The Fisher Kings

By Alex Roslin
Up! Magazine
Dec 1, 2007

Far from Nassau and its high-rolling tourists, the islet of Spanish Wells, near the Bahamian island of Eleuthera, is not your typical lazy beach town. That local waving as she passes, for example, is probably much richer than you are

Our first hint that Spanish Wells is a different kind of place comes when we meet Newton Curry. He is the caretaker of our colourfully painted, century-old fisherman’s cottage, who doubles as a lobster fisherman and local handyman (his slogan: “Curry Can”).

Newton has just hauled three months’ worth of luggage for our family of four from the water taxi. He cheerfully refuses our tip, then starts to leave.

“Where are the keys to the house?” I ask.

“Oh, you don’t need to lock your doors when you go out,” he says, smiling. “There’s no crime on Spanish Wells.”

No tip? No crime? Where are we, Sesame Street?

Well, the Bahamas’ aptly named Family Islands, actually. The Vegas-like carnival that is Nassau, the Bahamian capital, is a world away. Life here is as slow as fishing skiffs; golf carts and feet are the preferred modes of transport and easy friendships, generosity and relaxation are a way of life.

Spanish Wells is possibly the most fascinating jewel of these islands, and the most curious. Still blessedly overlooked by tourists, this tiny islet is accessed by a 10-minute ferry ride from the larger island of Eleuthera—which means “freedom” in Greek. The island got its name from the Eleutheran Adventurers, Puritans fleeing the English Civil War, who were the first Europeans to settle in this 700-island archipelago in the 1600s.

Many of the 1,800 people living in Spanish Wells trace their ancestry to these early refugees who ran aground on the Devil’s Backbone coral reef just offshore.

My family chose the island for our prolonged family vacation because of its quaint and reasonably priced rental cottages—US$2,500 a month for a three-bedroom gem; a brilliant history full of pirates, Civil War gunrunners and Prohibition liquor smugglers; the lack of crime; and because its small size meant freedom from a rental car.

And then, of course, there was the ocean, with its beautiful, bright splotches of turquoise, aquamarine and yellow, a fabulous three-kilometre pink-sand beach—that’s right, it’s pink, a phenomenon created when sugar white sand mixes with wave-crushed coral that's coated with algae and tiny amoebas, called forams—plus a shallow sandbar that stretches out for a kilometre.

It seemed like the perfect playground for our two little tykes, aged five months and two years. We also looked forward to eating lots of what lived in this water— lobster, stone crab, yellow fin tuna, hogfish, snapper and wahoo—all available directly from the island’s many fishermen.

What we didn’t know was what kind of reception we’d get from the people of Spanish Wells--the uncertainty fuelled by surreal tales about the mostly white, blond and blue-eyed islanders; close-knit, conservative, religious and wary of outsiders. Our Lonely Planet guidebook warned tourists to “be prepared for some frosty stares and passive displays of hostility.” Not exactly family vacation territory.

After a tiring trip—a flight to Nassau, a second 45-minute hop to the North Eleuthera Airport aboard a 19-seater Beechcraft 1900, then a water taxi to Spanish Wells, with 250 kg of luggage and two little ones in tow—the islanders put us at ease right away. Instead of frosty stares, everyone waves as they whirr past in their golf carts.

Our social calendar is soon full with invitations to dinner, kids’ plays and birthday parties, spear-fishing trips and, of course, church. It started with the first family we met on the ferry ride and kept coming when locals realized how long we were actually staying. Friendly waves to passing locals helped. (Bahamians are considered some of the most religious people in the world, with predominant Baptist and Anglican denominations, holdovers from their Puritan roots, and more churches per capita than any other country.)

Our new friends drop off lobster thermidor, guava duff (a fragrant cake-like bread) and homegrown bananas, and the gifts don’t stop when we don’t go to church. One of the Caribbean’s most famously reclusive settlements has clearly opened its doors to outsiders. We quickly suspected that the Lonely Planet author just breezed through town.

The seeds of change were planted by the lobster. Since the 1970s, when the Red Lobster restaurant chain started buying most of the island’s catch, Spanish Wells went from being a hard-luck fishing village to one of the wealthiest communities in the Caribbean. It now boasts the largest fishing fleet in the country.

Islanders like to say they count more millionaires per capita than any community in the world. This is one of the few tropical destinations where the locals are likely to be richer than most tourists—one of the reasons there’s no crime. (Our doors are never locked, which results in people leaving gifts of food in our fridge while we’re at the beach.)

But the lucrative lobster trade is only one part of what makes Spanish Wells crime-free and unique. Despite their wealth, the “natives,” as they call themselves, dress modestly and profess a huge pride in being a humble and neighbourly sort of people .

“The minute a tourist starts to think that because they have money, they can look down on the people here, that don’t work,” says Abner Pinder, who quit life as a fisherman to become the island’s chief councillor (the Bahamian version of a mayor).


