By Lane Glaze
ON my first trip to The Bahamas in the spring of 2003, I brought a team of 30 students and faculty from Clemson University for a Spring Break mission trip. We spent our first day and evening exploring Nassau. The next morning, we were hosted to a wonderful worship service and lunch by Coke Memorial Methodist Church members in Fox Hill. By mid-Sunday afternoon, we headed to Potter’s Cay dock in Nassau to catch the “slow boat” to Current Island for a week of service projects on the island of Eleuthera.
The last few days of travel preparation were quite hectic for me as the group’s leader. As the boat pulled away from the dock, I made my way to the boat’s upper level to enjoy the views, cool breeze, and a little quiet time. As I was standing there, a Bahamian close to my age came and stood by the rail close to me. We nodded toward one another, and I asked him, “You headed home?”
I can’t remember exactly what he said, but as I listened to him talk, it was as if I had been teleported back to James Island, one of the sea islands of Charleston, South Carolina, where I had been raised. This guy - the way he talked, the words he used, the way he put together his sentences - sounded like many of the hundreds of guys I had known growing up. Little did I realize, but this brief encounter would prove to be the first of many experiences to come where I learned how strong the cultural and historical ties are between The Bahamas and the area that I had always considered my “home” in the Carolinas.
A common captain
Most Bahamians know that the first English settlers called themselves the Eleutheran Adventurers, the word eleutheria meaning “freedom” in the Greek language. These Puritans travelling south from Bermuda came seeking religious freedom as they departed Bermuda in 1648 under the direction of Captain William Sayle. Several decades later, in 1670, this same Captain Sayle led the first settlers to what is now known as Charleston, South Carolina. Unlike the Puritans who settled on Eleuthera, these settlers were mostly 2nd and 3rd-generation New World Englishmen living on Barbados, and despite building some historic churches in those early years, their motives were less religious and more economic in nature.
Over the next 100 years, the ties between the two English colonies deepened partly because of a shared interest in combatting the influence of pirates and privateers like Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard. As the American Revolution began to shift toward the Patriots, a large number of Loyalists from the Carolinas began migrating to The Bahamas with enslaved people. Later, during the American Civil War, merchants in Nassau and Charleston maintained a strong trade despite the Federal blockade on the South. Ever since, there have been strong connections – political, social and economic – between these two, now former British colonies.
A common culture
But while this shared history is quite strong, I have come to appreciate most significantly over the last twenty years the unique cultural similarities between the sea islands of the Carolinas - my first home - and the Islands of The Bahamas - which has become like a second home. In the Carolinas, we refer to this culture as “Gullah Geechee,” and you can find both vital communities and vestiges of the Gullah Geechee way of life from as far south as Jacksonville, Florida, to as far north as Wilmington, North Carolina. Tracing back to West Africa, Gullah Geechee culture is defined by:
• the dialect, accents and sentence structure of persons with African roots,
• the eating of certain types of foods and methods of food preparation,
• the love of and loyalty to family, community and place, and
• the practice of spiritual and religious traditions passed down from ancestors.
Bahamian culture and the Gullah Geechee culture share much in common. Like my Gullah Geechee friends, Bahamians also cherish their family and heritage and live by a deep, abiding faith. Both Bahamian and Gullah Geechee folks tend to live for the day, receiving and celebrating each day for the gift that it is. Both cultures embody a rootedness and pragmatism that is often difficult to experience in today’s fast-paced, instant-gratification world.
A common future?
Sadly, the Gullah Geechee culture in the Carolinas is shrinking due to gentrification and overly aggressive coastal development. People from all over the US are moving into these coastal areas, in part to enjoy the beauty, but also to experience the culture, which, thanks to the Gullah Geechee community, tends to be slower and more relaxed than larger, more urban areas. But as is often the case, the very thing that makes a community attractive to others can be lost over time without good planning and foresight. I fear that this will eventually happen in the Carolina sea islands, where I was raised.
To address this disturbing trend, the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor (www.gullahgeecheecorridor.org) was established several years ago in partnership with the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission and the US National Park Service. The commission’s goal is to “preserve, share and interpret the history, traditional cultural practices, heritage sites, and natural resources associated with Gullah Geechee people of coastal North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
While Bahamian culture is alive and well (especially on family islands like Eleuthera), I worry that the culture’s most distinctive aspects may be lost over time, as has happened over the last few decades with the Gullah Geechee culture in the Carolinas. Without sound planning at the local and national level, the caretakers of this culture – people in the small settlements scattered across the archipelago - may be absorbed by larger developments, displaced by climate change, or forced out due to lack of access to healthcare, affordable housing, education, and other necessities.
May all who love The Bahamas – locals and others from the outside like me - commit to strategies that will help preserve, protect and promote Bahamian culture - one of this country’s most treasured and captivating assets.
My 10 personal tips for enjoying and celebrating Bahamian culture:
When visiting The Bahamas, be a Bahamian. Let it all soak in.
Support locally owned hotels and Airbnbs.
Say “Hello” or “Good Day” and share a smile to invite conversation.
Let Bahamians lead – don’t try to set the pace.
Don’t haggle with the fisherman, the basket weaver or the artisan. Respect the value of their work.
Be aware of what is in season and what is not.
Support a local conch salad vendor.
Leave beaches better off than when you arrived.
Give Guava Duff, Johnny Cake, Stew Fish, and Sheep Tongue Souse a try.
Turn off your cell phone and laptop … and relax.