Thursday, December 2, 1993

Cat Island

Published in March/April 1994 by Caribbean Travel & Life magazine (I believe it was written in 1987)

Because I spent childhood summers in the Bahamas, I took it for granted whenever I mentioned the Out Islands that people knew I must mean not Nassau or Freeport, but less-frequented harbors.

“Like Bimini,” a friend suggested.

“You mean the Abacos,” offered a travel agent.

“Here’s one nobody knows,” said an editor. “Eleuthera.”

Not those, either. The Bahamas—a bare dozen inhabited isles on the American doorstep—lie an hour or two out of Miami and sometimes fifty years away. The northern Out Islands, with their hotels like country clubs, their Hemingway stories and fishing-buddy bars, their fashion shoots and no surprises, are so familiar that they have obscured the southern Out Islands where, for me, the everlasting Bahamian soul still resides.

These are flat islands, drifting down from Nassau toward Cuba and the fringes of the Caribbean—final landfalls yet to be discovered by the corkscrew of tourism: Inagua, Mayaguana, Rum Cay, San Salvador, Long Island, Cat Island.

Their largely black populations are scattered through remote villages risen amid the ruins of plantations; life is “farmin’ and fishenin,’” deeply religious and deeply scandalous. The roads are bad, the Nassau politicians have forgotten these islands exist, and the weekly schedule is ruled by the twin events of church and mail boat. There are no banks, no lawyers, no traffic lights, no traffic. The beaches are untouristed, immaculate, finely-grated. You must go all the way to Central America to feel as distant from home.

A small plane is the ideal way to discover them. In a cobalt sea indistinguishable from the sky, brown jigsaws appear, lassoed with white ropes of sand. Cat Island comes up after Eleuthera as an irregular green carpet forty-five miles long, apparently empty, with innumerable coves of pale beach and not a single hotel like a giant air-conditioner to mar the greenness. A house here and there, an offshore islet or fisherman’s skiff; interior lakes and creeks; you descend past undulations, even hills, unusual for the Bahamas. Then a bay with a sailboat at rest, a long crescent of beach, perhaps a few cottages among scrubby trees. . . .

Travel is as much an experience of time as space; thus all places can be assigned a date. Cat Island’s might be 1949, or even—it sometimes seems—1889. (The island, shaped like a pirate’s boot, is named for a second-rate crony of Blackbeard’s, Captain Catt, who gave his other name to Arthur’s Town.) Only recently has reliable electricity reached many of the island’s “settlements”; most still rely on well-water. The principal road is paved in places, primeval the rest of the time, and some of the island’s 2,000 inhabitants have never been from one end to the other, much less the hundred-twenty miles to criminal, lascivious, evil Nassau.

Half-tumbled stone walls crop the landscape, and occasionally the bones of great houses from the days of cotton or pineapple plantations. Everywhere, still, are small “slave cottages”—stone ruins, some with goats tethered and even kept up with blue or yellow wooden doors, others with jungles of trees growing within their abandoned bodies. There is one relaxed resort, on one of the loveliest beaches in the Bahamas.

It was at the dock of Smith Bay settlement, nine years ago, that I got off a broken-down mail-boat on a hot day and, looking for a swim, found my way along a potholed road to Fernandez Bay.

I was expecting an empty beach, not a series of stone-and-wood cottages carefully hidden amid casuarinas. The sugary beach was deserted—it was midsummer—but on subsequent visits I realized that every cottage might be inhabited and you could still enjoy the illusion of having it to yourself. I was welcomed by Frances Armbrister, an elegant, alert blonde woman who sent me swimming, made me lunch, and explained herself.

“How long have I been here? Why, since 1780. My late husband’s family, I should say. They were Loyalists, fleeing the Carolinas, like a lot of the white people who settled the islands, and had sisal plantations all over the island, for making rope.”

An ex-Hollywood starlet (“Not exactly”), Mrs. A. had married Cyril Armbrister—a British radio and theater producer—and in 1938 came out on the mail-boat to look at his long-neglected family properties. “There were no cars then, no roads, and a white missionary with a horse and wagon who’d achieved only five converts in ten years. To live here was really roughing it.” She fell in love with the island, and though based in New York and California, she and her husband returned from time to time. On his death about thirty years ago, she and her son Tony had the idea of developing this land which had been in the family for nearly two centuries.

