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Great Stirrup Cay History

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Brief Synopsis

Long an outpost for the Arawak peoples, the Bahamas were discovered by Columbus on his initial voyage to the New World in 1492.

The Bahamas held little of interest to the Spanish other than the Lucayans. In later years, when the Spanish exploitation of the labor of the Hispaniolan people rapidly reduced that population, they returned to the Bahamas to capture the Lucayans for use as laborers in Hispaniola. It is estimated that the Spanish captured over 40,000 Lucayans over a 20 year period, leaving the Bahamas unpopulated.

Emigrants from Bermuda made their way to the Bahamas in 1648, but their colonies were far from self-sustaining. Only a handful of settlers remained in a few outposts by 1670. The early settlers continued to live much as they had in Bermuda, fishing, taking turtles, whales and seals, finding ambergris, making salt on the drier islands, cutting the abundant hardwoods of the islands for lumber, dyewood and medicinal bark, and wrecking, or salvaging wrecks.

The Bahamas' Pirate Era extended from 1684 to 1718, when the settlers relied on pirates and privateers for protection. During this period, conflicts between the Spanish and the settlers were fairly constant, and the settlements on New Providence and other islands were repeatedly sacked and burned by the Spanish and their allies.

Following the American War of Independence, the Bahamas attracted American Loyalists, who came to farm and do business in the islands. A plantation was created on Great Stirrup Cay, the remains of which can still be found in the jungle areas. Following the abolition of slavery in 1838, the plantation was abandoned.

A lighthouse was erected on Great Stirrup Cay in 1863; in the earlier days, the facility was manned, but today it is now timed and solar powered, making it self-sufficient. The structure stands nearly 80 feet tall, and its light is visible for over 20 miles.

During World War II, the Bahamas became a base for flight training and antisubmarine operations for the Allies. In the channel near Great Stirrup Cay, submersible cables were run along the ocean floor to listen for enemy submarines. Two "cable houses" still stand on the southeastern shore of the island, but are today overgrown by jungle.

Bahamians achieved self-government in 1964 and full independence within the Commonwealth of Nations on July 10, 1973.

In the 1960s, the United States Air Force constructed a satellite tracking station on Great Stirrup Cay, which is on the path en route to the lighthouse. This facility was later leased to Motorola and other private sector companies. New technology has made the station obsolete, and it was closed in 1991.

In 1977, NCL purchased the northern section of Great Stirrup Cay and began improvements to create a fun "out island experience" for its passengers. Through the years, NCL has made significant improvements to the island's infrastructure, making it one of the most enjoyable ports for its passengers.

Lighthouse on Great Stirrup Cay

Pre-Columbian Bahamas

The original inhabitants of the Bahamas were the Lucayans, a branch of the Arawakan-speaking Taino people. It is believed that they arrived on the islands circa 500 to 800 AD from Hispaniola and Cuba, sailing in dugout canoes.

The Lucayans were a forest people who lived in theocratic kingdoms, with a hierarchically arranged pantheon of gods, called zemis, and village chiefs, or caciques. The zemis were represented by icons of wood, stone, bones and human remains. Arawaks believed that being in the good graces of their zemis protected them from disease, hurricanes or disaster in war.

The Arawaks--who were light brown, generally short with coarse black hair, with broad faces and flat noses--painted their bodies in bright colors, and some wore small ornaments of gold and shells. Body-painting was common, mostly employed to intimidate opponents in warfare.

They lived in small villages in huts constructed of wooden frames topped by straw, and featured earthen floors. The buildings were strong enough to resist hurricanes.

Their diet consisted of manioc, maize, potatoes, peanuts, peppers, beans, and arrowroot that they cultivated twice each year. In addition, they hunted ducks, geese, parrots, iguanas, small rodents and giant tree sloths. Most fishing, done by hand along the coast and in rivers, was for mollusks, lobsters and turtles. Bigger fish were caught with baskets, spears, hooks and nets.

At the time of the arrival of Columbus, it is estimated that as many as 40,000 Lucayans natives lived in the Bahamas.

Arawak woman

Spanish Discovery and Administration

On his first voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus left Palos de la Frontera, Spain, on August 3, 1492 to discover a direct route to Asia. His fleet consisted of flotilla three ships--the Santa Maria (Columbus's flagship), the Nina and the Pinta.

