The History of Cat Island
With less than 2,000 local inhabitants and only 70 miles of land stretched
across the Caribbean, Cat Island is quaint and known for its natural and
historical landmarks including Mt. Alvernia, the highest point in the
Bahamas. It is also visited for its remarkable architecture, created by
famous architect Monsignor Jerome Hawkes, an Anglican priest. It may not
be one of the more popular Caribbean destinations for tourists, but Cat
Island’s history may very well be the most fascinating of any of
the Bahamian islands.
In the Beginning
Like other islands scattered throughout the Bahamas, Cat Island is believed
to have been inhabited as early as the 9th century AD by tribes referred
to by many names including the “Arawaks,” “Lucayans,”
and the self-imposed “Lukku-cairi.” The island still features
some of the ancient structures believed to have served as primitive shelters
for these peaceful indigenous people. In fact, much of the history of
Cat Island can be told through the largely-untouched, ancient and colonial
remnants of times past.
Discovery and Settlement
It is believed by many that Cat Island, not San Salvador, was Christopher
Columbus’s first place of landing when he discovered the New World;
thus “Columbus Point” is located in the Southern part of the
island. There is debate about how the island’s current name originated,
and the most popular theory is that it was named after pirate Arthur Catt
who came to the island to bury his treasures. While it is feasible that
the island’s name was derived from its cat-like shape, as seen from
the air, others believe that the land was once overrun with wild cats.
Although the Spanish first explored the island, they never settled there,
and the whole of the Bahamas became a British Crown Colony after religious
refugees landed there in 1717. During the American Revolution, Loyalists
from Virginia also came to the island and attempted to establish cotton
plantations. Because the plantations were not successful, their agricultural
aspirations eventually led them to sow fields of peas, corn, and potatoes
tended to by freed slaves after their emancipation in 1834. These early
farmers would send their harvest to Nassau to be sold at the marketplace.
Agriculture is still a major part of Cat Island’s economy today
and is maintained through slash-and-burn farming.
Famous architect and hermit Monsignor Jerome Hawkes, also known as Father
Jerome, made a significant contribution to the history of Cat Island.
He is largely responsible for the beautiful architecture that remains
on the island to this day. Among many other designs, Father Jerome built
The Hermitage in 1939 on top of Mt. Alvernia, the 206-ft mountain recognized
as the highest point in the Bahamas. There, he lived and meditated, and
became known as “the conscience of the island” due to his
ongoing willingness to help resolve conflicts and assist those in need.
Many of the modern-day tourists who visit Cat Island do so because of
its architectural significance and its well-preserved historical landscape.
The island also boasts the birthplace of celebrity actor Sidney Poitier
who lived in a settlement on Cat Island known as Arthur’s Town.
The famous musician called Exuma, whose real name is Tom McKay, was born
on the island in 1940. Many deem Cat Island to be the original source
of all Bahamian music.