Historic Document Opens A Window Onto The Past


A "DELIGHTFUL DOCUMENT" published by the Bahamas Historical Society in 1968 opened a fascinating window on a long-lost age. Other than history buffs, few are familiar with this publication today, but it offers a refreshing alternative to the bilious political circuses we have to put up with now.

The document was a personal journal kept by an American physician named Peter Solomon Townsend, who lived in Nassau from December 1823 to September 1824. It is, historians say, one of the earliest private documents surviving from the Loyalist slavery era.

Townsend's 68-page diary - lodged between well-worn board covers that also enclosed a 113-page medical day book - was found decades ago in a Boston bookshop by one William Miller, a New York college professor who happened to have been born in Nassau. After Miller's death, his widow gave the journal to the Bahamas Historical Society, which transcribed the handwritten notes and published it as a slim booklet.

The diary begins with Townsend's embarkation for Nassau aboard a square-rigged sailing ship from New York: "There being a good breeze from the northward, the sails were unbent, and in a few seconds after the ship loosened from the wharf she was under weigh," he wrote on December 10, 1823. His fellow passengers included wealthy Loyalist merchants and their servants, as well as several "poor Irish people in steerage."

During his sojourn in Nassau, Townsend witnessed the declining days of the decadent plantation society that the Loyalists had tried to build in the Bahamas following the American War of Independence. His notes mostly record the activities of the Bahamian social elite and make no political references at all. But this was a portentous period-- the slave trade had already been abolished, and it would be only a few more years before slavery itself came to an end throughout the British Empire.

Six days after leaving New York, Townsend and his fellow passengers were on the lookout for Hole in the Wall - "a perforated rock which serves as the great signpost to mariners going into this part of the west indies. It is on the extremity of Abaco." This was several years before a lighthouse was erected on this spot in 1836 to guide vessels away from the island's fringing reef. Hole in the Wall Lighthouse is something of a tourist attraction on Abaco these days, although it is difficult to get to.

"We were not without our apprehensions of meeting with pirates, particularly as we had heard of their having been lately seen off the Hole in the Wall," Townsend wrote. It had been almost a century since the death of Governor Woodes Rogers who had put down the pirate republic of the Bahamas, but attacks on regional shipping continued well into the 19th century. In 1820, more than 50 pirate attacks were reported in the Florida Straits alone, and wrecking was also a lucrative trade for Bahamians.

It is clear from Townsend's descriptions that all the islands he passed from Abaco to New Providence were covered with low "brush wood" punctuated by the occasional tall coconut palm - with not a casuarina in sight. These invasive and destructive trees, which now blanket our coastlines, were first reported in the Bahamas in 1859 and had become widely distributed and naturalised by the early 20th century.

As they approached Nassau from North Eleuthera, Townsend noticed several houses on Rose Island. Just over the bar they were met in a small boat by the harbour pilot, who brought them to a safe anchorage some 200 yards off Fort Nassau - on the site where the British Colonial Hilton now stands. The passengers were then rowed in a small boat to one of the piers built out from the shore. Even by moonlight, Townsend marvelled, the water was so clear the bottom could be seen several fathoms deep.

On landing, they passed through a lumber yard and went a short distance along Bay Street to a mansion which faced "an oblong open green." This was the western parade, also called Fleeming Square, and located roughly where the British Colonial Hilton's driveway is today. Adjacent to the parade ground Townsend saw black troops stationed at Fort Nassau, which was not demolished until some 13 years after his visit.

These troops were members of the West India Regiment, a British infantry unit recruited from, and normally stationed in, the British colonies of the Caribbean between 1795 and 1927. They formed the military garrison in Nassau until 1891, when they were replaced by a quasi-military police force comprised mainly of Barbadians. At the time of Townsend's visit, the regiment's barracks was on the plain east of Fort Charlotte.

The grand mansion overlooking the parade, where Townsend lived for the next 10 months, was the home of the Honourable James Moss, a former Liverpudlian slave trader and member of the governor's council whom historians describe as "the lynchpin of Nassau's new merchant oligarchy."

Bay Street at this time consisted chiefly of "wooden buildings with long sheds or piazzas and a profusion of windows, mostly occupied as stores of dry goods, hardware, etc." South of the main drag the streets were more residential "excepting the courthouse where the legislature meet." But, Townsend noted, "There is a want of neatness...in fact the scenery connected with the quietness of the town gives it a look of desolation and ruin."

Townsend's journal records an endless succession of dinners, balls, picnics and excursions - including sailing trips to Rose Island and Hog Island - with upwards of 30 dishes served at a time. These included roast goose and duck, corned beef, pigeon pie, ham, turkey, lamb, baked crab and local as well as cold water fish. Often there was dancing in the courtyard to a piano. The chief justice's ball on new year's day was the most lavish celebration he attended, with about 100 other members of the island's social elite.

"After coffee, tea, cake, etc, danced a succession of tedious, laborious country dances till 4 next morning, allowing a short time for supper about 1 o'clock. The music was very good, two fifes (black) from the garrison, two or three fiddles, tambourine and drum."

Townsend also describes outlying areas of Nassau. To the east, "by a pleasant good road along the harbour", there were houses scattered along the waterfront for a mile past St Matthew's Church. Blair at that time was a small farming estate, and beyond that on the Eastern Road was "a group of handsome buildings and trees which Mr Moss told me was the Hermitage, (a country seat) now deserted and left to go to ruin in consequence of the family feeling a repugnance to reside where the father and several others had died."