Legend has it that at 2:00 am on October 12, 1492, Rodrigo de Triana, a lookout on the Pinta, sited a fire burning in the distance, and shortly thereafter the three ships made way for the light. Columbus put ashore on the island, which he christened “San Salvador” (however, which island this island actually corresponds to in today’s Bahamas is unclear). According to Columbus’s ship’s log, the indigenous Lucayan people he encountered on San Salvador Island were peaceful and friendly.

The Bahamian islands that Columbus encountered were heavily forested with hardwood trees, but the islands contained no gold. In fact, the only resource in the Bahamas that was prized by the Spanish ultimately proved to be the native Lucayan population itself.

In the early years of the 16th century, the island of Hispaniola was the most important Spanish possession in the New World. However, the Spanish exploitation of the Hispaniolan people rapidly reduced that population through both labor and disease. To replenish the labor pool, the Spanish returned to the Bahamas to dragoon the Lucayans, shipping them off to Hispaniola, where they were enslaved.

Some historians have estimated that the Spanish captured over 40,000 Lucayans over a 20 year period, completely depopulating the Bahamian islands. In fact, a Spanish expedition that sailed from Hispaniola to the Bahamas in 1520 could find only eleven Lucayans in all of the Bahamas. Thereafter, the Bahamas remained uninhabited for 130 years.

With neither resources nor a population, the Bahamas were effectively abandoned by the Spanish; however, they did not formally relinquish their claims to the territory until the Treaty of Versailles, in 1783.

Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus

Early English Settlement

The Company Colony of Bermuda was established in 1612, and became a destination for many during the latter part of the Age of Discover. Due to the limited land area on the island, however, Bermuda was subject to chronic overcrowding, unable to support a growing population through agricultural pursuits. Emigration from the island became a regular feature of life.

So it was that in 1648, a group of 70 puritans and republicans from Bermuda called "The Company of Adventurers for the Plantation of the Islands of Eleuthera" sailed to the Bahamas to found a colony. Seeking religious and political freedom, as well as land that would provide greater economic opportunity, the group was led by the puritan Captain William Sayle.

The new Eleuthera colony got off to a bad start, as the William, the larger of the company's two ships, ran aground on a reef, and all of the ship's provisions were lost. Facing poor soil conditions and squabbling between the settlers, the colony never really prospered. Dissatisfaction with the venture led to many of the original settlers returning to Bermuda during the mid-1650s. In 1670, only 20 families were recorded as living on Eleuthera.

During the later half of the 17th century, emigration from Bermuda continued apace. So it was that in 1666 the first Bermudan settlers arrived on New Providence Island (the site of today's Nassau). With a natural harbor and better land conditions than that found in Eleuthera, New Providence Island could support a larger population and slightly more diverse economy. Contemporary records indicated that almost 500 people lived on the island in 1670. The economy centered on farming and taking from the sea, as the Bermudans proved adept at salvaging shipwrecks, making salt on some of the smaller cays, and fishing.

Wrecking (primarily Spanish ships) became an extremely lucrative occupation in the Bahamas, as the islands were on the periphery of the trade routes between Europe and the Caribbean, and the islands' reefs proved to be fatal to a growing number of Spanish barks. The English government recognized the economic and strategic importance of this activity, and proceeded to assert its authority over the islands.

In 1670, King George II granted a patent (or ownership deed) to the Proprietors of Carolina--a group of English noblemen that included the Earl of Clarendon, the Duke of Albemarle, Lord Craven, Lord Berkeley, Lord Ashley, Sir George Carteret, Sir William Berkeley and Sir John Colleton. Earlier, in 1663, the Proprietors of Carolina had been given a land grant that stretched from northern Florida to North Carolina, and west to Louisiana and Arkansas, so ceding authority over the Bahamas to the Proprietors seemed appropriate. But while the Proprietors sent a succession of governors to establish English Law in the Bahamas, this assertion of English authority was resented by the independent-minded residents of New Providence.

