Andros – America’s secret Island
It was October 1977. I was in Nassau, on New Providence Island, in the Bahamas. I had just returned from Freeport on Grand Bahama; and my friends, Dominique Letessier and Jacqueline Devallois, had decided to visit San Salvador, where Christopher Columbus allegedly landed in 1492.
It was hot and humid; and a hurricane was reported to have struck Haiti to the south, and was coming in the direction of Nassau and New Providence Island. On Paradise Island, across the narrow strait from Nassau, the hoteliers were preparing for the worst. The hurricane, however, did not materialise. It had passed us by. The following evening my friends and I had a meal in the restaurant of the South Ocean Beach Hotel, with the then acting President of the Bacardi rum company who, apparently, had fled from Cuba where Castro’s government had nationalised it. Our companion was a Cuban by then living in the Bahamas.
Since the early 1960s, the former owners of the Bacardi company had waged an undeclared war on the Castro régime, in alliance with American intelligence agents, various exiled Cubans and the Mafia.
Later that week, my friends departed for San Salvador. I remained in Nassau. For some reason I became interested in, and thought I might visit, the island of Andros to the west of New Providence Island. I remember mentioning this to one or two local people. Whilst standing on Nassau’s Bay Street a few days later, an elderly English man, almost certainly an expatriate, approached me and, in conversation, advised me that it would not be a good idea for me to attempt to go to Andros, or investigate the island. There was nothing there, he said. About the same time I heard rumours that submarines had been sighted in the waters between New Providence Island and Andros. That was all. (A cousin of mine served in a British Navy submarine throughout most of the Second World War. I have only been in a submarine once, a French one, in an old German U-boat pen, in Saint-Nazaire harbour; and just for one hour. I felt quite claustrophobic. Imagine being submerged in a submarine for up to three months. I would go mad! I consider submarines to be quite sinister. I digress…)
Some years later, when I again became interested in Andros Island, I thought that maybe the gentleman on Bay Street was, or had been, a British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) agent. Up to the early 1960s British intelligence had a number of agents in the area; and following the Second World War British Intelligence had assisted the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the Caribbean. But later, as British influence declined, the Americans with their almost unlimited funds, largely took over in the area, as elsewhere. Nevertheless, I asked myself: “Why should this man warn me against visiting an island called Andros?” It was true, however, that the previous week the Queen of England, Elizabeth II, and Prince Philip, had visited Nassau in the Royal yacht Britannia; and security had been particularly tight.
NOTE: During the war, Colonel W.T. Wren represented British security, doubling SIS Section V and Defence Security Officer in the Caribbean, first in Trinidad and then in Bermuda and Nassau, in the Bahamas, and looking after MI5’s interests. He was assisted by Lord Harry Tennyson. One of Wren’s tasks was protecting and “keeping an eye” on the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
Interestingly, sequences from a number of James Bond, 007, films, including Dr. No, For Your Eyes Only and Thunderball, were shot on location in the waters, and on the coral reefs around Andros, New Providence Island and the Exuma Cays. Bond (Sean Connery) is seen playing baccarat in the gaming rooms of Paradise Island. And Nassau’s Bay Street and Paradise Island are featured in scenes, played by Daniel Craig and Eva Green, in the 2006 Bond movie Casino Royal.
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Andros is almost certainly named after Sir Edmund Andros, Commander of British forces in Barbados in 1672, and successively governor of New York, Massachusetts, and the Dominion of New England until deposed during the upheavals of the “Glorious Revolution”. It was first permanently settled by the British in 1787. Andros lies 30 miles to the west of Nassau on New Providence Island, 170 miles southeast of Miami in Florida, and about 100 miles north of the north coast of Cuba. The southernmost tip of Andros (Water Cays) is just north of the Tropic of Cancer.
It is by far the largest of the 700 islands and cays of the Bahamas. In fact, Andros is actually composed of three major islands (North Andros, Mangrove Cay and South Andros) and hundreds of tiny cays.
In the words of Paul Albury:
“Andros occupies forty-three per cent of all Bahamian land. But there are several channels, navigable by small vessels, that pass right through the island, and future enumerators will have to decide whether to consider it a single island, or a cluster of islands” (The Story of the Bahamas, p.6).