I asked Mrs. A. about Cat’s reputation for obeah—Bahamians’ voodoo, which isn’t seen as contradictory toward their religious zeal. You often see bottles wedged into tree branches, with personal items inside (dirt, hair, fingernails) to protect the property.

Mrs. A. laughed. “Oh, obeah’s here, all right. According to locals, on Cat Island no one ever dies of natural causes. They believe people die because somebody puts ‘a vitch’—a witch—on them. Even if you say, ‘But so-and-so died of cancer’ they’ll tell you, ‘No, no, somebody put a vitch on them to give them the cancer.’ Why, I had a cook named Mildred for years and years whom everyone was afraid of because they said she could work obeah better than anyone on the island. Of course, whenever I asked, she said, ‘I ain’t know nothin’ about that.’”

The unreliable decrepit mail-boat I first arrived on, the Willaurie, has sunk in Nassau Harbor, replaced by the newer Sea Hauler, a high-prowed black vessel with a mustard-colored crane for moving heavy cargo. One recent afternoon I tore myself away from the beach at Fernandez Bay and bicycled the mile north to Smith Bay to watch the mail-boat unload its standard weekly cargo, everything from propane tanks and Kalik beer to a generator, a truck, wood planks, paper cups, sacks of cement, cinder blocks, rice. The boat had arrived around four a.m. after a twelve-hour journey over from Nassau; it would leave that night for Great Exuma.

Allan Russell, the boat’s owner and a Cat Islander, explained that he was paid a subsidy by the government to bring the mail every week. After unloading in Exuma, the mail-boat would return in two days to pack fruit and vegetables (Cat is one of the most agricultural Bahamian islands) for the Nassau market.

Smith Bay is a settlement where land's never bought or sold, but inherited, or claimed—if you were born here you may simply take any parcel of unbuilt land for your own. It came about, like most settlements, from liberated slaves working on land after the plantation owner died or left, and the result several generations later was title deeds with dozens of names attached and a legal situation of Byzantine complexity.

Just up from the Smith Bay dock was Hazel Brown’s Seaside Bar—whose stucco, dayglo lime-green walls have echoed for fourteen years with “some of the most serious dominos in the Bahamas,” acording to one toothy veteran. This may not sound like much, but in the Out Islands dominos is taken very seriously—sometimes passing through the little villages the only sound you hear aside from the strumming cicadas and the rustle of the sea is a loud thwack! of ivory tiles slammed down, shaking the others already in place on a wood table quartered by beer bottles.

Hazel, sixty-six, tells her life concisely: “Four boys, no girls, and no expectations for more. Already four grandchildren. My father drown when I was young—he gone fishenin’ in his smack boat, a storm caught him. Afterwards, we farm. No choice.”

She still farms, a squat, energetic woman with hair in tight rows, armed with ready talk. “I’m going to have sweet peppers, cucumber, cabbage, tomatoes coming up by Christmas,” she says. “Right now all I got ready is watermelons. You know why I don’t have more?”

“Let me see, Hazel. The young people don’t like to work.”

“Thank you,” she said. “You know what that means?”

“Not so much money, not so much business, not much dominos.”

“Thank you.”

Across the road, past her dog regarding us across folded paws, a small ancient stone kitchen stood separate from her new white house. “That was my mother’s kitchen,” she said. “You see those old stones in that long grass? Them was the foundations of her house.”

This farming of ancestral land for generations is common on Cat; indeed, the island seems a reservoir of traditions that have died or are disappearing throughout most of the Bahamas. Another is the humped sand-and-limestone outdoor ovens for baking bread or Johnny cake—a design brought, I assume, directly from Africa—rare in other Out Islands but seen every few houses here.

To travel the rough principal road gives you a good idea of Cat’s history. The settlements and landmarks (or sea-marks) carry melodious names: Alligator Point, Zanicle, Industrious Hill, Barrataria, Freetown, Hawks Nest, Moss Town, Red Pond, Winding Bay, Devil’s Point, Gaters, Labour-In-Vain. Every other cove seems to contain a private stretch of silken beach, and with proper transport you could cross to the island’s Atlantic Coast—say, to Fine Bay—and have miles of solitary sand. Or, for that matter, at Fernandez Bay you could walk twenty yards along a path and have two little beaches, that the Armbristers call Skinny Dip, all to yourself.

