by Larry Smith
Five centuries ago, the Amerindian inhabitants of the Bahamas lived in a completely different world from the one we know today.
Early European explorers described flocks of parrots “darkening the sky”, dense hardwood forests, and sea turtles so numerous they kept sailors awake by constantly knocking against ship hulls.
Seals and iguanas crowded the shorelines; whales were a common sight offshore; and lobster, conch and fish were abundant. Evidence for this are the large mounds of discarded conch and other shells and fish bones that are a ubiquitous feature of Lucayan archaeological sites.
And since slow-moving conch once abounded in shallow water, they became a staple food for the European settlers - giving rise to their nickname, “conchs”, which persists to this day in the Florida Keys. In the Bahamas, the sobriquet has mutated into “conchy joe” - meaning a white or mixed-race Bahamian.
When South Florida was an impenetrable wilderness, Bahamian ‘conchs’ looked upon the Florida Keys as northern out islands. In fact, Key West is famously known today as the conch republic, and early American dictionaries define conchs as “illiterate settlers of the Florida Keys" - meaning Bahamians, both black and white.
But today, the delectable queen conch – the one we all love to eat – is in serious trouble throughout the region. And that Bahamian delicacy, conch salad, is in danger of becoming a thing of the past. Florida’s conch fishery collapsed decades ago, and conch harvesting was banned throughout the continental United States in 1986.