From Nassau, New Providence Island, October 22 to 28, 2023
I hadn’t been at the little cottage I rented for the week for ten minutes before I was walking around the neighborhood with my landlord and coming back with a huge tropical (and poisonous) bloom for the vase on the dining room table. I have never been to Nassau before. Things seem slow one minute and fast the next. The Solandra maxima blossom had rested in its water only an hour before my first visitor arrived-- my cousin, Pharez d’Arceuil, and his
mother. Pharez commented on the large blossom. Not that many months ago, neither of us knew of the other’s existence. He is a tall slender young man with a winsome smile, cordial and polite, and as interested in family history as I am. We talked and compared notes. Were it not for him having posted a family connection on a genealogy site I would not have discovered this admirable branch of my relations.
I came here not as a tourist but to research my maternal family’s Nassau connection. After growing up with stories about my much lauded and admired great-grandfather, the Confederate soldier and blockade runner, I had known from childhood he was in and out of Nassau during the Civil War. What I didn’t know until very recently, I am fairly certain none of his later family knew, was that he stayed in this area for two and a half years, from May 1863 through most of 1865. Definitely none of us knew that he fathered at least one child with a woman of color, a son, during his time hiding out from the Union. He may not have known this himself. The mysterious son followed in turn by his many children has gifted me and my maternal family with relatives all over the Caribbean and the world. There are also many in the United States who immigrated long ago such as cousins Kathy Lanoix and her children and grandchildren.
I have written about great-grandfather Henry Choice Price, his exploits, and the granddaughter he never knew, Kathy Lanoix, and her family, in Unloose My Heart. Other grandchildren, those fathered by the only child from his first marriage, my grandfather Carleton, and who came along much later, called Henry Fafa. Those grandchildren comprised my mother and her siblings. There were no children from his second marriage. Henry died in 1916 in Miami, so I never had a chance to address him by his pet name. I call him a scoundrel. What a secret life he led! I have recently uncovered evidence that neither was he always honest about his activities in the United States, activities unrelated to the Civil War.
In spite of or maybe because of his secrets, he certainly had principles. They were why he escaped his trial after his capture by a Union ship in April 1863. He, his crew, and his cotton-filled sloop, having become a prize for the Union, were hauled to Key West where he was to await trial. He left little information about all this for his descendants but he did make clear his reason for escaping—“It was thought by some of my friends that because of my former connection with the Confederate army and present business of running the blockade and contraband goods imported, that the officials might require me to take the oath of allegiance to the US or put me in Old Fort Taylor. As I did not propose to do either…” Thus, in early May 1863 he escaped his trial and fled to Nassau.
And, thus, here I am now, walking in some of his footsteps. Perhaps, that is why when I walked from my cottage all the way down Bay Street to its end that I had a sudden feeling of déjà vu—not of Bay Street per se, but of being ten years old and walking a half block east and a half-mile or so north on South Olive Street to downtown West Palm Beach to look in shop windows and explore. Then I would head back to Henry’s daughter-in-law’s house, my grandmother, going south on Dixie Avenue to her street, Acacia Street. Bay Street seemed as familiar as Olive Street somehow. I know Henry would have walked along Bay Street every time he was in Nassau. His sparse notes only hint at the numbers of times. All I can deduce from them is that he came into that harbor maybe several times in his first sloop, and then more times in his second sloop, the Clotilda, after the wreck of the first one.
Now, having only recently realized that he spent such a long time out of the United States to avoid being arrested for, by the Union’s point of view, his traitorous, even insurrectionist activities, I also realize he may well have gotten himself to other places in the Caribbean. Henry Choice Price’s exploits have proven that he had money, courage or bravado, not sure which, and that he was a man who couldn’t be kept down. I wonder about where else he could have gone while hiding from the US authorities because a sloop of the same name and size as his mysteriously turned up in the Nassau harbor two weeks after it was listed as sold in Key West. And, because the son he fathered, Clarence Benjamin Selver, was in the Turks as a young child, if not from infancy, and grew up there. Another of Henry's grandchildren, Clarence Benjamin Selver, Jr. is buried in Nassau.
My footsteps followed Henry’s at the harbor as well. Cousin Robert d’Arceuil, Attorney at Law, a most affable, knowledgeable, and helpful man, uncle to Pharez, took me to the beach at the harbor where Henry’s crew would have brought in his cotton-filled sloop. The light house so prominent in my view as the waves lapped my legs and I looked out to sea is the same one that guided Henry and his crew. The sand, the same sand, churned across my feet. Dead coral chunks and pieces of shells were everywhere. The beach was different from what he would have known from the coast of Florida. I looked into the reasons.
New Providence is an island made of coral. It and the other Bahamian islands are mostly flat and made of coral reef formations which were exposed many thousands of years ago when sea levels dropped and exposed them. Consequently, the island is made of calcium carbonate and riverless. Fresh water comes from several sources—processed sea water, a few wells, and some brought in in huge containers by barges according to what I read. The people I asked all said it was from desalinated sea water. One wonders how people got it in the past, especially during the American Civil War when the population in Nassau exploded.
Today, 89% of the people are of African ancestry. Most of the 8% with European ancestry are descendants of the Loyalists who fled to the Bahamas, then a British colony, with their enslaved people around the years surrounding the American Revolution. My landlord is one of them. He is five generations from his first Loyalist forebear. This gave us plenty to discuss though we hardly needed an excuse to talk as he was most interesting and well informed.
I found this painting of the harbor by V. Zveg, 1973, depicting Continental Sailors and Marines landing on New Providence Island, Bahamas, March 3, 1776. They were hoping to seize some gunpowder. When I was at the beach, I was standing about where the rowboat is on the shore. The lighthouse is out of view just to the right on a peninsula of what is now called Paradise Island.
There is so much more—the three-hour meeting with historian Dr. Keith Tinker and his charming wife and more adventures with Robert including my dives into the National Archives and the Bahamas Historical Society and Museum. Then, there is Nassau’s history as a haven for pirates, the emancipation of the enslaved people in 1834, its achievement of independence in 1973, and its transformation into a tourist haven. It remains a member of the British Commonwealth and I could go on. For now, I continue to absorb and savor the experience as I share this bit along with the fragrant frangipani blossom I picked up in front of my cottage. I knew those from Florida. It all ties together.