Pinder is an embodiment of the modern, changing Spanish Wells. His other hats include real estate agent, owner of a fleet of golf carts-for-hire and shipping agent for the Bo Hengy fast ferry, the catamaran that departs from Nassau daily for Harbour Island, stopping in Spanish Wells along the way.

He is one of the island’s most prosperous citizens and friends with two of the country’s recent prime ministers. Yet, he still retains the air of the simple fisherman. He spends much of his days steering a heavily laden forklift around the docks, dressed in his trademark blue work pants and shirt.

Pinder’s attitude to tourism is typical here. “We love tourists, but we don’t want too many,” he says in the island’s curious Old South-meets-Jamaica brogue. “We don’t want our way of life to change. We don’t have to change because 95 per cent of the people in Spanish Wells are independently well-off. If Bill Gates comes here, he’ll be treated the same as you.”

But Spanish Wells has already seen a sea change in recent years. The island has a growing number of interracial families, and about a quarter of the students and teachers at the island’s school are black—a result of growing acceptance of “non-natives” and the influx of Haitians working in the area. We ask some black Bahamians who live and work on the island about racism, and they say there’s been healthy improvement in attitudes toward all “non-natives,” black or white.

But not all the change is for the better. Tourists have started sniffing around the island and buying up the charming cottages, many of them a century old. The “natives” hope to cash in on a US$13.6-billion resort-and-condo boom that is transforming this former British colony. Perry Christie, the past prime minister, called the planned projects “the largest direct investment of foreign capital in the history of any country.”

Some Bahamians complain the building mania is turning them into second-class citizens in their own country. Land prices have skyrocketed, making homes unaffordable for many locals.

On Spanish Wells, the real estate boom has been a mixed blessing. While it has no doubt helped the islanders warm up to outsiders, it has also caused property prices to nearly triple in the past six years, from $4 to $10 per square foot and from $10 to $30 for waterfront properties. Even with their incredible incomes, young families are finding it harder to afford a home.

Many are nervously eyeing t he largest of the development schemes, which is planned for privately owned Royal Island, just five kilometres southwest of Spanish Wells. Over the next few months, major construction is to begin here on an exclusive $500-million villa-and-marina project, complete with five-star boutique hotel and the first of a new line of 25 Jack Nicklaus Golf Clubs. Completion is scheduled for 2009.

While some Spanish Wells residents welcome the project, saying it will have a spillover effect on land values and bring a flood of tourists, others fear it for the same reasons. They worry newcomers will overrun their sleepy enclave and increase pressure on a fishery already suffering from illegal poaching by Bahamians and other Caribbean nations, as well as poverty and lack of government monitoring.

So far, however, mass tourism has bypassed Spanish Wells. Entire days go by without a single person to wave to on the entire three kilometres of pink (yes, pink!) beach. No Sea-Doos or parasailers mar the tranquil waters. No trinket-sellers hassle us while we search for conch shells, starfish and turtles along the sandbar. Even the stunning, world-class reef at Devil’s Backbone rarely sees visiting scuba divers, leaving the angelfish, groupers and parrotfish to enjoy the dozens of shipwrecks undisturbed.

For the warm-blooded locals, the water is too cold until it hits sauna-like temperatures in the summer. (“How kin you go in that watah?” they demand. “It’s freezin’!”) And the tourists, well, they’re off swarming the nearby über-rich enclave of Harbour Island and the casinos of Nassau. With no bars or nightlife in Spanish Wells, the streets are usually as quiet as Tombstone before a gunfight.

Some days, it seems like a shame our special little island remains overlooked. But most of the time, we bask in our own, secret discovery.

Bahamas ’ Dirty Secret

Haitians are the dirty little secret of the Bahamas. While this country and its tourism industry depend heavily on the estimated 30,000 to 80,000 Haitians living here (many of them undocumented) for cheap labour, they live in a virtual police state.

The U.S. State Department’s latest human rights report, the Country Report on Human Rights Practices released last March , slammed the Bahamian government for discrimination against the country’s largest immigrant population and fostering anti-Haitian prejudice . Haitians have a hard time getting citizenship. Even their children born in the country can only apply for citizenship when they turn 18, and then often wait years for a reply.

On Spanish Wells, about 200 Haitians work as gardeners, construction workers and labourers. By Bahamian standards, the island has a fairly good reputation among Haitians. Still, none wanted to speak with a journalist, even anonymously, for fear of reprisals by Bahamian authorities.

Jean-Pierre, who lives on nearby Eleuthera, tells a typical story. He lives in a Haitian shantytown with no running water, where people typically earn $30 to $45 a day while the cost of living is similar to Canada’s. He arrived more than 20 years ago on a work visa, and had three children, all born in the Bahamas. To date, no one in his family has citizenship.

Twice in recent years, police came to his door at 4 a.m. and, despite his work permit, took his family to Nassau for questioning, along with dozens of other Haitians in the shantytown.

He must reapply for a work permit each year at a cost of $600 and faces deportation if he loses his job. “The bossman is your security after God,” he says. “Haitian people are scared. There is no justice here.”