by Larry Smith
Standing on the shore at the eastern tip of Grand Bahama you can gaze across the bight at the super-exclusive cottages of Deepwater Cay, an iconic fishing lodge created in the 1950s by Gil Drake and A J McClean - the two Americans who first popularised the sport of bonefishing.
Just beyond is Sweeting's Cay, Grand Bahama's easternmost settlement. This whole area is a patchwork of mangroves, sandflats, creeks, and lagoons. It is not the most attractive part of the Bahamas, but I guess fly fishermen are more concerned with the hunt for what they call the 'grey ghost' than they are with picturesque seascapes.
In fact, nearby McLeans Town (which was laid out in 1835 for freed slaves by an official named Donald McLean) owes its existence to this complicated marine environment. Before the construction of Freeport, this area had the only sheltered harbour on Grand Bahama. And today, this is where the ferries are based that make the 45-minute trip to Crown Haven on Abaco.
Travelling west along the highway towards Freeport, I met 70-year-old Bishop Roberts in the sprawling settlement of High Rock. He was disappointed that business at his slightly more downmarket bonefish lodge is slow these days. And he remains bitter about the lack of trade he and others got from one of the biggest things to ever hit the island - the filming of Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean.
"You know, Johnny Depp and his boys would sometimes come by for drinks, but the producers wouldn't give us a thing - it was all handled at the political level."
A short drive from Bishop's beachfront motel brought me to the now deserted Gold Rock studio where the second and third versions of Pirates were filmed in 2005. The studio took over the derelict facilities of the US Air Force base that had tracked Cape Canaveral rocket launches from 1954 to 1987. For the Disney project, the new leaseholders (a Canadian company) dredged and bulkheaded a huge open-water filming enclosure next to the base's old docking facility.
At the time, then prime minister Perry Christie called this "the most exciting endeavour on Bahamian soil," and predicted the birth of a new industry in glowing terms. But today, all that remains of this vision are the rusting hulks of half-submerged barges and other miscellaneous junk, along with a bitter aftertaste in the mouths of nearby second homers who say the dredging - which cut through the shoreline - damaged the spectacular beach that runs for miles along this part of Grand Bahama's southern coast.
Arguably, the most lasting benefit from this ill-fated venture (which collapsed after the death of the principal investor) was the dredge spoil. Much of it was used for the foundations of the huge new College of the Bahamas campus that is nearing completion a bit further up the highway towards Freeport. And there is an even more interesting link between the tracking station and the college.
In Freeport I ran into Roger Brown, who was the COB's registrar for many years. He recalled that, in the expectation it would become the northern campus, he and college president Keva Bethel toured the base just after the US handed it back 22 years ago.
"Everything was left in place - even the sheets on the beds," he told me. "We could have just walked in and started up almost immediately, but the government never gave the go-ahead. Soon after our visit the entire base was stripped of everything that could be moved and the facility was just left to rot."
I can confirm from my visit this past weekend that the former tracking station, erstwhile college campus, and one-time film studio is as deserted and derelict today as it has been for most of the past 20 years. And once again, the place has been stripped - right down to the windows on the otherwise pristine guard house.
The film studio took its name from a tidal creek that meanders along the coast through the Lucayan National Park in the direction of Freeport, some 22 miles away. The 40-acre park was leased to the Bahamas National Trust by the Grand Bahama Development Company. It is bisected by the highway, but contains most of the island's ecosystem zones in a relatively compact and accessible area. And archaeologists have determined that the Gold Rock creek system and its associated caverns was a major settlement area for the original Lucayan inhabitants of the Bahamas.
According to Prescott Gay, the young BNT warden who escorted me around, the park receives a few hundred paying visitors a week, as well as local school groups. The chief attractions are the caves up in the pineland, which connect to miles of underwater tunnels; the coppice and mangroves of the coastal creek; and the spectacular beach. As you can imagine, the cave system is a favourite haunt of divers and scientists. In addition to being a Lucayan cemetery, more than one new marine species has been discovered here over the years.
Peter Barratt, the retired architect who was Freeport's original town planner, was the guiding force behind the creation of the park years ago. He designed all the pathways, boardwalks and signage, and identified the location of the bridge over Gold Rock Creek (which was recently replaced by a new structure). The creek itself is used for kayaking trips and eco-tours.
"I have been trying for years to get Devco to declare the whole creek delta a conservation area," Barratt told me. "It is an important wetland area that simply must be in the public domain."