It is approximately 105 miles long from north to south, and 40 miles wide at its widest. It is roughly 2300 square miles in area. It has no land higher than 75 feet.
When I was in the Bahamas, much of Andros had not been explored, at least officially. In the 1960s a few unauthorised adventurers had penetrated some of the interior. More recently, when a friend in Toronto asked a local travel agent what he knew about Andros, the travel agent replied: “Only billionaires go there.” In fact few billionaires, or millionaires, go to Andros. They prefer Paradise Island!
Andros is low and generally sandy. It is serrated by numerous channels, or rivulets, known as “bights”, of which some are navigable. These include Goose River, which is 15 miles long and the only river in the Bahamas, North Bight, Middle Bight and South Bight, and a number of small lakes. It has thousands of miles of freshwater channels that come from rainwater collected in the numerous caves in the interior of the island.
Andros (as well as Abaco, Grand Bahama and a number of other smaller islands) has scores of “Blue Holes” or caverns and cave systems, often joined by subterranean waterways or tunnels. Some have both stalactites and stalagmites. A few, such as Stargate on southeast Andros, Sanctuary and Little Frenchman, have been much explored in recent years; others in the interior less so, or not at all. Many are too dangerous. Although many are filled with fresh water, others contain poisonous hydrogen sulphide gas. Cave divers have been attracted to one or two of them, such as Stargate. Nicolas and Dragan Popou, in their The Bahamas Rediscovered (pp.80-81), note that Andros has approximately 400 inland and ocean holes.
“Ocean holes, as the name indicates, are found in the sea while the inland holes are completely surrounded by land and at the base are separated from the sea. Ocean holes are also found in the extensive creek system of Andros, and differ from inland holes in that there is a very strong current flow…certain ocean holes [are] impenetrable…the inland holes have a fresh water layer at the top which is non-existent in ocean holes.”
There are also “boiling holes” on Andros. These are entrances to subterranean cave systems. They differ from “blue holes”, since the water coming out of them is under pressure and appears to be boiling. According to local legends monsters and evil spirits called luca, resembling octopi, live in some blue and boiling holes, lying in wait to pull individuals as well as small boats down to the depths. They are definitely considered “off-limits” by some Androsians.
The eastern side of Andros is famous for its bonefishing.
The western shore of Andros is utterly barren, whilst the lush, green interior is covered with dense subtropical jungles or forests of lignum, pine and mahogany; and on its western fringes by mangrove swamps. Not surprisingly, the humidity can be overpowering, unless one is accustomed to it, and the mosquitoes are not friendly! There are, however, refreshing breezes along the east coast.
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The end of the 19th century witnessed a sisal-planting boom in the Bahamas, including Andros. Sisal was looked upon as a magic plant which would transform the Bahamian economy. The Chamberlain family invested £50,000 in a plantation in northeast Andros. Joseph Chamberlain sent his son, Neville, later to be Prime Minister of Great Britain, to supervise his Andros Fibre Company. Planning began in 1892; and, according to Paul Albury, by April 1895, 6,000 acres of former pine and scrub had been brought into cultivation. But by 1896, when the plants should have shown long dark-green leaves, ready for cutting, they were yellow and stunted. Sisal would not grow in the rock and sand of Andros.
In the late 1960s, and the 1970s, an American-owned company, Owen’s Lumber Company, established a mill on northern Andros for the production of timber. But the company deforested large areas of the indigenous pineyards, resulting in dense overcrowded forests later, of mainly young trees, caused by poor or non-existent planning for re-growth. It was not a success.
In more recent times, some quite large farms were developed; and okras, tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries and papayas were grown. They too were not successful, partly due to the thin and difficult soil.
Not surprisingly, there are no highways, towns or settlements on the island except along the east coast.
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The earliest known inhabitants of Andros, as elsewhere in the Bahamas, were the Lucayan Indians (Island People), who generally thrived from the 6th century AD to the 16th century, when they were wiped out mainly by exposure to disease following the arrival of the Spaniards in the 1550s. Skeletons, including skulls, of the Lucayans have been found in caves and Blue Holes on Andros.
