuthera. Eventually, over the years the colony expanded into New Providence and Harbor Island. Most of the outer islands remained uninhabited until the late 1700s. Exuma during this time was involved in some salt raking in Little Exuma.
Pirates roamed the warm Caribbean water during the late 1600s and early 1700s. Some of the most famous pirates, such as Blackbeard, Anne Bonny, and Mary Read made land in Exuma. The famous pirate, James Kidd favored Elizabeth Harbor. Local lore states there is still pirate treasure buried around the Exuma Cays.
The Caribbean was disputed for many years between Spanish and British control. The matter was finally resolved in 1783 by the Treaty of Versailles. This agreement gave Britain undisputed rights to the Bahamas.
American loyalists who were fleeing the Revolutionary War settled Exuma in 1783. The loyalist immigration ushered in the foundation for what Exuma has become. They loyalist established cotton plantation to boost the economy of the islands. They established George Town, which was named in honor of King George III.
Cotton plantations were at an all-time high when the Loyalist settled on Exuma. England was hungry for cotton at the time, paying high prices for it. Exuma’s cotton plantations flourished as a result of this for close to 15 years. Almost the entire island was dedicated to growing cotton.
As more landowners came to the island, they brought their slaves from the southern colonies. Slave labor was seen as necessary to the cotton economy. Additional slaves were imported from Africa. Slave markets complete with auctions were set up on the site of the present Peace & Plenty hotel.
During this time the port of Exuma was active and bustling. Merchants carrying all types of goods, including clothing, foods, and household goods from England, were sold. During this time salt raking was also popular, especially on Little Exuma. In fact, Exuma was considered to be the main salt producing island with over 100,000 bushels of it produced and sent off to the colonies.
When Britain lost the Revolutionary War, the Loyalist settlers were in trouble. Many were convicted of treason and had their property confiscated. This resulted in the cotton plantation and other settlements to be abandoned. Cotton failures could also be attributed to over exhausted soil, inexperienced planters, and bad management.
With the abolishment of slavery in 1834, any future hopes of cotton production in Exuma died. The freed slaves settled in, developing skills as fishermen, which can still be seen in the culture and communities of Exuma today.
Due to its convenient location, the Bahamas were used as a base for running blockades during the American Civil War. During the prohibition era, 1920-1933, in the United States Exuma and the Bahamas became a popular location for rum running.
Exuma had more than one historical era of less than legal activities. In the 1970’s and 1980’s Exuma, and in particular Norman’s Cay, was home to a drug smuggling ring. Norman’s Cay served as the headquarters for Carlos Lehder’s drug smuggling operation as part of the Medellin Cartel.
Due to its close location to the United States, and in particular Florida, Lehder built a runway so that small aircrafts could ship loads of cocaine into the US. The runway he built is still there today but is now used for small private aircrafts (not carrying drugs!).
Exuma today is a peaceful tropical place full of laid-back inhabitants. Tourists have been flocking here for years, even more so lately with the popularity of the famous swimming pigs on Big Major’s Cay. It has a thriving eco-tourism economy with the Exuma Cay Land and Sea Park, fishing, boating, and other activities. The history of Exuma might be a little dark at times, but it’s future sure is sunny and bright.