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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.

Cat Island - BahamasIn 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.

Architecture
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.

Legacy
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.

 


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