The Caves of Nassau

The Caves of Nassau, The Bahamas

The history of the caves

Originally utilized by the Lucayans, the original inhabitants of The Bahamas, the caves of Nassau offered these native peoples various uses.  For example, the relatively cool, constant temperature of 24°C (75°F) and the natural shelter would have given them options for storing food and protecting themselves from hurricanes.  The Lucayans would have used fire to prepare food and to keep away animals and insects.  Remains of Lucayans have been excavated from caves in The Bahamas.

The Lucayans constituted a branch of the Taínos, a largely peaceful, Arawak-speaking native people present throughout the Caribbean at the time of the arrival of Columbus.  They were harassed and attacked by the Carib Indians, who seized islands and women from the Arawak speakers.  Ultimately, the European discovery of the New World spelled the end for their culture; smallpox, other infectious diseases, and slavery obliterated this native world. 

Inside the Caves

The beach at the caves

Although the culture of the Caribbean native peoples was extinguished in the Age of Discovery, genetic studies in islands such as Cuba and Puerto Rico indicate that modern inhabitants still have some native DNA, although less than that of Africa and Europe.  However, in The Bahamas, the remaining native DNA in the population appears to be negligible or non-existent.  Due to its early discovery and exposed geography, The Bahamas suffered the persistent depredations of Spaniards and other Europeans.  In the 1500s, the Spaniards deported some 40,000 Lucayans to work as slaves in Spanish mines and plantations in various territories.  Over time the Lucayans were replaced with black Africans as the workers and principal residents of The Bahamas.

While few artifacts remain, it is believed that the caves of Nassau were also used by pirates that were active in the area in the 1500s and 1600s.  The deep caves would have provided them with refuge from attacks by European navies or rival pirates.  The labyrinthine passages of the caves may also have provided hiding places for caches of arms or treasure.

Whatever the nature of the pirates’ activity in the caves, it is clear that there was a significant pirate presence in The Bahamas during the golden age of piracy.  Prior to the 1718 arrival in New Providence (Nassau) of British Royal Governor Woodes Rogers, who came with a mandate to cleanse the islands of piracy, Edward “Blackbeard” Teach had prevailed as the informal governor of a “Privateers’ Republic,” a base for criminal maritime plunder in the Atlantic.  

John “Calico Jack” Rackham was another famous pirate who operated in The Bahamas.  He met and seduced Anne Bonny on New Providence and persuaded her to abandon her husband and to join his crew for a life of piracy.  She dressed as a man and took part in sea battles.  Perhaps the pirate life allowed her to escape the societal restraints imposed upon women in the early 18th century.  In any case, in 1720 the British royal navy captured the ship and hanged Calico Jack.
An important date in the history of the Caves was the visit of His Royal Highness Prince Alfred the Duke of Edinburgh on December 5th, 1861.  The fourth child and the second son of Queen Victoria, Alfred was the first royal personage ever to visit The Bahamas.  The boy prince, only seventeen years old, had already been a midshipman in the royal navy for three years.  When the prince, known to his family as “Affie,” arrived in Nassau aboard the HMS St George on December 3rd, a great crowd had assembled in the port of the island outpost.  Several days and nights of formal dinners, balls, and royal engagements followed.  The Bahamians were so proud of Alfred’s visit to the Caves that they helped him carve his initials into the stone.  To this day, a crisp British flag is maintained at the site to commemorate the royal visit.