The Hermitage was built by Lord Dunmore, a colonial governor, in the late 1700s as a summer residence, and originally included all the land east to Dick's Point. The original building was demolished some years ago, but later buildings built were acquired by the Catholic Diocese in 1932 and remain the residence of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Nassau today.

Some distance beyond the Hermitage Townsend described a collection of "mean houses occupied by (mixed race) fishermen and wreckers, whose small craft is moored out a few yards from shore." This was Creek Village, a coastal community near Fox Hill Creek.

Creek Village dates back to the founding of St Anne's Church in the 1730s, but only a handful of modest homes survive along the Eastern Road as testimony to its existence. The wider reaches of Fox Hill were first settled around the beginning of the 19th century when a free man of colour named Fox developed a plantation south of the ridge.

Townsend also visited Vendue House downtown (now the Pompey Museum), which he described as "a place of great resort (that) serves as a lounge." But rather than slaves, the goods on sale were salvaged by wreckers, who Townsend referred to as "licensed smugglers." Despite this opprobrium, the general perception at the time was that without such commerce the town would be bankrupt.

"The Bahamians are very expert and adroit at (smuggling and wrecking), perhaps owing to an hereditary predisposition," Townsend wrote. "For if tradition is to be believed all the inhabitants are either lineally or collaterally descended from the founder of Nassau and his associates (Blackbeard the pirate)...The Nassau people are called conchs and the inhabitants upon the out islands are denominated as crabs."

And, it seems, some things will never change. Townsend records commiserating with a fellow doctor in Nassau who was drowning in a sea of uncollectible receivables.

His account of an excursion out west to the Moss farm known as the Grove (it was subdivided in the 1920s), notes that the beaches along the route were covered with sea grape trees which "form an excellent shelter from the sun." The other side of the road was lined by a fine stone wall composed of pieces of coral rock. Fort Charlotte, which we passed, is built of the same."

The farm grew an abundance of herbs, fruits and vegetables, and raised deer, geese, ducks, chickens and pigeons. During Townsend's stay Moss "received the visits of some 10 or 12 of his slaves who had returned from gathering guinea corn in the fields. There are about 60 altogether on this estate and the others near it. The slaves whom I saw here and have seen in New Providence since my arrival are all comfortably dressed."

His descriptions of the activities of black Bahamians focused on Junkanoo and religion. Townsend noted that the slaves enjoyed a three-day vacation with extra food and rum at Christmas, when whites were "regaled until 3 or 4 in the morning with some bad music on hoarse cracked drums and fifes by groups of negroes parading the streets. On other nights (the black troops) who are stationed opposite the parade, clear the streets of blacks, or rather prevent their walking out after 8pm without a pass."

Townsend describes a visit to the failed salt pans on Hog Island near the lighthouse that were built by a New Yorker named Seton. He also visited a deserted barracks on Hog Island for an afternoon picnic (or maroon) with the governor and other wealthy guests. The snacks they feasted on included salmon, corned beef and pickled oysters, washed down with plenty of wine.

"We embarked about 1pm a little behind the ordnance house on the parade a few yards from Mr Moss' (house). After sailing till 3pm we debarked at the barracks...Walked through the sandy paths among the bay cedar bushes and wild grape and other shrubs... to one of the three small buildings which compose the barracks."

At the time of Townsend's visit there were probably 3,000 slaves on New Providence (plus mulattoes and free blacks) and less than 1,800 whites. With such a small isolated elite, visitors like Townsend were quickly recruited into the local social scene. He reported being persuaded to play a part in an amateur theatrical production (Who Wants a Guinea, an 1805 comedy by George Coleman) on a stage set up in the courthouse.

"Before seven the house was crowded - only 160 tickets had been issued each at a dollar, so that the company on the benches was composed chiefly of the first people in town," he wrote. "I recognised all my acquaintances."

Other activities of the colonial elite included official ceremonies such as the proroguing of the legislature and celebration of the monarch's birthday. Those events featured the governor on horseback with his ostrich-plumed hat, marching troops of the West India Regiment, and the firing of artillery salutes.

Townsend describes the funeral of the wife of Abraham Eve, a prominent loyalist and member of the governor's council: "Two black persons went before with lanterns in case night should come on before the service is over...The negroes like to go to funerals...They followed to the number of 20 or 30, amounting to more, I think, than the whites.

"Some dozen gigs driven by servants brought up the rear. The corpse was carried first into the church. The burial ground is Potter's Field in the western skirts of the town where all the whites are placed without distinction of rank."

Potter's Field on Augusta Street was officially renamed the Western Cemetery in 1906.

During the summer of 1824, Townsend actually got to practise medicine in Nassau by standing in for Dr Tynes, the chief medical officer, while Tynes visited Crooked Island. Tynes' responsibilities included the poor house, the jail, and the public health department, as well as his private patients. And Townsend's journal ends with a series of perfunctory comments about medical treatments given to a wide range of patients - from slaves to visiting sailors to the colonial elite.

Peter Solomon Townsend was born in New York in 1796. His father was a state legislator. Townsend earned his MD in 1816, and wrote an account of a yellow fever outbreak in New York in 1822, which gained him a reputation as an expert in epidemic diseases.

Ill health led him to move to the Bahamas in December 1823 to seek a more congenial climate. In addition to his diary of the year spent here as the guest of James Moss, he also wrote a memoir on the Topography, Weather and Diseases of the Bahama Islands.

Townsend died of tuberculosis in New York in 1849 - his journal somehow ending up in an antique bookstore in Boston, eventually giving us a fascinating glimpse of what life was like in Nassau 200 years ago.

  • What do you think? Send comments to larry@tribunemedia.net or visit www.bahamapundit.com.


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