Lord Ashley

Lord Ashley

The Pirate Era in the Bahamas

Impatient with the situation, the Spanish naturally wanted in on the salvaging of their own wrecks, but the Bahamian salvers proved their mettle. Driving the Spanish away from their wrecked ships, attacking Spanish wreckers directly and seizing salvaged goods were just a few of the tactics used by the Bahamian wreckers. Many of the Bahamian wreckers were in fact privateers, whose activities took place under marque of the then-governor Robert Clark. Technically, this was illegal, as England and Spain were at peace. But no matter…

The Spanish crown retaliated by raiding the Bahamian outposts. In 1684, Spanish Captain Juan de Alarcon sacked and burned the settlements on New Providence and Eleuthera. Many of the New Providence settlers, numbering around 1,000, were taken prisoner and shipped off to Havana, while those who escaped found their way to Jamaica. Thus for two years the Bahamas was once again depopulated. New Providence was reestablished in 1686 by settlers from Jamaica, and in 1694 the old capital of Charles Town was renamed Nassau.

With the 1697 signing of the Treaty of Ryswick--thus ending the Nine Years War involving Britain and France--many of the privateers became pirates, and Nassau became their home port. The presence of the pirates was officially forbidden, yet the governors appointed by the Proprietors were said to be accepting--and even sometimes in collusion--with the pirate forces. War once again broke out in 1701 between England and an alliance of France and Spain. Combined French-Spanish fleets attacked and sacked Nassau in 1703 and in 1706. These attacks proved pivotal, as they led to the Proprietors ceding their claim to the Bahamas, and their governor withdrew.

But with war, the English pirates once again became privateers. Somewhat predictably, they came to fill the void in a lawless Nassau. This so-called "Privateers' Republic" lasted for seven years, from 1707 to 1714, after which it became a "Pirates' Republic" for an additional four years. During this period, the privateers' ships attacked French and Spanish ships in and around the Bahamas, and the French and Spanish forces reciprocated by burning Nassau several times. The War of the Spanish Succession ended in 1714, undermining the authority of the privateers. The privateers once again became pirates, ushering in the Golden Age of Piracy.

It's important to recognize how powerful the pirates were. In 1713, the permanent settlers in the Bahamas were outnumbered by the pirates by five to one. Of the more than 20 pirate captains who used Nassau and other places in the Bahamas as a home port, Henry Jennings, Edward Teach (Blackbeard), Benjamin Hornigold and Stede Bonnet were the most famous.

The "Pirates' Republic" came to an end in 1718 when Woodes Rogers, the first Royal Governor of the Bahamas, reached Nassau with a small fleet of warships. He quickly assumed control over the capital city and its harbor. It's interesting to note that the first fort to be built in Nassau was Fort Montagu, constructed in 1741--a full 23 years after the establishment of English Royal authority in the Bahamas.


Edward Teach (Blackbeard)

Loyalist Emigration to the Bahamas

On May 6, 1782, the Bahamas fell to Spanish forces under the command of General Bernardo de Galvez. (Interestingly, Galvez was angry that the operation had proceeded without his permission, and arranged for Juan de Cagigal, the commander of the expedition, to be imprisoned.) This situation proved to be intolerable to the crown, and a British-American loyalist expedition later recaptured the islands. In 1783, Spain formally relinquished its claims to the territory under the Treaty of Versailles.

Shortly thereafter saw the construction of Fort Charlotte (built between 1787 and 1789) and Fort Fincastle (built in 1793) to defend against future attacks. In recognition of their assistance to the crown in defeating Galvez’s forces, the American Loyalists were issued land grants by the British. Unfortunately for the new settlers, the soil was unsuited to large-scale cotton cultivation, and the plantations eventually failed.

This period of aborted agricultural development witnessed the importation of slaves into the Bahamas to work on the Loyalist plantations. Other workers included liberated Africans set free by the British navy, following the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807. Plantation life ended with the British emancipation of slaves on August 1, 1834. Like the slaves in many of the British possessions in the Caribbean, the Bahamian slaves remained bound to their former owners' service until 1838, under what was called the "Apprenticeship System."

The Bahamas prospered as a base for Confederate blockade-running during the American Civil War. Nassau saw a tidy entrepot trade develop, bringing in cotton for the mills of England and running out arms and munitions.

