"Back to the Soil:" Community Engagement in Heritage Identification and Management, Eleuthera, Bahamas

The tourist’s image of the Caribbean islands is of white sand beaches, shady palm trees and stately colonial architecture.  But the islands are full of layers of heritage – disconnected and contested heritage that is all but invisible.  In addition, maintaining standing structures and other tangible heritage on the islands can be daunting as the incidence of catastrophic storms increase, and hard decisions must be made about what and where to preserve, protect, and restore, let alone interpret for visitors to the islands.
The island of Eleuthera lies on the eastern, Atlantic boundary of the archipelago of islands that make up the Bahamas.  In this location, the island, which is approximately 1 mile wide and 100 miles long, lies in the path of the severe weather systems of the Caribbean basin and suffers wind and overwash damage on a regular basis.  This makes the island an excellent case for considering the effects of climate change on vulnerable island resources.
The cultural landscape of the island is heavily determined by the British colonial and plantation periods, overlain with the development of exclusive resorts dating from the 1920’s.  Pre-colonial layers created by the Lucayans are faint but still discernable in the archaeological finds and the lore surrounding Preacher’s Cave, the location of the first landing of European colonists.

Eleuthera offers an extraordinary opportunity to study the development of techniques for sustainable heritage, in the face of climate change, as a means of conserving its environment and cultural identity and as a resource for restricted and community-managed economic development. The goal of the project is to create a comprehensive framework for island-wide collaboration and management and develop strong community control of Eleuthera’s rich heritage resources.

The project to document the tangible and intangible heritage of the island of Eleuthera has been ongoing since 2011.  The initial report summarizing the opportunities for the island is available to the right.  The report identified four initial surveys to assess the heritage resources and the level of threat to their loss:

  1. “Archaeology in the area of Millars (Big Ban) Plantation: the objective of the initial phase of the Archaeological Survey would be the identification and surface mapping of significant archaeological resources in this area for further planning of excavation, communitybased activities, and visitation. The Plantation site seems to be the most significant for development of a sustainable, long-range project, but the remains of Bannerman Town also have great potential for research, community involvement, education, and visitation regarding more recent periods of Eleuthera’s history.
  2. Standing Historic Structures: with an analysis of overall needs and costs, in Cupid’s Ca y and possibly other relevant structures in Governor’s Harbour. The objective here is to make a basic state-of -preservation survey, with some indication of the architectural significance of the various structures — accompanied by archival research—to provide the community and local organizations with comprehensive data (and projected budgets) but certainly to propose the long – range stewardship needs and some immediate Historic Preservation projects to be undertaken (with rough estimates of structural needs and cost)
  3. Intangible Heritage: with the goal of documenting intangible traditions and suggesting sustainable economic frameworks, (as, for example, the organization of the Junkanoo) in Tarpum Bay and surrounding areas. The traditional events, cuisine, music and crafts of Tarpum Bay could become models for the establishment of sustainable educational, performance, or craft projects at other settlements on the island.
  4. Ecology, Environment, and Planning: to research and collect all GIS data available on the area of Lighthouse Point or another selected area, including: aerial photography, land use, parcel ownership data, land cover, sensitive areas identification (both marine and land-based), topography, and aquifer and well heads. We will also collect relevant scientific studies of Eleuthera’s land and/or marine based fisheries, geology, and flora and fauna. This data will complement the ongoing archaeological, architectural, and intangible heritage surveys.”
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The first community survey completed was a standing structures inventory for the peninsula of Cupid’s Cay.  This area of Governor’s Harbor, is particularly sensitive to storm damage, and is the site of many colonial-era standing structures and remnant resources.   Interviews with members of the community were integral to the preparation of this report, and many individuals gave their time to walk around the area, identifying the locations of specific oral history.  While a number of valuable architectural sites and remnants remain on the Cay, the significance of the resources lies in their collective narrative, and as a source of community identity and pride.

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The current project is focused on community archaeology in the southern part of the island, an area less visited by tourists, except very briefly from the cruise ship dock.  At the heart of Southern Eleuthera lies Millar’s Plantation, a former 5,000 acre plantation willed to the descendants of the former slaves by Ann Millar in 1861: “land on the island of Eleuthera known as ‘Millar’s Settlement’ containing about one thousand acres…I give and devise the residue thereof to my old servants and former slaves…to be held and enjoyed by them in common and by their descendants forever.”  By settling the inheritance of the land “in common,” Ann Millar set up a situation similar to that found in South Carolina, known as ‘heirs property.’
Associate Professor Whitney Battle Baptiste leads this research effort, and discusses the impact on her research and the identification of heritage on the island in the video to the right.

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