The island was in a state of excitement since the recently crowned Miss Bahamas, a Cat Island girl, was due back for several days’ celebrations and a Columbus Day party. I asked a fellow what might happen if this local girl ended up as Miss Universe.

“Then we goin’ to have every bachelor in de woild beatin’ a path here, layin’ by the roadside hopin’ to meet a Cat Island gal. Stompin’ his feet to attract attention. Could be a problem, eh?”

The island has a strange Columbus connection, which I set down because it seems to have been bypassed during the 1992 uproar. The argument is that Columbus’ first landfall in the New World was not San Salvador—known as Watling’s Island until 1926—nor Samana Cay (favorite of the National Geographic’s computer simulations)—but rather Cat Island.

More than local folklore, this hinges on several arguments. Cat was in fact called San Salvador until the early 1800s. Columbus describes “a harbor in which you can float all the ships in Christendom” which neither the present San Sal nor Samana Cay possess (the latter has, instead, a deadly lee shore with bad anchorage). But The Bight, just south of Fernandez Bay, is one of the largest bays in the Bahamas.

Third, Cat has the highest point in the islands and many bluffs, easily visible from the sea. The glass globes that regularly float in from Portugal attest to the centrality of its location in the currents. I mention all this not to take sides, but to start disputes.

Walking down toward The Bight one day I ran into Rebecca Dawkins, “age seventy-’tree,” on a back path. She told me she “platted’ straw for a living and sent it to her daughter in Nassau, who in turn sold it to the straw-market women. Rebecca’s straw bag was full of vegetables she’d just collected, because she still managed to do a little farming. Where was she coming from? I asked.

“I stop by my husband’s grave, you know. Just back at the cemetery near the school. I try to stop there nearly every day. He die about . . . ” Her face furrowed. “I guess, two years ago.”

On these obscure islands the most happenstance conversation seems to reveal an entire life.

I loved to bicycle through New Bight when the day’s heat had passed and people were ambling by the road or sitting outside their houses, the old ladies waving and saying, “All right, sir,” with that unfailing politeness and almost worldly grace every stranger encounters in the black Out Islands. Dusk became my favorite time of day: a soft fade of pastel light rubbed across the sea, and an absolute stillness as the world holds steady before the night descends with tropical suddenness. And some sunsets seemed painted by Maxfield Parrish, the west blazing away unashamedly.

Saturday night is the least lonely night of the week in New Bight. The Sailing Club—a breezy one-room bar set among trees by a beach and an enormous bay—attracts one? two? hundred jumping Cat Islanders till three in the morning, in a pandemonium where a visitor feels utterly welcome.

You can spot the same eccentrics masked in their Sunday best the next morning, for this is a devout society—people may have dozens of children, never marry, and never miss a church service. Nor should a visitor, if only for the chance to join locals for the most important part of their week. Passive and exhausted after a wild Saturday night, in ill-fitting suits and ruffled dresses they sit warbling the hymns, or fanning themselves as a reverend intones, “A few more years will come—a few more seasons will roll—before we join our loved ones in the tomb—”


“—And those that have gone drifting, dear Lord, I pray that you bring them back and let your mercy come down—”


“Because I know you’re here for a blessing—you want to hear your soul food live today, not on the radio—and so we offer these blessings upon you as you go from strength to strength. . . . ”

The summit of Cat’s religious and architectural life is the Hermitage, a one-man monastery built in 1941 by Father Jerome Hawes, a British architect turned Anglican missionary turned Catholic priest turned Franciscan monk, who designed churches all over Australia and the Caribbean and came back to the Bahamas, aged sixty-two, after a heart attack. His Hermitage was singlehandedly built by him on Comer Hill, at 206 feet the highest point in the Bahamas; he renamed it Mt. Alvernia after the hill in Tuscany where St. Francis received the wounds of the Cross. Hawes spent his last two decades sailing all over the islands saying Mass—his other two masterpieces are an almost art deco church in Clarence Town (on nearby Long Island), and the beautiful St. Augustine Abbey in Fox Hill, Nassau, built in the California mission style. He died in 1959.