When the Spaniards discovered the island, they called it La Isla del Espiritu Santo – the Island of the Holy Spirit. But they did not stay there long. During the 18th century, pirates occupied parts of Andros; Morgan’s Bluff and Morgan’s Cave on North Andros are named after the notorious pirate, Henry Morgan. On South Andros, pirates are said to have had an elaborate fortification, complete with a harem and preyed on Spanish commerce between Florida and Cuba.
In the late 18th or early 19th century, a small tribe of Seminole Indians, former slaves who had escaped from the Florida Everglades, together with a handful of their former owners, settled on the northern tip of Andros; they remained hidden from the outside world until a few decades ago, where they continued to live as a tribal society, in and around a village called Red Bay. The Seminole Indians are credited with originating the myth of the island’s legendary, and elusive, chickcharnies – red-eyed, bearded, green-feathered creatures with three fingers and three toes that hang upside down by their tails from pine trees. These creatures supposedly lurk deep in the forest, and then vent their mischief on travellers. Not surprisingly, Andros has retained an eerie mystique.
Iguanas, dragon-like reptiles up to six feet in length, are found on Andros. They are, however, extremely shy. The forests provide nesting grounds for parrots, partridges, quail, white-crowned pigeons – and whistling ducks. There are also said to be 50 species of orchids on Andros.
Sponges proliferate in the Bahamas. They are creatures, often dark purple, which anchor themselves to the sea-floor of the shallow banks west of Abaco, around Bimini, and particularly in the vast area southwest of Andros, known as “the mud”. The gathering of sponges by Androsians was, at one time, quite extensive.
The permanent, indigenous population of Andros is less than 8,000 (it was officially 7,800 in December 2010), of whom most live in settlements on, or near, the east coast of the island. The only real towns or settlements are Nicholl’s Town, at the northeast corner with fewer than 1,000 inhabitants; Andros Town about 35 miles to the south, with a population of 2,318 (in December 2010), and Driggs Hill on South Andros, halfway between Andros Town and the extreme southern tip of the island. Also on the east coast, south of Driggs Hill are the settlements of Congo Town, The Bluff and Kemps Bay.
Rooted in Andros is what is known as Obeah, a quasi-religion which originated in West Africa. It is not a cult, as Obeah has no priests, collective rituals, gods or saints. It is more a blending of African religions and mere superstitions.
Its practitioners claim to render evil into good, make dreams come true, bring wealth or poverty, or even cause death. Obeah does not have ceremonies found in voodoo or Haitian vodou. Nevertheless an Obeah believer may chant, sing or go into a trance to give an impression, or gain special powers. Some Christian ministers may practice a form of Obeah; but most Christian revivalists in the Bahamas are not involved in its practice. To orthodox Christians, Obeah believers are “evil doers” engaged in magic. While Andros has strong historical roots in Obeah, its beliefs can be found in other, mainly Out Islands, such as Eleuthra.
There are four small airports: at San Andros at the north near Nicholl’s Town, at Andros Town (International Airport), Mangrove Cay (for the centre), and Congo Town in the south of Andros. There are flights to and from Nassau and Miami in the United States.
If the island of Andros is something of an oddity, the waters between it and New Providence Island to the west are even more so.
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To the west of Andros is the Great Bahama Bank. To the east, within a mile of the shore, and all along the coasts and beyond for more than 150 miles, is the Andros Barrier Reef, said to be the third longest coral reef in the world. The average depth of the waters within the reef and the shore are only between 5 and 15 feet. To the east of the Andros Barrier Reef, however, (“over the wall”) lies the Tongue of the Ocean, or TOTO as it is generally called. It wasn’t until about 1960 that what has been described as “an incredible natural wonder” and “an inky black abyss” of coral forests, was fully discovered and explored.
TOTO is probably unique; a deepwater basin, 110 miles long and 20 miles wide, with a vertical drop to the east of the Barrier Reef, varying in depth from 700 to 1,800 fathoms. In one or two places, it is more than two miles deep. The floor basin is fairly smooth, and quite soft, with very gradual depth changes. It is bounded to the south and east by a large expanse of very shallow banks that are almost non-navigable; and to the north by the Northwest Providence Channel, a shallow-water plateau adjacent to the Berry Islands, a dozen or so tiny cays which are largely uninhabited. All of which results in little vessel traffic, an absence of large ocean swells, and very slight currents.
