Popular Science Monthly/Volume 52/April 1898/A Spring Visit to Nassau

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WITHOUT indulging in too familiar details of an ocean voyage, let me briefly sketch some interesting features of my visit to Nassau in the month of March, for the island of New Providence is unique and interesting on account of its wonderful flowers and trees as well as the curious customs of its picturesque natives.

One interesting bit of the voyage from New York was the sight of the "Sargasso Sea," which we reached the third day out, after crossing the Gulf Stream. We came upon water of an intensely dark, indigo blue, filled with lovely delicate floating seaweeds, such as we had never seen before. It seemed impossible to believe that the water itself was entirely colorless, and one young lady on board insisted that the captain must be wrong in saying it was the same as the rest of the ocean; whereupon the captain ordered a bucketful to be dipped up, when it was found to be no bluer than the rest.

The next day we reached Nassau. Clad in our thinnest summer clothes, we left the steamer outside the bar and were taken on a tender up to the wharf, where the usual crowd of natives had gathered to see us land. For the most part they were a leisurely and good-natured lot of colored people, for negroes far outnumber the whites. Looking over the rail on the other side of the tender, an unusual sight met our gaze. A dozen or more boys in small boats, scantily clad, were clamoring, "Boss, please now a penny!" and as the passengers threw small coins, the nearly naked boys dived for them into the exquisitely clear green water, often catching them before they reached the bottom. They are expert swimmers, as the following story will show: A few years ago a wrecking crew was ordered from New York to take the cargo from a sunken vessel; but, before they arrived upon the scene, the natives had descended to the hold of the vessel with grappling irons, attached them to the cargo, and raised it. As soon as we landed, our baggage was examined by the customhouse officers—important-looking colored men dressed uniformly in dark-blue trousers, PSM V52 D795 Coconut palms.jpgCocoanut Palms. with a red stripe down the side, white linen jackets, and white pith hats. Boys of every age and various cast of features, showing their gleaming white teeth, begged to take our parcels to the hotel. As we sat in the cage-like shed which serves as a customhouse we were at once impressed with the sense that the island of New Providence was indeed a foreign land, most picturesque, fascinating, and distinctly tropical, with its tall cocoa palms here and there waving above the other trees and the house-tops. Our attention was particularly attracted to the trees about the wharf and along the main street. At first we thought they were magnolias, and it was hard to believe they were not members of that family, so striking a resemblance do they bear with their large, shining leaves. They are known as almond trees, the Demerara almond (Terminalia catappa), but are not the almond of commerce.

A conspicuous tree, resembling the pine, is the cassowary (Casuarina equisetifolia), so called from the likeness of its long, delicate branches to the hair of the cassowary, and equisetifolia, because its stems and leaves are like our common weed equisetum, or horsetail. This tree is a native of the East, and is introduced now

PSM V52 D796 Cassowary trees on bay street nassau.jpg
Cassowary Trees, Bay Street.

through all tropical countries. The button tree (Thespesia populnea) is thus called from its buttonlike fruit, and is common about the town.

The vegetation was new and curious to our Northern eyes, each step revealing plants and trees hitherto unknown. How to know them was a problem, because we were interested in these beautiful surroundings, but could find no one who could give us reliable information. A few plants that were familiar to us in greenhouses in the North grow in Nassau as common garden plants. Some that we recognized were the poinsettia; oleanders, growing to the height of twenty-five feet, with flowers varying from white to pink and deep crimson; hibiscus, with hundreds of blossoms on a single shrub; castor beans, morning-glories, lantanas, four-o'clocks, and tecomas, with their white and yellow blossoms, at this season the most conspicuous wild flowers; and the life plant (Bryophyllum calycinum), a single leaf of which, if pinned to the wall of a room, will send out rootlets and grow. These last are seen in every direction, and grow wild among the rocks. Orchids, air plants (epiphytes), and palmettos, which are so carefully cherished in our hothouses or homes, here run wild and cover large areas of waste land. Cacti, agaves and aloes are common, and from them good commercial fibers are made. Sisal hemp and sisal grass are terms used for fibers of probably more than one species of agave. They have always grown wild on the islands, and were formerly considered a nuisance. Of late years the production of sisal has formed a large industry, and hundreds of acres are given up to the growth of the plant, which thrives on the poorest soil. The cultivation of sisal is only exceeded in extent by the sponge industry, in which six thousand people and a great many small vessels are engaged, Nassau being the principal port for sponge trading in the West Indies. The men engaged in gathering the sponges go off on cruises of five or six weeks. They get the sponges by means of a hook attached to a long pole, and then leave them in the sun till the animal matter decays. They are then brought to the sponge exchange, sold in large quantities, and afterward taken by each buyer to his wharf. Here women are employed in cutting, trimming, and packing them for exportation.

