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Tough Call: Nygard, Bacon And The History Of Clifton Bay

By LARRY SMITH

O
VER the past several months, flamboyant 70-year-old Canadian fashion mogul Peter Nygard has released one outrageous video after another – all seemingly calculated to make fools out of Bahamians.

Perhaps the most egregious is an eight-minute celebration of Perry Christie’s election last year, inappropriately titled Nygard Takes Bahamas Back. All of the videos – and Nygard’s many other public antics and comments – revolve around the land at the western end of New Providence, which has a fascinating history.

Nygard acquired Simm’s Point – at the western tip of Lyford Cay – in 1984 – renaming it Nygard Cay. He built a fanciful palace there, which he describes as “the eighth wonder of the world”. It was rented out at $42,000 per night until a fire in 2009. Since then Nygard has been seeking to rebuild his pleasure dome on an even grander scale – a prospect dreaded by other residents of the sedate Lyford Cay community.

“I am a Bahamian citizen and this is my country. I love Bahamian black people,” Nygard declares condescendingly in one video, complaining about a supposed 10-year-long campaign to evict him from Lyford Cay. “I’ve been victimised and made very uncomfortable,” he says. “Then my lifelong dream went up in smoke. I was not allowed to rebuild by the (previous) government.”

According to Nygard, the only thing standing in the way of this “noble cause” is his Lyford Cay neighbour – the evil billionaire and environmentalist Louis Bacon. “He formed the Save the Bays group which is aimed at me,” Nygard claims. “Well-meaning people joined in, but it is really a disguise to attack me.”

He is referring to a recently formed public interest group called the Coalition to Protect Clifton Bay (or Save the Bays for short), whose website says is “committed to preserving and protecting Clifton Bay and other common marine environments surrounding New Providence.” It is common knowledge that Bacon is one of the group’s major backers.

In the late 1990s, Bacon was one of several Lyford Cay financiers who supported an unprecedented fight to halt the development of a 600-acre high-density gated community along Clifton Bay. It was clearly a not-in-my-backyard initiative, but in 1999 Bacon and others did try unsuccessfully to buy the Clifton property (from the Oakes estate) in order to create a national park along the coast.

This issue became one of the major fault lines in the 2002 general election, which brought Perry Christie into office for the first time.

During the election campaign, Christie and the PLP allied with civic groups and environmentalists in a broad coalition against the $400 million Clifton Cay development – probably the first time Bahamians had banded together to stop a major investment. After the election the government established the 200-acre Clifton Heritage Park, which opened in 2009.

Now – 10 years later – Clifton and its heritage have become something of a meat-covered bone that is being hotly contested by two pit bulls – Louis Bacon, who backs Save the Bays, and Peter Nygard, who is presumably behind a competing group called Saving Clifton Heritage Again.

Saving Clifton is ostensibly the brainchild of former PLP parliamentarian Keod Smith, a prominent political operative during the original 2002 Clifton campaign. More recently he has been a lawyer and spokesman for Nygard. And in a hilariously melodramatic Star Wars-type video on his group’s Facebook page, Smith says he is involved in a war against “antagonistic foreign forces” who are trying to take “that which is ours...They have always wanted to keep us out of Clifton and the surrounding bay area. Clifton is ours – don’t mess with it.”

The screen then fades from a passionately indignant Keod Smith to the legendary stone steps carved into the limestone cliffs near the Heritage Park which (according to park signage) served as “a gateway between Clifton and the rest of the world…across them passed the first slaves from Africa, and the last cotton exported to Europe.”

In another video Vivien Whylly, who claims to be a direct descendent of Clifton slaves, refers to the steps as “the path our ancestors took into slavery.” And there are many online references to the pirate steps, or more recently in The Tribune, to Blackbeard’s steps. There are also romantic references to “an ocean bath carved from living rock, where slaves were washed following transport through the Middle Passage.”

The reality is that Clifton is the most documented property in the Bahamas over the past 200 years, so we really don’t need to make things up. The paper trail begins in the 1780s, when all of the land on the western end of New Providence was granted to loyalist refugees from America. These men were forced to emigrate to British territories like Canada or the Bahamas, where they received compensation for their losses in America.

Three Georgia merchants – Lewis Johnston, John Wood and Thomas Ross – received 791 acres near Clifton Point, which later formed the bulk of the Clifton Plantation (also known as the Whylly Plantation and more recently as Clifton Cay). Another 448 acres was given to a South Carolina sea captain named William Lyford Jr. Some of this land eventually became part of Clifton and some was developed in the 1960s by a Canadian investor named E P Taylor as the exclusive Lyford Cay community.