The seas in the vicinity of Andros are well-known for their sponges. A creature of shallow banks, they grow in abundance in the large underwater area to the southwest of Andros known as “the mud”, and on the Little Bahama Bank to the north.
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The Bahamas became a British colony in 1783. For three centuries, an entrenched white colonial elite dominated the commercial and political life of the islands, maintaining a colour bar over the majority, black population. They were known as the “Bay Street Boys”, named after the capital’s main business street in Nassau. Most of them were members of local Masonic lodges. Corruption was rife. They were also involved with the Mafia, particularly before the early 1930s. The Bahamas was a smugglers and bootleggers’ paradise. But it did not last. By the end of 1933, with the end of Prohibition in America, and the deepening of the worldwide depression, the economy of the Islands likewise suffered. Nevertheless, as elsewhere, the economic situation improved in the Bahamas with the outbreak of the Second World War.
Following the Fall of France in 1940, and subsequent occupation by Nazi Germany, the British government exiled the pro-Nazi former King Edward VIII, by then Duke of Windsor, to the Bahamas, as Governor. Not surprisingly, the Duke was involved in controversies, and particularly the brutal murder of multi-millionaire, Harry Oaks, in Nassau in 1943, and the subsequent cover-up. Windsor was well aware that Oaks was killed by Harold Christie, and not the playboy Alfred de Marigny. Oaks and the Duke were involved in a deal to smuggle millions of dollars out of the Bahamas and into a Mexican bank which money-laundered for the Nazis. I digress…
Before the 1960s, the constitution of the Bahamas remained in the 18th century. Patronage, gerrymandering, and grossly unequal electoral districts ensured the regular return of the Bay Street oligarchs to the House of Assembly in Nassau. There were septennial parliaments; and a limited franchise which excluded women. Indeed, it was not until 1962 that a number of older, white women got the vote. There was a company vote, as well as a property vote, which excluded most of the black (male) citizens – a majority of the population, mainly descended from slaves.
During the Second World War, on the 2nd of September 1940, United States President Roosevelt announced a deal with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to trade 50 old, mainly First World War, destroyers to the United Kingdom in exchange for ninety-nine-year leases on eight bases on British territories in the Western Hemisphere, from Newfoundland down to Trinidad in the Caribbean. These included one at Man-O-War Cay, Abaco, to the east of Grand Bahama; and the other in the Bahamas, on Great Exuma Island, about 100 miles to the southeast of Andros. On Exuma, the Americans built a sea-plane base near George Town. The purpose of the installation was to provide aerial surveillance of maritime shipping and activity in the Crooked Island Passage, and its approaches between Long Island and Crooked Island, approximately 100 miles northeast of the northern coast of Cuba.
On a deserted part of western New Providence Island opposite Andros, the British and United States High Command decided to construct an enormous pilot training centre. Dissatisfied with their wages, political and economic conditions and racial discrimination, black workers on two sites went on strike. Others looted properties in Bay Street. Rioting lasted several days, but abated following the increasing of the black workers’ wages.
In July 1950, the British government gave the United States base rights for a new Long Range Guided Missile Proving Ground in the Bahamas close to Andros, which subsequently became NASA’s launching centre at Cape Canaveral in Florida. Later, as well as in Andros, a number of underwater listening stations were constructed in the Caribbean area, including in Antigua and the Virgin Islands; as well as a listening station at Daniels Head in Bermuda. Previously in 1946, the British Labour government of Clement Attlee secretly ordered the production of 10,000 biological cluster bombs, to carry disease-carrying bomblets to be aimed at Soviet targets. They were intended to “contain the most effective biological agents for incapacitating Soviet workers”. The project was to be named Red Admiral. The biological weapons were due to be ready by 1957; but the project was, in fact, cancelled in 1954 before any of the bomblets were actually manufactured.
