Devil's Backbone Eleuthera

Eleuthera Begins at Devil's Backbone

A Congregation of Unusual Circumstances

By Dr. Edward Harris MBE

The prelude to the settlement of Bermuda and the modern occupation of the Bahamas was the terrifying cacophony of a sailing ship meeting an immovable reef. The harsh sound first occurred in 1609 off the beach at St. Catherine's Point in Bermuda. The second unpleasant noise emanated from an underwater rock called the Devil's Backbone off the coast of Eleuthera in the Bahamas in 1648.  Devil's Backbone Eleuthera

Through such unusual circumstances, the early congregations of Bermuda and the Bahamas eventually came into being. Thereafter, the train divided. At Bermuda, the unintended visitors lived off the land housed in palmetto-thatched huts and built two small boats to sail to their original destination at Jamestown, Virginia.

At Eleuthera, the shipwrecked arrivals intended to be colonists and set about making the best of a bad voyage. For some time, they lived in a cave in the northern part of the island, which also served as a church of geological proportions.

Devil's Backbone beachfront Eleuthera
Beachfront at Devil's Backbone

This was their first taste of freedom, for that is what Eleuthera means, derived from Greek. Some of the local environment would have reminded them of Bermuda from whence they came, the blue and green waters, dunes, and pinkish sands dominating the coastal views. Behind the beach where their possession were strewn or floating ashore stood a convenient shelter in the form of a large cavern, later known as Preacher's Cave.

Probably unknown to the religious colonists from the wreck of the William, they were not the first occupants of the cave. Nor are they likely to be the last, for who knows what the future holds in an age of atomic weapons and world-wide terrorism. Unlike Bermuda and islands such as Ascension in the South Atlantic, the Bahamas were home to many generations of indigenous Americans, the Lucayan Tainos.

The day before I went for a visit, but not to colonize I hasten to add, archaeologists had just discovered what is believed to be the first intact burial in the Bahamas of a Lucayan, complete in all but her skull and feet. The deceased appears to have lost her head, not due to any contemporary occurrence, but in the excavation of a later grave for one of the colonists of the mid-1600s.

These colonists had come from Bermuda under the leadership of William Sayle, former Governor of the place and religious Independent. The group hoped to escape the persecution they had encountered in Bermuda, but being Bermudians by the time they got to Eleuthera, infighting caused the division of the troop. Those who continued on the William ended up in Preacher's Cave. Tradition has it that Bermudians settled the Bahamas, but given the date, it is likely that most of the colonists were English. If Bermudian is defined as "native", that is born in the place, the first Bermudian was John Rolfe's daughter, named "Bermuda", who is the first person known to have been delivered at birth in these islands.

In the four decades following, a number of Bermudians came into this world and it is possible that some of these sailed as young people among the 70 passengers of the William in 1648.

Be that as it may, the colony at Eleuthera was supplied with more people from Bermuda, included slaves and free blacks in 1656, in addition to others. In 1684, coincidentally the year of the dissolution of the Bermuda Company, the Spanish destroyed the settlement at North Eleuthera, but the occupation of the Bahamas by Bermudians / English / Africans continued on the rest of the Eleuthera, in nearby Spanish Wells and other islands of the chain.

Traditions about Preacher's Cave remained untested archaeologically until 1991, when the site was first so examined, with the blessing of the Bahamian government. Jane Day of Research Atlantica, Inc. led a team of historians and archaeologists that year and the next, as a part of the Bahamas quintessential projects with the support of Dr. Gail Saunders of the Department of Archives at Nassau. Other members of the team, then and now, were Robert Carr of the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy and Dr. Sandra Norman, Interim Dean of the Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters, Florida Atlantic University. The Eleutherian "Adventurers" used Preacher's Cave as a church and a cemetery and burials were found, along with 17th-century artefacts of the right period. A remarkable DNA project in collaboration with the University of Miami confirmed linkages with the present population of Spanish Wells, as has happened in other countries where burial evidence indicates descendants of the deceased in modern day peoples of a vicinity.

The DNA study confirmed that a growth hormone deficiency, known as Laron Syndrome, yet extant in the population, came with the first settlers and did not evolve within the Bahamas at a later date as a result of local factors. These results of forensic archaeology were reported world-wide on CNN in the early 1990s. In April 2005, the project was renewed through the Hon. Obie H. Wilchcombe, MP, Minister of Tourism and Dr. Keith Tinker, Director of the National Museum of the Bahamas and Ms Angela Cleare of the Ministry of Tourism.

Devil's Backbone Shipwreck
Shipwrecked boat at Devil's Backbone

The importance of Preacher's Cave called for its development as a National Heritage Site. The North Eleuthera Historical Society, under the direction of Jock Morgan of Spanish Wells, was established to garner local support and participation in the project. Archaeological research was continued in early spring 2006, when several more burials were discovered, that of the Lucayan female of national importance for the pre-history of the Bahamas. A Bahamian graduate student has been delegated to study the remains of that pre-Columbian individual, the first to be discovered mostly intact in the significant landmass of the Bahamas archipelago. As in all matters of human heritage, our legacies are intertwined. At the Preacher's Cave, now giving up its secrets to scientific archaeological investigations, some of our Bermudian ancestors form an unusual congregation with some of the last prehistoric occupants of the Bahamas.