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By Jim Kerr
Of all the colorful historic periods of economic endeavor that transformed Green Turtle Cay and its inhabitants, one of the sweetest of all is perhaps least remembered. Unlike wrecking, sponging, shark fishing and craw fishing, it came and went like a foreign wind that, while it brought good fortune, left few remnants and even fewer memories among locals.
The product was the pineapple, a fruit with sharp, pointy leaves and prickly exterior with a sweet center that originated in Brazil and Paraguay and made its way to the Caribbean, where it was discovered by Columbus and carried back to Europe. If you order a pina colada today at Pineapples Bar in Green Turtle, or a pineapple-topped pizza in Marsh Harbour, chances are the juice in your drink and the fruit on your pie came from a pineapple grown in Costa Rica or the Philippines. But back in the late 19th century, pineapples were not only grown in abundance on numerous farms on Abaco and Eleuthera in the Bahamas, but were profitably canned and shipped to the U.S. and Mother England.
While pineapples were introduced to Eleuthera in the 1850s and commercially grown and canned there until the early 1990s, Green Turtle’s lesser-documented pineapple era also spans more than 30 years from the late 1860s to around 1900. Records obtained by Green Turtle Cay artist and historian Alton Lowe indicate that 6,000 dozen pineapples were shipped to New York from Abaco aboard the American schooner Charlotte Brown that left New Plymouth on October 26, 1870. By then, the industrious inhabitants of the cay, who numbered almost 1,200 at the time, had become the basis of a labor pool for a canning and shipping operation which effectively cut hundreds of sailing miles from the established Nassau and Eleuthera trade routes to New York and London.
Munroe and Company out of Baltimore, Maryland built the plant, which lay along the east side of what is today Black Sound. And while the operation is little more than a faded blip in Green Turtle’s past, recent discoveries by archaeologists indicate that the scope of the factory and technology employed played a significant role in the lives and fortunes of many who once lived and worked here. In December, 2008, Bob Carr and two other researchers from the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy in Florida began excavating property now belonging to real estate developer Doug Poland. A Green Turtle Cay resident himself, Poland was aware that the site of his new seven-acre Leeward Yacht Club marina and subdivision was once the site of the pineapple factory.
“This is an important discovery from what was once a leading industry in the Bahamas,” said Carr, whose company operated under an antiquity permit authorized by the National Museum of the Bahamas. “These are well-preserved features that can help tell us about the details of economic life in 19th century Abaco. Many sites have been destroyed over the years as the result of growth and Doug was interested enough to get involved.” Both the foundation and fragments of 19th century life abound on the site. A piece of a pipe stem, a broken handle from ceramic crockery, chards of formal dinnerware, broken bottles and other artifacts are scattered near what would have been the site of the factory manager’s house, attesting to the comfortable lifestyle of the family who lived here more than 200 years ago. Nearby are brick building foundations, wells, large, double-celled cisterns and the foundation of the plant’s processing boiler.
Raw pineapples, which take about 18 months to grow, were pared and the core was sliced and canned. Rain from the cisterns was mixed with sugar and ladled into the cans, which were made from sheets of imported tin. Heated rods from furnaces sealed the seams of the cans and the lids were soldered. The operation was similar to those on Eleuthera and in Nassau, and the process was described by Mrs. Frank Leslie, wife of the noted illustrator, who visited Nassau in the late 1800s
“Enormous caldrons, half full of madly boiling water, stand embedded in the floor (and) over each caldron there is tackle for lifting and lowering the iron vessel containing the cans,” she wrote. “When the vessel is filled, it is lowered into the boiling water where it remains until the air within each can become expanded – the space of four or five minutes. Then the cauldron is hoisted high and dry, and with a hole punched in the top of each can to permit the air to escape, this hole being instantly re-soldered, the cans are again lowered into the cauldron, where they remain until the fruit is completely cooked.”:
Although the canned product traveled much better to far-flung markets, fresh cut pineapple continued to be shipped until the early 1890s. Otis Roberts, who owned the house in New Plymouth that later became the Albert Lowe Museum, was paymaster for the pineapple cutters, and Adolphus Curry of Green Turtle Cay was an agent for the company who often sailed with the ships to markets in New York and Baltimore. In 1890, however, he left the job and moved his entire family to Key West, Florida after his daughter, Susan, decided to marry a man she had met there while visiting relatives. Adolphus’ great granddaughter, Ann Gardner, 79, who lives in the house in Key West where she was born, still has the letter that Adolphus wrote giving her grandmother permission to marry.
The pineapple industry on Green Turtle, meanwhile, had reached its peak. World demand for exotic fruit brought large profits, and buyer’s representatives from abroad descended on the cay. Green Turtle’s first hotel, the New Plymouth Hotel, was built to accommodate buyers, shippers and visitors, and in 1890 Munroe and Company recorded a record shipment of 3,272 cases to London. The two-story hotel was destroyed in the 1932 hurricane, but by then the flourishing pineapple industry was long over, at least in the Bahamas. Other far-flung entrepreneurs had jumped into the market, taking pineapple slips to Hawaii and other locales. In recent times, pineapple growing and canning has shifted to tropical climates in the Pacific and Central America.
Doug Poland, whose Leeward Yacht Club funded the archaeological project, is determined to preserve not only artifacts but the character of the site, which will feature Bahamian and Key West-style homes. “I’ve planted pineapples across the property to respect the history of this place, and will preserve some of the more interesting historic features so that residents and visitors will see some vestige of the island heritage,” he said.
The site includes two six-foot deep, double-celled cisterns, each measuring about 13 by 25 feet. Project archaeologists, whose laborious excavations turned up many of the artifacts, included Joe Mankowski and Ryan Franklin from the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy based in Florida. “All of these artifacts will help us understand daily life in the Bahamas,” says Carr. “Many of them will eventually be at the Albert Lowe Museum in New Plymouth.” A special showing of the finds so far was held on December 16, along with tours across the site.