The BNT also wants to expand the park, but land has been a sensitive issue here ever since the Grand Bahama Port Authority was formed in 1955 and acquired 200 square miles for next to nothing. The GBPA developed a deepwater harbour at Hawksbill Creek and carved Freeport out of the pine barren. And as the city expanded, beachfront property naturally became much more valuable than it had hitherto been.
An area of settlement along the broad sandy beach between God Rock Creek and Peterson Cay is perhaps the best example of the controversy over historical land rights. This area is now known as Old Freetown and is distinguished today only by the remnants of rock walls and a few scattered house foundations just off an old footpath behind the dunes that some have dubbed the heritage trail.
Freetown was one of a number of black subsistence settlements that sprang up along Grand Bahama's southern coastline after emancipation. The island was virtually uninhabited until well after the loyalist influx of the late 18th century, with the earliest recorded land grant dated to 1806 at West End. By the mid-1800s there were still only a few hundred people on the island, most of whom were ex-slaves and liberated Africans.
Many bought plots of land along the shore carved out of their former owner's estates. But despite short bursts of economic activity during the American Civil War, the Prohibition years and the 1940s when the island's pine forests were logged, most people on Grand Bahama remained poor and poorly educated. By 1962, the area known as Freetown had dwindled to a 20-acre tract that had been granted to one Jacob Nesbitt in 1857.
According to local history buff Darius Williams, this beachfront property was eventually acquired by Freeport founder Wallace Groves and the inhabitants were forced to move to another location, more inland, that became New Freetown.
But others say the relocation was fairly amicable. Groves bought the land presumably for peanuts around 1956 but did not demand that the inhabitants vacate, Peter Barratt told me. "Years later they were still there and Groves did not want bad publicity so he built a new settlement for them at what is now New Freetown. The clincher of the arrangement I recall was that the residents would have running water and electricity."
An engineer by trade, Williams has lived on Grand Bahama for some 30 years, but his wife (Joyann) descends from the original settlers of Holmes Rock, just west of Freeport. The current inhabitants all derive from 20 slaves who were transported from Exuma to Grand Bahama in 1829 by Lord John Rolle, around the time of the Pompey rebellion. Among this group was a slave named Ambrose Rolle, whose grandson, Hector, was Joyann's great grandfather.
Williams Town is a similar emancipated slave village, just outside of Freeport. Some five years ago this small coastal settlement was chosen as the site for a new $20 million cruise port that was supposed to have been built as a joint venture between the government and Carnival Cruise Lines. The goal was to separate the tourism and industrial functions of the port, which are currently intermingled in Freeport harbour, and spur new commercial development.
The basic plan was to build a finger pier extending into the ocean, connected to a shore facility. In September, Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham said the government was acquiring 55 acres of land at Williams Town for the onshore facilities. Acknowledging the sensitivity of land acquisition in Freeport, he promised that owners would get a fair price for their property and could contest the valuation in court if they chose.
"We will abide by whatever decisions are made in such a process. In the meantime, we propose to conclude an acquisition and cause a cruise port at Williams Town that will have significant economic benefits for Grand Bahama," he said.
Part of the problem with land development around Freeport is the unreliability or lack of historical records. The other problem is the continued vitriolic infighting among the GBPA's owners - Sir Jack Hayward and the heirs of his former partner, Edward St George, who died in 2004. Their holdings are distributed in a clutch of offshore companies, which are subject to no public oversight. They derive a significant income from land sales, license fees and service charges, and they are reportedly opposed to any attempt by the government or other parties to build a new cruise port on their turf.
Meanwhile, the Chinese conglomerate Hutchison Whampoa acquired some of the GBPA's assets a decade ago for $80 million (50 per cent of Devco, the harbour, the airport and the Our Lucaya resort complex). And In fact, Hutchison remains a potential buyer of the Port Authority and its remaining assets, although Hayward recently said he wanted no part of such a deal.
From recent public comments on both sides, it now appears that the GBPA imbroglio is degenerating into a conflict between the Hayward faction and the government, eerily reminiscent of the early 1970s when the Pindling regime forced the Port to back down from its pretensions to sovereignty.
Insiders say all this creates a huge dilemma for the government, which does not want to be seen as intervening heavy-handedly in private enterprise, abrogating the Hawksbill Creek Agreement or pre-empting the courts. Yet Freeport's franchise is so important to the welfare of Grand Bahama and the country as a whole that it is difficult to take a completely dispassionate approach.