Mrs. Janet Moncur tells the history of the Hermitage of Fr. Jerome atop Como Hill in Cat Island. (BIS photo by Derek Smith)
By: Gladstone Thurston
CAT ISLAND, Bahamas – Cat Island won the hearts of delegates of the African Diaspora Heritage Trail conference with its array of artifacts showcasing the movement of African slaves throughout the Bahamas.
From the Bourn plantation system to the great houses of Loyalist slave owners to the Hermitage atop Como Hill to entertainment by the traditional Gospel Rushers, they were left in awe of Cat Island’s role in the Diaspora.
A team comprising journalists, publishers, scholars and government officials were led by the Ministry of Tourism’s ADHT Bahamas Host Committee chairperson Angela Cleare. Historian Eris Moncur was their guide.
“The delegates are extremely excited about Cat Island and feel that this is really the cultural capital of the Bahamas,” said Mrs. Cleare. “We have a lot to offer.”
Cultural anthropologist Dr. Sheila Walker of Washington, DC, author of books on the African Diaspora, was particularly pleased by the performance of the Gospel Rushers. She was able easily to identify with the songs and dance moves.
“I am very aware of how important the culture of Cat Island and the Bahamas is for us to tell the story of the African Diaspora to the world,” she said. “This is yet another link in the chain that links us together, links us to our African ancestors, and links us to each other in the Diaspora.
“It is so important for us to see ‘us’ in other places and in other cultural manifestations because we cannot help but see the similarities,” she said.
The sixth largest island in the Bahamas, Cat Island has been known by at least three names, the others being Guanahani and San Salvador, noted Mr. Moncur.
Home to the highest natural elevation in the Bahamas (206 feet), it was site of one of the more prosperous Loyalist colonies of the Out Islands which gained their wealth from the numerous cotton plantations established during the late 1700s.
Vine-covered, semi-ruined mansions and stone walls, crumbling remnants of slave villages and artifacts in Arawak caves all paint an exciting picture of Cat Island’s past.
When cotton failed, the plantation owners moved on. But descendants of the original African settlers remained in the towns of their ancestors.
Much of the Bahamas’ indigenous music, folklore and myth can be traced to Cat Island.
It is the birthplace of Academy Award wining actor Sir Sidney Poitier, recording artists Tony ‘The Obeah Man’ McKay, Phil Stubbs, and the Lassie Doh Singers, and is known for the traditional rake and scrape music and quadrille dance.
“For us in Cat Island, this is a long awaited trip,” said Mr. Moncur. “We have maintained our heritage; we have maintained that connection with our African past and our African motherland.
“So, to have people finally come around to see how we have kept the traditions and how we have kept the heritage, we are only too happy to welcome them. We are the keepers of the African heritage in the Bahamas. Many persons from the other islands have conveniently or otherwise turn their backs on that part of their past.
“It’s a pity to ever do that. You have to know who you are and where you came from. In Cat Island we have kept it all together. When the rest of the Bahamas is ready to discover their past – who they are – that road would lead through Cat Island.”
The Local Government administration headed by Ensil Strachan came in for commendation from Administrator Charles King.
“We work very closely with the Ministry of Tourism to ensure that when visitors come to Cat Island they are comfortable,” said Mr. King. “And they are enjoying it more and more. Which is why they come back again and again.”
Historian Eris Moncur (in cap) shows off ruins of the Bourn plantation system in south Cat Island to delegates at the ADHT conference. (BIS photo by Derek Smith)
The Cat Island Gospel Rushers performed their traditional songs and dance for ADHT delegates last Sunday. (BIS photo by Derek Smith)