In early spring, before the trees put forth their leaves—for there are many deciduous trees even in a tropical region—there are fewer flowers in bloom than later in the season. Some have their season of growth and rest, though the climate has a nearly equal temperature throughout the year, while other trees and plants, like tea and coffee, produce several crops annually. In tropical regions, sequence of crops depends largely upon a rainy and a dry season. The absence of grass is quite noticeable. Very few cows are kept, and this has its effect upon food, as condensed milk must always be used. A tree of great interest, particularly to those interested in the dissemination of seeds, is the sand-box (Hura crepitans). Its pods explode with a pistol-like noise, scattering the seeds to a great distance. I secured a good specimen, and packed it carefully in a box. Some five or six weeks later, when at home, I untied the pod and put it on the table with a collection of corals, shells, and curios from the West Indies. Coming home one day, I was told that it would be unsafe ever to go out again and leave Sam, the pet cat, alone in the sitting room, for he had been on the table and made great havoc, scattering sponges, shells, etc., all over the room. I rushed to see if any of my specimens had suffered, and found that not Sam, but the sand-box, had been the cause of the disaster. Travelers relate many interesting and curious stories about the sand-box.

One day, seeing some curious-looking pods in a store, we inquired where they grew, and were directed to the yard of a good natured and amiable negro woman. She designated two large trees as the King and Queen; a very pretty idea, since they are diœcious—that is, one bears unfertile or staminate flowers only, and corresponds to the male, while the other bears fertile or pistillate flowers only, and corresponds to the female. The latter is the pod-bearing tree,

PSM V52 D798 Monkey tamarind trees.jpg
Monkey Tamarind Trees.

and the smaller of the two. The trees are very old, one having a girth of twenty feet at six feet from the ground. Its name, monkey tamarind (Adansonia digitata), is given from the fact that in Jamaica monkeys are sometimes caught while attempting to obtain the seeds from the large woody pods which the tree produces. The true tamarind (Tamarindus indica) of the West Indies is also a large tree with delicate spreading foliage, and is distinguished by its brown leguminous pods. We bought these at the market and ate the acid pulp which surrounds the seeds. With the aid of sugar it makes a palatable drink. When sold for commerce, and used for medicinal purposes, the pods are removed, but the seeds remain connected together by a fibrous string. There are several species of trees in Nassau belonging to this same family, the Leguminosœ, having pulselike fruit, as the sweet pea and honey locust, although the pods vary greatly in shape and size. One of these, that loses its leaves in the winter season, has hanging upon its branches a great number of delicate pale-yellow pods, about eight inches long, which, swaying in the wind, so fill the air with a soft, murmuring noise that it has been called the singing tree (Albizzia Lebbek). They are plentiful about the town. Another species (Poinciana pulcherrima), nearly related to the sensitive plant (Mimosa), also loses its leaves in the winter, but bears pods quite different in appearance. These pods are long, some measuring twenty-four inches, dark-colored, even almost black. A fine group of these trees surrounds the library building. A few vines belonging to this family are interesting, especially the Abrus precatorius, or wild licorice. Twining over the tops of the trees, it produces small pods growing in clusters, in which are bright-red seeds with a black spot on one end. These seeds are known to almost all children as Guiana peas or "Black-eyed Susans." They have been extensively used for ornaments in shell work, and it is not uncommon to hear people say they thought they were a kind of shell or some part of one, so associated are they with such work. Then there is the nicker (Guilandina), a prickly trailing shrub. We were told that boys take the yellow or olive-colored seeds from the flattened prickly pods and use them instead of marbles for playing games. There are pods of an innumerable variety of shapes and sizes, some that twist in opening, others that curl—in fact, pods of every description are to be found in this region.