There were, however, extensive trials of toxins and various highly infectious viruses carried out on live animals. Called Planning Operation Ozone, viruses were released in trials in the Bahamas in 1954, off the east coast of Andros about 60 miles south of Nassau on New Providence Island. The crews of the British Navy
vessels involved were not told that they would be, or were, involved in biological warfare tests until some time later. According to Dr. Brian Balmer of University College in London, a test rig was made of 35 linked dinghies, each with a crate containing live sheep, a box for monkeys and a carrier for three guinea pigs. During the preparations, two of the dinghies, presumably containing animals, were eaten by sharks! And one technician caught brucellosis from test samples; but his family was informed by the Navy that this disease was “frequently contracted in tropical climates”.
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For more than 30 years, Lynden Oscar Pindling dominated politics in the Bahamas. He was born in 1930 to a Bahamian mother and a retired Jamaican policeman. His wife, Marguerite, was born on Andros.
Pindling was a charismatic, populist, reformist black politician who played the race card against the Bay Street Boys as well as American imperialism – when it suited him. Yet he encouraged capitalist investment in the Bahamas from both Britain and the United States. He was known as the Black Moses.
In the election of 1956, Lynden Pindling, representing the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), which he had joined soon after its formation in 1953, was elected on the limited franchise to the House of Assembly as junior member for the Southern District of New Providence Island, which included the capital, Nassau. He was elected leader of the PLP parliamentary caucus of six members. The racial composition of the House was in inverse proportion to that of the population.
Tourism, some light industry, and banking, encouraged many black workers to form, and join, trade unions. And, in January 1957, there was a general strike in Nassau and on New Providence Island. Pindling supported the strike, gaining the PLP considerable working-class support. The Bay Street Boys panicked; and the following year, in an attempt to widen their appeal, they formed the United Bahamian Party (UBP) to counter Pindling and the Progressive Liberals. Surprisingly, however, the PLP won the 1962 election. Pindling advocated universal suffrage for all Bahamian adults, despite some gerrymandering by the UBP. Four extra seats were created in the “black belt” of New Providence Island. The Bahamas achieved independence from the United Kingdom, following the 1972 election, in July 1973.
At the 1967 election, Pindling switched his electoral base from New Providence Island to Kemps Bay on Andros, where he defeated the sole representative of the tiny Negro Labour Party. By a whisker, the PLP became the government and Lynden Pindling premier of the Bahamas, despite the Bay Street Boys and the UBP pouring large sums of money into their campaign, and using American political consultants against Pindling and the PLP.
American involvement, official and unofficial, continued and still continues in Bahamian affairs, including Andros Island. Indeed, when I was leaving the South Ocean Beach Hotel one morning, to go into Nassau Old Town, an American man offered me a lift in his car, a large Cadillac if I remember. The Bahamas had been nominally independent for 15 years; but there were, it seemed to me, to be many Americans in Nassau and on New Providence Island. I do not know if the American who gave me a lift was employed locally, or if he had come over from AUTEC on Andros. (Previously, when I was in Freeport, on Grand Bahama, I got a lift from an English expat engineer – in a Mini!…)
By 1970, the United Bahamian Party had largely collapsed, and was replaced by the Free National Movement (FNM). But the United States became increasingly critical of Lynden Oscar Pindling. So, the Central Intelligence Agency decided in 1982 to act, prior to the Bahamian election of 1983. The CIA sent one of its agents, Lestor K. Coleman, to the Bahamas on his first operation, to interfere in the islands’ election. Pindling had already incurred U.S. displeasure by offering sanctuary to a runaway financier, Robert Vesco, wanted by the Americans. Coleman fed Pindling’s opponents, and in particular the Free National Movement, with disinformation and “dirt” on Pindling, whom the American media accused of money-laundering and drug-trafficking. But no direct evidence was found against him, although it was proved he had received a loan of $2.8 million, as well as various gifts. Nevertheless, Pindling and the PLP continued to win elections. By the early 1990s, however, it was the beginning of the end for Pindling. Unemployment and crime were increasing in the Bahamas; and in 1992, the Free National Movement swept into power with 32 seats to the PLP’s 17 in the National Assembly.
After a quarter of a century, Lynden Oscar Pindling’s power was broken. He died in August 2000.
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