From Innocent Paradise to Helpless Devastation: the Bahamian Struggle in the Wake of Hurricane Dorian

The Bahamas is currently mired in a rather hapless state of desolation following the ravages of Hurricane Dorian. As is often the case in these situations, international attention has quickly passed on to other issues and the Caribbean nation is left fighting a forlorn battle of reconstruction.

The images of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Dorian speak for themselves

Having only achieved independence from Britain in 1973 after centuries of colonial rule and slavery, this is a setback one of a poor region’s more prosperous states could ill afford.

It can be very easy to draw a clear line between the pre-contact and post-contact histories of ‘New World’ states – in the main it is unavoidable – and suggest that this is where the good times ended and the bad began.

The Bahamas has the dubious honour of being the first ‘discovery’ that Christopher Columbus set foot on, when he triumphantly strode ashore one of its islands (the exact one is debated) on the 12th October 1492. His description of the initial encounter with the native peoples is typically naive:

They go as naked as when their mothers bore them…They are very well made with very handsome bodies, and very good countenances. Their hair is short and coarse, almost like the hairs of a horsetail. They wear the hairs brought down to the eyebrows except a few locks behind, which they wear long and never cut. They paint themselves black, and they are the color of the Canarians, neither black nor white…They neither care nor know anything of arms, for I showed them swords, and they took them by the blade and cut themselves through ignorance.

The infamous first landing of Christopher Columbus

Of course the people who are suffering in the wake of Dorian bear no resemblance to this ‘hairless’ race. 95% of Bahamian people are of African origin, descended from the slaves brought to the islands by the British in the 17th century.

The people Columbus encountered were Lucayans, a Taino sub-group. An estimated 40,000 of them inhabited The Bahamas at the time of the European arrival. A mixture of introduced disease and enslavement to work for pitiful quantities of gold on Hispaniola saw to their extinction.

The Lucayans greeted the Spaniards with a friendliness they’d soon regret – within a couple of generations they were wiped out

Columbus’ portrayal of an Age of Innocence did not stop with the people. He described the landscape thus:

Rather large and very flat, with bright green trees, much water, and a very large lake in the centre, without any mountain, and the whole land so green that it is a pleasure to look on it.

Such a tranquil and pleasant land is the last thing most Bahamians would recognise at the moment, but it has certainly been long sought after by colonists and holidaymakers alike, the pristine beaches and brackish lagoons helping to reinforce a notion of paradisaical calm.

For many, The Bahamas epitomises the idea of an earthly paradise

Another thing that has persisted from Columbus’ descriptions is the name; “baja mar” translating as shallow sea in Spanish.

With as many as 2,500 people still unaccounted for after Hurricane Dorian, the Bahamian government could be excused for not giving much thought to history. The international community, and the USA in particular, on the other hand, should be more mindful of the significance of this land.

Modern American history as we know it dates to Columbus’ first landing in October 1492, and a great play is often made about the ‘origins’ of  modern American people. Naturally this overlooks the first people to actually inhabit these shores and the mark they have left on humanity.

But if the Columbian adventure means so much to people then it should be reflected in the present, in the land where it all began, and that necessitates providing as much material support to The Bahamas in its time of need as is possible. No conditions, no bureaucratic red tape. Just unfettered aid.

To return Columbus’ mirage of an innocent and idyllic paradise and, more importantly, ensure a future for the Bahamian people, will require far more than the generous donations of individuals and the tireless efforts of NGOs. Just ask Puerto Rico.

The amount of money America directs The Bahamas’ way could be dictated by geopolitical strategy. There are fears China will send billions of dollars Nassau’s way in exchange for greater influence in the region
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Two Fools and the Delusions of their Time: the tragic promise of Greenland

Greenland rarely stirs the imagination. As the song goes:

Greenland is a barren land

A land that bares no green

Where there’s ice and snow and the whalefishes blow

And the daylight’s seldom seen.

Yet it is the world’s second largest island and one of increasing geopolitical importance as the Arctic threatens to become the next arena of great power competition.

The first English impressions we have of Greenland come from Sir Martin Frobisher’s three voyages between 1576 and 1578. Frobisher was sailing in search of a famed Northwest Passage, a purported shortcut between Europe and the riches of the Orient.

Frobisher’s voyages were a total failure in terms of their actual ambitions and the commander – though he has left no written record of his own – seems to have been rather deluded.

Sir Martin Frobisher: gentlemen, explorer, privateer

On his initial voyage in 1576, Frobisher convinced himself that he had found the Northwest Passage, though this turned out to be a large inlet that now bears his name as Frobisher Bay. He also became one of the first Europeans of his age to encounter the Inuit people, of whom he brought back to London a captured ‘specimen’. This poor person was subsequently toured around the noble courts before quickly dying in an alien land.

A second voyage in 1577 got Frobisher no further in his search for Asia but he was able to bring home vast quantities of ‘gold ore’, not to mention another Inuit splendidly depicted in the drawings of John White.

An Inuit wearing sealskin by John White

By this point Frobisher had become intrigued by the possibility of establishing a human plantation in this Meta Incognita, as he termed Greenland. If the primitive Inuit could survive then why not the civilised Europeans? His third voyage in 1578, therefore, set off with the intention of establishing a colony, in addition to mining more ‘gold’.

Of course, he failed again. The brutal Arctic conditions wreaked havoc with his ships, and repairs were almost impossible to make in the inhospitable climes, where dreams of a colony quickly dissipated. He returned disillusioned to live out his days as a privateer against the French. His ‘gold’ turned out to be Iron Pyrite. We now know it as Fool’s Gold.

Frobisher’s voyages would spur on the Greenland whale fisheries, lucrative hunting preferred to perilous colonisation

Almost 450 years later and a man of surely greater delusion than Frobisher has brought Greenland to people’s attention once more. For all that Frobisher misjudged his ‘discoveries’, he can be cut some slack given the limits of sixteenth century knowledge and technology. Donald Trump, on the other hand, does not benefit from such excuses.

His suggestion that he could purchase Greenland was thought at first to be a joke. However ridiculous some of the President’s suggestions, this one seemed to stretch credulity. After all, Greenland belongs to Denmark and has a proud indigenous population of its own who would probably be keen to have a say over their futures.

Alas, President Trump was not joking, and he even responded to Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen’s denouncement of his proposal by throwing a customary tantrum. He cancelled a plan trip to Copenhagen and began to insult Denmark via Twitter.

Ironically, Trump’s interest in Greenland is not wholly dissimilar to what motivated Frobisher in the late 1500s. The largely unexplored territory is thought to be resource-rich, potentially hosting vast reserves of coal, zinc, copper and iron ore.

As ice melts due to a changing climate, there is also the possibility that a new Northwest Passage will open up in the region, improving America’s maritime access between continents.

What’s more, whilst it is unlikely that America would ever want to try and establish a civilian colony on Greenland, it would serve as a convenient military base at a time when Washington’s competitors, including Russia and China, are taking a keen interest in Arctic exploration.

Tragically forgotten amongst the political maelstrom caused by the President are the Greenlandic people. They have limited prospects on an island that relies on most of its income from Denmark, where rates of alcoholism and suicide are high, where autonomy is granted but impossible to put into practice.

As Frobisher’s Inuit captives soon died off when they were brought to England, the people of Greenland are today being threatened by an unforgiving geopolitical climate where their land is seen as little more than a commodity to be bargained with.

It seems that little has changed since that unintended and misconstrued first contact with the English privateer and President Trump would be wise, however unlikely, to leave Greenland be.