I have been back several times over the last decade to the Hermitage, and each visit moved me more: the sense of an old man, white-bearded, building a last home that encompasses all he has learned, spiritually and architecturally, with also the best view on Cat: the broad Atlantic to one side, a calm Caribbean down a green slope to the other. Into his Hermitage, which at first seems a 12th century Italian abbey in miniature, Hawes wove a seamless confluence of architectural styles—Byzantine domes, Gothic colonnaded walk, minaret-like bell tower, medieval windows and arches, rounded lines and sharp corners with hints of North Africa and Mediterranean Crusader castles—all built to the scale of a single man.

It is a remarkable achievement, built with medieval methods, using only native rock and mortar. It seems to flower from the grey rock on which it sits, a handmade shrine poised above the fourteen stages of the Cross and an open tomb where Hawes himself was laid to rest. His sundial is still here; in the bell tower there still remains his scrawled note to ring before climbing up; his broken wooden chair and cot; his writing-desk, fireplace, chapel with cross intact and a single pew, his little sheltered interior staircases; his water pump. The Armbristers send several men up a few times a year to cut back the shrubbery and look after the place, which has remained mostly unoccupied since Hawes’ death.

At Fernandez Bay one evening, after hearing the story of Father Jerome from Mrs. A., sitting at the thatched outside bar I fell into conversation with Tony Armbrister and his wife Pam about their life on Cat.

Pam first came to the island when she was twenty and she and Tony were dating. “I remember getting out of the plane the first time, fifteen years ago. It was a lot more rustic and remote, because our rentals were solely on word of mouth—mainly people coming down in their own planes. We had a teeny little generator and dinner was by candlelight. Tony had originally built the houses—there are ten now—to sell, and we just fell into renting out the cottages as we renovated them.”

“It was Pam’s tenacity,” said Tony, “that kept us going. I started in about ’66 or ’67; the last house I built was in ‘86. I grew up in Santa Monica and was in college, then I came down here for the summer at nineteen and just ended up staying. My mother and I lived down in New Bight, because there was nothing here at Fernandez Bay. I suppose I was the mechanic of the place, but it was my mother’s vision. The houses are all stone, which the locals are experienced with. Back in the late ’60s a boat ran aground on the other side of the island with 300,000 board feet of mahogany and teak. Once it broke up, all the wood washed ashore. I used to bring it back with a four-wheel drive vehicle. All our countertops are made from the mahogany and a lot of our dining tables are teak.”

“In those days,” said Pam, “there was no electricity anywhere on Cat. No phone till ’87 or ’88. It’s still extremely limited. And no scheduled Bahamsair service—even now, there’s nothing you can depend on. Tony flies most of our guests in from Nassau with his own plane.”

Tony is convinced the future of the Bahamas lies in the old-world Out Islands and their small resorts. “Nassau and Freeport are ruined, they’re only for package tourists and cruise ships. So the Out Islands are finally getting the recognition they deserve. And with luck people will discover the southern islands.”

I asked him, finally, about the so-called treasure chest—guests coming back year after year make a straight belign for it.

“The chest was dug up in one of our old family plantation ruins. We don’t know its background before that. It’s never been opened. It’s iron, about two by two by three. The family house was occupied in the late 1700s or early 1800s by William Armbrister, my great grandfather. My grandfather, who was also a merchant in Nassau, was here a lot. He had a hemp factory, that turned sisal into rope, and he had a narrow-gauge railroad that ran around the island to pick up the sisal. Presumably the chest goes back to his period, or earlier. It weighs about two hundred pounds. A guest from California found out that its value simply as an antique chest was $2,000, so he offered me that to open it. I said, ‘You can open it after I die.’ Another guest whose hobby was locks came down with fiber optic equipment to probe and lubricate and play with it. He could see how the lock was made but he couldn’t open it without breaking it, the lock was too rusted. I assume there’s something of value inside, since you don’t put something worthless in a chest like that. Personally, I don’t care—that chest has provided more people with fun and speculation. I don’t open it because to me it’s worth infinitely more as it is, unopened and unharmed.”

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