There’s nothing like exploring a new destination with a local, especially one who takes an interest in their home’s history.
When we visited Exuma, a picturesque out island in the Bahamas, our local guide was Kendal “Dr. K” Nixon. With a voice like Morgan Freeman and a loose-jointed lope that reminded me of Barack Obama getting off Airforce 1, I liked him immediately. He was born and raised on the island and knew its every nook and cranny, taking us down dusty backroads we never would have found on our own. Not only did he know Exuma’s history, he took an active role in its caretaking, replacing toppled monument stones and checking to ensure that visitors were respecting the historic sites.
On the second morning of our Exuma stay, Dr. K picked us up at our hotel in his big air-conditioned van. We were his only customers so we got a 5-hour private tour from one end of Exuma to the other, a distance of about 60 kilometers.
Exuma’s social history began with the Lucayans, the first Indigenous people to make contact with Columbus in 1493. The Spaniards viewed the Lucayans as a source of slave labor, kidnapping and carrying them off to Spain and Spanish colonized islands. By 1520, the Lucayans had been totally eradicated by the Spaniards, leaving Exuma mostly uninhabited for more than 200 years.
The deserted island and its neighboring cays made ideal hiding spots for pirates, looking to escape capture, repair their ships, and enjoy a little rum between raids. William Kidd, the British privateer turned pirate, was known to have frequented Exuma and, rumor has it, may even have left his treasure behind there.
Exuma’s next inhabitants didn’t arrive until about 1783, American Loyalists fleeing the Revolutionary War in the U.S. Denys Rolle, a British aristocrat, brought at least 150 slaves with him to work the land he’d been given by the British government.
When Rolle died, his son John inherited his land and slaves, now numbering close to 400. John never left England to run the plantation, relying instead on a single overseer. When the plantation began to lose money, John Rolle attempted to “rent out” 77 of his slaves to work on nearby Cat Island. One of the slaves, known only as Pompey, led the selected 77 into the bush, where they evaded capture until they ran out of provisions. Later, 44 of them stole one of Rolle’s boats and started off towards Nassau to plead their case to the Governor. Unfortunately, they were caught as they sailed into the harbor, and were flogged for their disobedience.
When the situation came to the Governor’s attention, he was outraged, and sent Pompey and the other slaves back to Exuma. It would be eight more years before Pompey and Rolle’s other slaves would officially gain their freedom, but Pompey’s rebellion is widely believed to have sparked the end of slaves being forcibly relocated and the eventual emancipation of Bahamian slaves.
After all the land owners and overseers had abandoned the island, Rolles’ slaves assumed ownership of the very land they had been forced to work. Their own names lost when they were enslaved, they also took on Rolle as their surname. Today, there are thousands of Rolles in the Bahamas, any one of whom can rightfully claim a house lot on Exuma.
Later on our tour, we would meet one of the Rolles, a delightful woman of 80+years whom everyone called Ma. She had married and raised her own children just a few kilometers from where she had been born and grew up, a true Exuman in every respect. She now owns, operates and makes all the goodies at Ma’s Bakery, which regularly sells out of her rum cakes, coconut bread and pineapple upside down cake. We tucked away a couple of still warm loaves to enjoy back at the hotel.
For such a little place, Exuma has packed a lot of events into its history, not all of them peaceful ones. Hard to believe now as you look out over its tranquil turquoise waters and serene white sugar beaches.