Club Med Columbus Isle

A bit of history

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The San Salvador Museum and A Dictionary of Bahamian English
by Larry Smith

COCKBURN TOWN, San Salvador - This is an island of monuments, although none are particularly grandiose and some are positively insignificant and difficult to find. There are at least five markers commemorating the landfall of Columbus, for example.

The locals don't pay much attention to them, but the 400 visitors who stay at Club Med each week certainly do. This is the most historic place in the Bahamas because it was the site of that momentous first encounter between the Old and New Worlds in 1492.

In fact, it was yours truly who broke the story that confirmed San Salvador as the landfall island in 1983 - via the Reuters and Inter Press Service news wires. That's when archaeologist Charles Hoffman excavated Spanish trade goods dated to the contact period at the very site of the Lucayan village adjacent to the Long Bay beach where Columbus was believed to have come ashore.

After the Spanish carried off the unfortunate Lucayans to slavery in Hispaniola, San Salvador was deserted until some 1,000 whites and 7,000 blacks arrived in the Bahamas, fleeing the American Revolution, to establish plantations on 14 previously unsettled islands.

About a dozen such estates operated on San Salvador from the late 1700s to the 1830s, and we have a unique written record of one of them - Prospect Hill - contained in a slim volume titled A Relic of Slavery. It was painstakingly transcribed by a former resident justice in 1903 from an original journal by planter Charles Farquarson (and is available from Media Enterprises). The original journal is stored at the Department of Archives.

Most whites eventually left the southern islands to their former slaves, who engaged in subsistence faming in relative isolation. In the mid-20th century, the island's economy was boosted when the US built three bases on San Salvador - a missile tracking station, a Coast Guard station, and a submarine tracking station. When the Americans left in the 1970s these facilities were repurposed as a school, an academic research station and, eventually, as the Club Med resort.

Cockburn Town is named after a 19th century governor of the Bahamas, and this is where the local government offices are located. The oldest surviving building in this settlement is the 500-square-foot, two-storey commissioner's office and gaol, which was built in the 1800s opposite the now defunct government dock.

By the 1980s this little building was long abandoned and set to become a ruin, but the approaching quincentennial of Columbus' landfall on the island gave it a new lease on life. Fundraising and volunteer work by local and foreign groups restored the old gaol as a museum in time for the 1992 celebrations, which attracted worldwide attention.

Dr Roberto Savio, an Italian second home resident, was one of those who aided this transformation, securing exhibits from Europe and enlisting the support of international agencies and personalities on behalf of the Bahamas. Among the contributions Savio arranged was a ceramic tile mural created by a leading Italian artist named Bruno Elisei. It was donated by an Italian state company, and installed on an exterior wall of the museum, where it remains today.

After the quincentennial celebrations, the old gaol was left to deteriorate again, and in 2002 it was closed for repairs. At that time it was decided to move the museum to larger premises at the old primary school nearby.

When the Antiquities Monuments & Museums Corporation was created in 1999, it had assumed responsibility for the museum, but never got around to repairing the building. So when hurricanes struck the island in 2004, and the old primary school had to be re-occupied by students, the museum artifacts were put into storage, and the much-photographed old gaol in the historic town centre was simply abandoned.

On my visit, the woodwork was rotting, windows were broken, plaster walls were cracking, doors were hanging off their hinges and there was trash in and around the building. The only remaining artifact is the 1920s-vintage "Watling Island Resident Justice" safe rusting away on the ground floor - apparently too heavy to either move or steal.

But the building is still sound. A recent inspection by a Ministry of Works engineer found that remedial repairs were required at a cost of about $3,000, followed by a full restoration involving replacement of the roof, stairway and upper floorboards, as well as new plumbing and electrical installations, and repairs to the walls.

An earlier engineering report found that the building should be "restored and preserved as a reminder and landmark of the history and culture of the country. Repaired and restored it would be a public asset to be used again for the benefit of the local community and as an attraction for visitors."

Meanwhile, the ceramic tile mural installed in 1991 facing the sea has suffered irreversible damage. So last year Dr Savio undertook to have the mural replaced and make the remedial repairs that the building needed. He also offered to raise funds for a full restoration of the building. In January he brought Professor Elisei to the island with a new mural, but the renowned Bahamian bureaucracy intervened.

After weeks on the island, Professor Elisei was forced to return to Italy with his new mural, and the old gaol remains exactly as it was. After much delay - and only in response to my persistent inquiries - the AMMC grudgingly acknowledged Dr Savio's offer to help restore the building a second time.

The point is that over eight years the AMMC - a government corporation responsible for heritage preservation that operates on a million-dollar-a-year budget - could not restore a 500-square-foot building on the most historic island in the Bahamas, despite private offers of financing.

Bahamian English
On the flight to and from San Salvador recently I spent time reviewing a copy of the 1982 publication, A Dictionary of Bahamian English. Written by two former College of the Bahamas lecturers (John Holm and Allison Shilling, both British expatriates now at American universities), it has been described as a record of all that is Bahamian in English.

This book offers more than 5,000 entries for words and expressions used in the Bahamas that are not generally found in current standard English. Information on Bahamian creole is not quite as rare as you might think. A COB web page on English language resources, for example, lists some two dozen articles, dissertations and studies by Bahamian and foreign scholars on this subject.

The range of linguistic traditions brought to the Bahamas during the European settlement includes Bermudian English, British cockney, Scots English and early African American, producing a great grammatical diversity. South Carolina was a major point of origin for white and black loyalists, which makes it likely that an early form of Gullah (an American creole) was taken to the Bahamas with them.

Creole is the term for a language that resulted from "the collision of languages and cultures under the social conditions of slavery", Holm says, like creole French in Haiti. Most often, the vocabulary comes from the dominant group and the grammar from the subordinate group.

In a related study comparing 2500 Bahamian expressions not used in contemporary standard British, Holm assigned 43 per cent to Scotland or the North Country, with another 25 per cent from Ireland or the West Country. Bahamian whites speak a non-standard dialect similar to that spoken on the North Carolina outer banks, while the vernacular of most native blacks is Bahamian creole.

The entries in this dictionary range from the mildly amusing (as in "take off them wet clothes afore you catch ammonia"), to the complex and historic. Andros, for example, is the largest island in the Bahamas, but the earliest names for it were Isla
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