by Larry Smith
“The Island of Abaco is blessed with a good harbour, and is well secured by nature...(abounding) with timber.” 1783 loyalist advertisement circulated in New York.
TREASURE CAY, Abaco — Remains of Carleton, the first loyalist settlement on this island, lie scattered over the landscape just off Treasure Cay Drive, the road that connects to the highway between the public beach and the adjacent creek.
The head of that creek was dredged last year and surrounding land cleared and filled to prepare for development of an upscale spa and nature resort by the Treasure Sands Club - on nine acres of private land and just over half an acre of Crown land.
The project was approved by the government last May, subject only to an environmental management plan vetted by the BEST Commission. There was no requirement for an environmental impact assessment, or for an archaeological survey.
This contravenes the Planning & Subdivisions Act, which requires an EIA for any development on “sensitive lands”. The purpose is to "promote sustainable development in a healthy natural environment”, to "protect and conserve the natural and cultural heritage” of the Bahamas, and to provide for greater transparency in planning.
In the case of Treasure Sands, all these objectives appear to have been ignored by the government.
When the loyalists arrived here from New York in 1783, Carleton Creek opened to the sea where the public beach huts stand today. A bronze plaque on the point just beyond the beach commemorates the bicentennial of the original loyalist landing on Abaco, an event that was popularised by Green Turtle Cay artist and civic leader Alton Lowe.
And just to the north, there is another marina development called Sandbanks Landing that has dredged an even bigger wetland, cut through the rocky shore and built a breakwater off the coast, which is said to be contributing to erosion of the public beach.
The Treasure Sands property on which Carleton once stood was acquired by an English entrepreneur named Sir Alford Houstoun-Boswall, some 30 years ago. He founded the exclusive Harrodian School in southwest London in 1993.
Three years ago Sir Alford and his on-site partner Tim Blakely, who is an ex-Royal Navy bodybuilder and celebrity personal trainer, opened a high-end restaurant and clubhouse next to the public beach. The bar overlooks a wooden pier that Blakely recently built on the beach to accommodate boaters.
Meanwhile, Treasure Sands’ Bahamian chef, Kay McKenzie, serves up organic greens, grass-fed beef and fresh fish to the bored residents of Treasure Cay. And according to Blakely the goal is to create a luxury spa where wealthy clients can enjoy outdoor pursuits like kayaking, bonefishing, yoga and nature walks.
So last year he began clearing the scrub on the creek side of the road to prepare for a 12-unit cottage colony that he says will be named Carleton Village. In the process he removed quantities of garbage and appliances that had been dumped in the creek. But dredging was suspended at the end of October amid rising public concerns over the environmental impact and permitting issues.
Local government officials and property owners began asking for information about the project, and Meister perhaps summed up these objections best: "Treasure Cay Ltd and the Treasure Cay homeowners still do not know exactly what Treasure Sands Club plans to build, except what we have read in the newspapers. Since this project is immediately adjacent to our resort, it would be helpful to know what is planned for the area and also get the right information released to the public.”
In addition to the environmental and permitting objections, concerns have also been raised about destruction of the historic Carleton settlement itself - a site which should be as significant to Abaco as Jamestown, Virginia is to Americans. Jamestown was the first English settlement in North America. Over 200 colonists arrived in 1607 and the settlement was abandoned in the 1690s, after which it was largely forgotten. In recent years it has become a major archaeological site.
It is not clear to what anchorage the New York advertisement quoted at the beginning of this article was referring, but the harbour at Carleton Creek proved unsuitable for larger vessels. And in any event, within a year of their arrival most of the settlers revolted and moved 20 miles to the south to found a new settlement at what they called Marsh’s Harbour. Within three years of this split, Carleton had ceased to exist.
But unlike the ongoing archaeological work at Jamestown, which is a major tourist attraction today, no effort has been made to investigate or capitalise on the Carleton settlement since Florida archaeologist Robert Carr's initial excavations back in 1983.
Carr’s team - which included historian Steve Dodge, Harvey Albury and Alton Lowe among others - found loyalist pottery, bottle glass, oven bricks, tunic buttons, musket balls, sewing implements, shells and animal bone remains. Most of these items are housed at the Albert Lowe museum on Green Turtle Cay.
Steve Dodge was the first to identify the site in 1979, while researching records in Nassau for his book Abaco: History of an Out Island. Carr’s excavations a few years later confirmed the site as a loyalist settlement in the area originally known as Carleton. Survey records were provided to the government at the time, but since then interest has waned and memories have faded.
Of course, Carleton was not the first human settlement on Abaco. There were Lucayan Indians living here from about 900 years ago. But this area was settled by 250 whites and free blacks who sailed from New York in 1783. They named their settlement after Sir Guy Carleton, the general who supervised the British evacuation from America, and who was later appointed the first governor-general of Canada.
Since Carr’s 1983 exploration no further archaeological work has been undertaken. And the recent clearing of some three acres of the site caused extensive damage according to Carr, who re-visited the area last November at the invitation of a newly formed public interest group called the Abaco Defenders.
Although there are no pharaoh’s tombs to be found here, the historical value of the site seems clear to me. But when I pressed the Antiquities Monuments and Museums Corporation for a comment, they appeared decidedly disinterested.
“Archaeological work conducted in the early 1980s was very limited in its scope,” AMMC Senior Archaeologist Michael Pateman told me. "Although Loyalist era artifacts were found, this does not confirm that this was in fact Carleton, as from the 1600's Abaco has been home to many short-term migrant populations and settlements."
Pateman added, though, that "The AMMC is committed to preserving the historic heritage of The Bahamas, and is prepared to continue to work with other government agencies, private heritage NGO's and any developer to enhance a general understanding of the Bahamian past."
However, according to Robert Carr, who was Miami-Dade County’s chief archaeologist for 20 years, "It is safe to say that all the artifacts found dated exclusively from the Loyalist period and the site conforms to the archival documentation locating the settlement, so it is highly likely to be Carleton.
"What needs to be understood is that it is not just a matter of looking for more bricks and artifacts but rather locating the house foundations and other features to reconstruct the Carleton settlement pattern. This is done by mapping the artifacts and features in place.”
According to Alton Lowe, who persuaded Carr to donate his time and expertise in 1983, "although it is always good to approach interpretations of archaeological sites with caution, in this case the evidence is conclusive and government should assert its leadership role in protecting what is obviously a very significant site to our national heritage. No additional disturbances should occur until the site is fully documented."
Clearly, the historical value of the Carleton site can only enhance the proposed development. There are no ruins here to preserve, but an archaeological survey should have been undertaken to determine the extent of the site and retrieve any remaining artifacts. It is the least we could do to preserve what little is left of our heritage.