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The French Presence In Abaco: Rewriting Early Bahamian History
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Posted by:Sep 16th 2004, 01:43:59 pm
chapelThe Nassau Guardian
Tuesday, September 14, 2004

The 'Abaco Adventurers'

By Stephen B. Aranha,COB History Lecturer

The history of post-Lucayan settlement on the island of Abaco goes a long way back. Further, perhaps, than on any other Bahama Island.

In an 18th-century French account by Jacques Nicolas Bellin entitled "Geographic Description of the Isles of the Antilles possessed by the English," we find reference to a French settlement on Abaco in 1565.

A massacre of more than 1,000 Huguenots in Vassy, Lower Normandy, France, on March 1, 1562, marked the beginning of the French Wars of Religion. During the next six years, the Huguenots, a Protestant group that suffered fierce persecution in Catholic France during most of the 16th and 17th centuries, undertook a total of four expeditions to Florida, attempting to create a colony there that would enable them to live in freedom of worship. While these expeditions were ultimately unsuccessful, we cannot rule out the possibility of a settlement on Abaco, perhaps serving as a way-post en route to Florida, abandoned when the Huguenot efforts to settle in the region ceased.

Abaco, and in fact the entire Bahamas, would be a forgotten land that seafarers would curse for its treacherous shoals for almost another hundred years. With the arrival of the Eleutheran Adventurers in The Bahamas, like the Huguenots, a group of religious refugees, the island of Abaco was put on the map of this colony, but it remained of secondary importance as no permanent settlement was erected there. Colonists would come to Abaco on a seasonal basis, to engage in fishing and subsistence farming.

After the American War of Independence, however, a different group of refugees put Abaco not only on the map of The Bahamas, but into the consciousness of the Empire: 1783 marked the year of the Loyalists' arrival in The Bahamas.

These were people who left the newly founded United States of America after the war, sometimes because they chose to, usually because they were no longer tolerated in the young republic. There were many different reasons why individuals chose to remain loyal to King George III and his government, but there is more than just a grain of truth in this historic assessment by Boston Loyalist clergyman Byles Mather: "Which is better - to be ruled by one tyrant three thousand miles away or by three thousand tyrants one mile away?"

Throughout the conflict, which recent scholars such as German historian Marion Breunig came to recognise had all the characteristics of a civil war, the so-called Patriots treated their neighbours who chose to remain loyal as traitors. If Loyalists were recognised as such, their property was subject to confiscation, and despite provisions in the 1783 peace settlement, most Loyalists were neither accepted back into their homes nor compensated.

Ironically, when the U.S. passed the Helms-Burton Act, which recently forced the Jamaican SuperClubs group to abandon their hotel project in Cuba, Canadian MPs John Godfrey and Peter Milliken drafted a law, which would have imposed similar sanctions as those enforced by the U.S. on people and corporations that engage in trafficking in illegally confiscated Loyalist property, as the largest number of Loyalist refugees went to Canada.

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