The most remarkable tree on the island of New Providence is without quesion a specimen of the silk cotton (Bombax Ceiba), situated near the post office and prison. Growing from its trunk are half a dozen buttresslike extensions, as if to make a firm footing for its great spread of branches of one hundred and sixteen feet. A little boy, to whom I showed a photograph of it, expressed its appearance very well when he said the spaces between the buttresses would make fine horse stalls. The pods which grow on the tree contain a soft, silky material which the natives sometimes use for stuffing pillows. There are more of these trees, but none so large or old as this one, and we heard no estimate of its age. It is a near relative of the monkey tamarind. Between this Bombax and the library is an avenue of Spanish laurel, a member of the fig family—untidy and inelegant trees, with a growth of roots hanging from their branches which never reach the ground. We saw in the hospital grounds a specimen of the same family, which is called the wild fig. About three miles from Nassau is another species of fig, erroneously called Ficus indica, or banyan tree of India. It has the same habit of growth as the banyan, sending down fibers which sink into the soil. These fibers take root, and in turn become parent trunks, shooting out new branches, which in time suspend their roots, and these, swelling into trunks, produce still other branches. All these trees bear fruit, but the figs are small and unfit for eating. Ficus carica, the fig of commerce, and the India-rubber tree belong to the same family, and are all characterized by a milky juice. On these islands there are large timber trees, including, among others, the mahogany, mastic, lignum vitæ, etc. Some trees, like the cinnamon, are valuable for their bark; others, like the logwood and fustic, are useful for their dyes. On one of our several pleasant excursions we drove through the pine woods and palmettos to Lake Killarney. Here we saw the only species of pine growing on the island (Pinus bahamensis), and along the roadside we noticed the beautiful and conspicuous shrub, the sappens (Chrysophyllum oliveforme), with its shining green leaves above, and below a down of rich golden-brown color. The shores of the lake are lined with mangrove trees, which send out aërial roots from their branches. They descend in arched fashion, strike at some distance from the parent stem, and send up new trunks, spreading like the banyan. The south shore of the island is also overrun with the mangrove, the salt water at high tide surrounding many of the bushes, giving a curious effect for miles along the shore.

Other excursions that we took included the bathing beach, the caves to the west of Nassau, and the remarkable Lake of Waterloo, which should be visited after dark in order that its wonderful phosphorescence may be seen. The greatest charm and wonder was a sail of three to six miles to the sea garden. Leaving the sailboat, we stepped into a dory with a glass bottom, through which the mysteries of the deep were as plainly seen as if only at the depth of a pail of water. On the white sand, fifteen or twenty feet below us, we saw coral, sea fans, and sponges, while exquisitely colored fish darted in and out among the waving forms of life.

Several times in the early morning we visited the market, which is of great interest. Here it is not infrequent to see three or four tomatoes, as many onions, and a little piece of garlic arranged together on a barrel head. The sale of two or three such lots constitutes a day's business, for the needs of the people are small. The natives walk from the surrounding country to the city, bringing the fruit in baskets or trays balanced on their heads. The sapodilla is one of the cheapest and most abundant of fruits. The tree is very handsome with its glossy foliage, and freely bears a chocolate-colored fruit about the shape of a peach and as variable in size. These are usually sold for a few cents, often being placed in small lots upon the ground or sidewalk. Any one wishing to buy a bushel of them, or, in fact, any other fruit, must visit half a dozen places in order to secure the quantity desired. Unripe cocoanuts are highly in favor. After the fluid with which the nut is filled has been drunk, the albumin or jellylike substance is eaten with a spoon. Hence the term "jelly cocoanut." These can not be procured from the tall trees, as the method of gathering the ripe fruit would break those that are unripe. Boys climb the tall, straight trunks and

PSM V52 D801 A street in nassau.jpg
A Street in Nassau.

throw down the ripe fruit, which does not crack, or it is sometimes allowed to remain until it drops of itself. It is usual to pay the boys by giving them two out of every dozen. Sweet potatoes and yams are used extensively for food, and both are said to contain more nutriment than the common potato. The sugar cane, from eight to ten feet in length, is often seen in the market. A native referring to it will say that he has had a "long breakfast." Bananas, plantains, and oranges are among the most abundant fruits. The banana and plantain were formerly considered as distinct species, but now the plantain is regarded as a variety of the banana (Musa sapientum). The name of the plantain (Musa paradisiaca) originated with the Christians in the East, as they thought it to be the forbidden fruit of paradise. The plantain is cooked and eaten as a vegetable, but is not exported to any extent. It is said to be "to the inhabitants of the torrid zone what bread and potatoes are to those

PSM V52 D802 Buying sweet potatoes.jpg
Buying Sweet Potatoes.