Unfortunately for the romanticists, there was no “Middle Passage” transport of Africans across the Atlantic to Clifton. As the late Paul Adderley explained in a 2000 interview, “these (loyalists) who came here from what is now the United States brought their slaves with them.”

Even more to the point, the stone steps had nothing to do with either slaves or pirates. According to the 1924 Tribune Handbook the “narrow stairway was cut into the cliff by the Williamson Moving Picture Company” to access what was then known as the Jane Gale Cave. Gale acted in the 1916 film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, shot using the newly-perfected Williamson Photosphere, a nine-foot-long underwater tube with a diving bell at one end.

The Photosphere was developed by John Ernest Williamson, an American who pioneered underwater photography in the early years of the 20th century. He lived and filmed in Nassau for much of his life and died in 1966. His daughter, Sylvia Munroe, ran a pre-school here for many years and starred as a child in two of her father’s films. Presumably, this history is not romantic enough for the Clifton Heritage Park.

The Williamson Photosphere was discarded on an Eastern Road lot for many years before being put in storage at the Antiquities Monuments and Museums Corporation on Collins Avenue where it awaits the inauguration of a national museum. This is something we have not been able to achieve in 40 years of independence.

But let’s return to the Clifton saga. There were slaves there until emancipation in the 1830s, after which there was sporadic farming on the land until it was acquired by Florida real estate developers in the 1920s. Their plans to develop a new town and resort community fell through and the entire area was bought by Sir Harry Oakes in 1935.

Fast forward to 1989, when the Pindling government decided to move the Nassau container port to Clifton. Some 200 acres were compulsorily acquired from the Oakes Estate for this purpose, but experts said the environmental costs of developing a port in this area were too great, so the Inter American Development Bank refused to provide financing.

After that the 200 acres were simply forgotten – until they became part of the 600-acre tract of private land at Clifton that investors proposed to make into another Lyford Cay-type gated community in the 1990s.

By all accounts Nygard was completely uninvolved in the campaign to derail this development and create a national park at Clifton a dozen years ago.

But recently he has wrapped himself up in the issue as part of his vendetta with Louis Bacon.

This has included videos portraying himself as the hero of Clifton Bay, which press as many racial buttons as he has fingers on three hands.

The YouTube video that has been circulating on social media sites recently (although it was originally posted last year) includes a tour of Nygard Cay, and boasts about how it will be rebuilt. More importantly, the video features senior PLP cabinet ministers greeting the great man in his natural habitat at Nygard Cay.

Brave Davis, Shane Gibson, Jerome Fitzgerald, Ken Dorsertt, Alfred Gray and Perry Gomez are all congratulated by Nygard on “the greatest victory ever”. This shameless posturing led FNM Deputy Leader Loretta Butler-Turner to call for their resignations over influence-peddling – which Gomez considered “ridiculous”.

The video also features a discussion of Nygard’s interest in anti-aging stem cell research, including one scene where he injects himself with a hypodermic needle and quips to awed onlookers: “Ah, it feels so good, and you can see it’s working”.

On a website called the Bahamas National that presents the Nygard storyline, the great man is said to be making strides to bring this science to the wider world. “I found out there is a lot of upcoming medicine and a lot of new medical advancement going on in the world,” he is quoted, “It’s the kind of medicine that everyone in the world wants to be healthier and live longer.”

The Christie government recently fast-tracked legislation to facilitate stem-cell research in the Bahamas. And during a recent Independence celebration honouring Bahamians under the age of 40, when broadcaster Wendall Jones lavished praise on Nygard, the fashion mogul urged support for the government’s agenda.

In another amusing video Nygard, with flowing blond hair and bearing a carved ceremonial staff, is accompanied by the Rev Simeon Hall and other courtiers to confront the Rev C. B. Moss, one of the original Clifton campaigners who runs yet another Coalition to Save Clifton. Moss has slammed Nygard’s dredge and fill operations at Simms Point, which have been ongoing for years despite government injunctions.

In this “king of the jungle” video, Nygard demands to know why he is being attacked when he is not doing anything illegal “under this government.”

He expresses resentment as someone who has been “dedicated to this country more than any single person in this country.” To which Moss replies: “I’ve heard these stories (about you and Bacon) and I don’t care – you should duke it out yourselves.”

That is, in effect, what will now happen. In May, Save the Bays lawyer Fred Smith filed for judicial review over “unregulated development” at Simms Point, where Nygard’s original three-acre parcel of land has more than doubled over the years. Although a trial date has not been set, this action finally brings Nygard, Bacon and the government together under judicial oversight.

In the meantime, the Clifton Heritage Authority obviously has a lot of work to do in terms of archaeology, restoration and public education at Clifton Heritage Park.

What do you think?

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larry@tribunemedia.net

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