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The History of Inagua Islands

Nestled at the very south of the Bahamas, beautiful Inagua Island is much quieter than many of its neighbors.  The island’s name comes from a combination of words.  There is the native Lucayan word “Inagua” which means “small island in the east”, and the Spanish expression “Heneagua” which stands for “there is water here”.  As with all other Caribbean islands, the history of Inagua Island is rich in tales and legends.

Inagua Islands, BahamasThere are actually two islands: Great Inagua and Little Inagua.  Great Inagua, the third largest island in the Bahamas, is just over 50 miles from the eastern edge of Cuba.  Fewer than 1,000 people make their home here.  Its capital, Matthew Town, is named after a 19th century governor of the islands, George Matthew.  Little Inagua sits to the northeast of Great Inagua and is completely uninhabited (except for large herds of wild donkeys and goats).

Rich Sea Salt Supply
The early settlers were a group of people from Bermuda, who arrived to Inagua Island in 1803, after a stop in the Turks and Caicos.  They were the first to start harvesting the abundant sea salt, and selling it to passing ships for the long overseas journey, back to Europe.   The history of Inagua Island marks the initial founding of a Bahamian corporation in 1848, the Henagua Salt Pond Company.  That corporation is the precursor to today’s reputable Morton Salt Company, which produces more than a million tons of sea salt every year, and is the second largest sea salt operation in North America.

To this day, salt is still harvested the same way it was in the very beginning.  Sea water is pumped into large ponds or lakes, and eventually evaporates under the powerful Caribbean sun.  The salt residue is scraped into towering white mountains, and then shipped around the world.

Pirates and Buried Treasure
Of course, the history of Inagua Island has its fascinating stories.  It is said that a treacherous 19th century king of Haiti buried treasure on Great Inagua, somewhere near the island’s Northeast Point, but unsurprisingly, the treasure has never been found.

Like every other island in the Bahamas, Inagua also boasts of times when terrifying pirates waited for ships to flounder in the surrounding shallow and dangerous reefs, making the vessels easy targets for plundering.  It is believed that the thieves hid their stolen treasures in the island’s many coves.  From the 16th to the 19th century, shipwrecks were common as there was no lighthouse to guide ships away from peril. Many treasure ships met their fate in these waters.  The Spanish galleons ‘Santa Rose’ and ‘Infanta’ sank near Inagua Island, as did several British and French ships. And so, the tales of buried treasures go on…

Flamingo Paradise
There are far more birds in the Inagua islands than people.  The once-endangered West Indian flamingo thrives in this area for the same reason the island’s main industry has survived for so long, and that is due to the abundance of sea salt.  Flamingos feed on the briny shrimp that breed in the salt ponds, a perfect habitat for both species.  The pristine, wide open spaces of Great and Little Inagua allow our feathered friends to live undisturbed, in this peaceful environment.

The bird sanctuary on Great Inagua is home to over 80,000 flamingos, who share space with more than 140 species of other exotic birds, including parrots, hummingbirds and pelicans.

 


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