of the north temperate zone," for a pound of plantains contains more nutriment than three pounds of meat.[1] It is also the most prolific of all food plants known. Humboldt, the German naturalist, calculated that thirty-three pounds of wheat and ninety-eight pounds of potatoes require for their growth the same space of ground as will produce four thousand pounds of bananas. Such a striking statement would seem to need verification, yet the yield is undoubtedly very great. The banana plant rises from fifteen to twenty feet in height, terminated by a tuft of enormous light-green leaves six to ten feet long, which are at first undivided, but are gradually split up by the wind. From the center issues a stalk bearing the fruit, which gradually turns upward, while the stalk itself continues to grow down, and this end is termed the "banana bob." As we are accustomed to seeing the bunches in shop windows or in the markets, they are suspended in the direction opposite to that from which they grow. The orange, one of the most important of all fruits, and its allied species, lime, lemon, called there "sour," grape fruit, and shaddock, grow abundantly on the islands. The orange tree is the hardiest member of the citrus family, and is raised farther north than most fruits that grow in the tropics. There is a variety known as the sour orange, some plants of which have become wild, and are known as bitter-sweets. They are very juicy, and have a slight acid flavor. We bought fruit of a greenish color, which did not look ripe, and certainly did not taste as agreeable as the rich golden kind we are accustomed to. It is a mistake to say that oranges are no longer raised from seeds, for that is the customary method of propagation throughout the West Indies. The cultivation of the pineapple is one of the industries of the Bahamas, but they are not grown to any extent on the island of New Providence. The decomposed coral rock of these islands is a favorable soil for their cultivation. They grow singly upon plants which attain an average height of about a foot and a half, and have long, narrow leaves with sharp, serrated edges. Consequently, the men, women, and children working among them are obliged to protect their legs with strong canvas leggings, and their hands with heavy gloves, to which gauntlets are attached. We bought soursops, custard apples, and star apples in the market. Many other fruits that grow on this island were not ripe at the time we were there. They include watermelon, pumpkin, alligator or avocado pear, guava, groundnut or peanut, papaw, seaside grape, cocoa plum, cucumber, rose apple, breadfruit, egg plant, cashew nut, and mammee. Owing to the rapid ripening and decay of these fruits after being picked, it is almost impossible to export them with success. Pineapples, oranges, bananas, and cocoanuts are the principal fruits that are exported; the two latter, with plantains, can be obtained throughout the year. Most of the fruits grow spontaneously, but the breadfruit has been introduced. In 1787 the English Government sent the bark Bounty, commanded by Captain Bligh, to take young trees of the breadfruit from Otaheite to the West India Islands. Owing to the mutiny of the crew, the transfer of the trees was not accomplished till several years later.

One of the first questions we would ask our guide and driver when we saw a new fruit was, "Is it good to eat?" On one occasion, referring to the sailor's apple, he said, "If yer eat it, it'll do yer up"; of another he said, "It'll put yer in yer grave." The seaside grape, sailor's apple, and many other trees and shrubs that grow in barren or exposed places have their leaves standing vertically, so that less surface is exposed to the direct rays of the sun. The result is that such trees give but little shade, as the light is not interrupted in its passage to so great an extent as it is by the leaves of ordinary

Family represented in a village scene
Native Twins.

trees. In situations where it is necessary for plants to economize their water supply and prevent undue evaporation, they adapt themselves in various ways for this purpose. Some grow thick, leathery leaves; others have a waxlike or hairy coating; and still others, like the cacti, have thick, succulent stems in the place of leaves. Many of our own desert or seashore plants have adopted one or more of these methods.

The soil, though thin, is fertile, but there are no streams of running water on any of the Bahama Islands except that of Andros. The streets of Nassau and the roads of the surrounding country consist of the coralline rock which underlies the soil. They are white and dazzling, and are kept in repair by the Government. The work is done usually by the prisoners, dressed in prison garb of blue and white striped cotton. The coralline rock is porous and looks not unlike the result of volcanic action. In some places the rocky ground is honeycombed with holes three to ten feet deep, called "potholes," in which bananas, especially, like to grow. On the deep-sides of one hole we saw a luxuriant growth of delicate ferns.

We found the natives very much afraid of a camera, believing that it was the Evil Eye fixed upon them, so that many a good opportunity for a snap shot was lost by the sudden hiding or covering of the face of the picturesque negro. Sometimes they could be persuaded for a penny or two to grant one's request to "wait a minute." In some cases, discovering that they had been "took," they would ask for a penny indemnity. One day, just as I was about to photograph two little children, the angry mother appeared, severely scolding because some one had not bargained for a penny. The small children are scantily clad with a single garment, while the women wear white calico dresses, white aprons, and bright-colored plaid handkerchiefs tied around their heads under straw hats. They may or may not be barefooted. The homes of these people are picturesque, especially in the village of Grantstown, where the little huts, often thatched with palmettos, nestle among luxuriant tropical gardens, and the cocoanut palms wave above bananas, oleanders, datura, and sapodilla trees. The houses have no glass in the windows, but instead have shutters with bars, which are the only means

PSM V52 D805 Native huts grantstown.jpg
Native Hut, Grantstown.

of closing the windows. There are never chimneys, for the cooking is all done out of doors, a black pot, with legs suspended over a fire of fagots, serving for general use. Men, women, and children speak to travelers, and expect a word of recognition in return. When we had taken our last drive, my companion gave our driver a small fee, saying that it was because he was such a good botanist, for he really had been able to tell us the popular names of many plants. He laughed, and as he seemed so much pleased, I said, "James, I suppose you know what botanist means?" "Yes," he answered, "I 'spose it's some kind of a good boy."


  1. Text-book of Tropical Agriculture. By H. A. Alford Nicholls.