General Galvez

Gen. Bernardo de Galvez

The Bahamas in the 20th Century

During the Prohibition era, from 1920 to 1933, the islands were a base for American rum-runners, smuggling gin, whiskey and rum into the US. The Bahamas proved to be a particularly good base of operation for the rum-runners, due to the proximity to Florida and the large number of islands from which to operate.

During World War II, the Allies based their flight training and antisubmarine operations for the Caribbean in the Bahamas. Anti-submarine cables were strung in the ocean near New Providence Island, thus resulting in the eponymous Cable Beach.

For 20 years following the conclusion of the Second World War, the Bahamas saw rapid growth in its tourism, trade and banking sectors. The wartime airfield became Nassau's international airport in 1957, making Nassau a short flight from Miami. Hotels and resorts were built on Hog Island (now mercifully renamed Paradise Island) and Cable Beach. These twin developments in turn helped spur the growth of mass tourism, which accelerated after Cuba was closed to American tourists in 1961. On the island of Grand Bahama, Freeport was established as a free trade zone in the 1950s, and soon became the country's second largest city. And a successful offshore banking industry developed during this period, based on the predicates of English law, bank secrecy and the absence of corporate income taxes.

Bahamians achieved self-government in 1964 and full independence within the Commonwealth of Nations on July 10, 1973. The country's first prime minister was Lynden O. Pindling, leader of the Progressive Liberal Party. Pindling ruled for nearly 20 years, during which the Bahamas benefited from tourism and foreign investment.

Just as the rum-runners prospered from basing their operations in the Bahamas in the 1920s, cocaine smugglers turned the islands into a major center for the Colombian drug trade in the early 1980s. The US Drug Enforcement Administration estimated that during this era, 90% of all the cocaine entering the United States reportedly passed through the Bahamas.

In September 2004, Hurricane Frances swept through the Bahamas, leaving a swath of widespread damage in its wake. Adding insult to injury, just three weeks later, Hurricane Jeanne flattened the islands. Jeanne uprooted trees, blew out windows, and sent seawater flooding through neighborhoods on the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama. Receding floodwaters left boats tossed on roads and homes battered.

Hurricane Frances

Hurricane Frances

The Development of Great Stirrup Cay

Located about 55 miles north of Nassau, Great Stirrup Cay is one of the 30 islands and more than 100 smaller islands that make up the Berry Islands chain. With its relative proximity to Nassau, it is speculated that Great Stirrup Cay was used by pirates during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The year 1815 marked the beginning of any real history of the island. Charts of the era identify the island as “Stirrup’s Cay,” more than likely meaning that the island was named for its proprietor, a man surnamed Stirrup. Remnants of the plantation that Stirrup built include the white house at the top of the hill (which reportedly was used as the plantation house) and ruins of stone walls that were built to contain animals and to mark the boundaries for sugar cane fields.

It is unclear exactly when Stirrup’s plantation was abandoned. Any number of events could have befallen the island, including a hurricane, disease, or a slave insurrection. In any event, from the 1830s into the early years of 20th century, Great Stirrup Cay was host to a number of adventurers who tried to make a go of it on the island. Captain Allan Bertram, formerly of the British Navy, was one such resident. The most well known of these settlers during this period, he died of fever in 1834 at the age of 44. His grave rests just in front of the flagpole near Great Stirrup Cay’s main beach. Another adventurer imported coconuts in a failed attempt to market the fruit for the manufacture of palm oil and soap. Although coconut palms can be found throughout the island, these trees are not a native species in the Bahamas.

Evidence suggests that the island saw some naval activity during the American Civil War, as coral encrusted cannon balls have been found in the island’s waters. Perhaps the island was used for provisioning or the transshipment of goods, such as cotton being exported to Britain by the Confederates, and arms and munitions being shipped by the British to the Confederate states. Union warships based in Key West patrolled this area so as to contravene this activity

As sailing vessels gave way to steamships in the middle of the 19th century, shipping traffic increased through Berry Island chain. The Imperial Lighthouse Service erected the lighthouse on Great Stirrup Cay in 1863 to aid in the navigation of ships through the many low lying cays. The construction of the lighthouse proved to be controversial, as the local salvers wanted a steady supply of ships to plunder. The 80-foot tall lighthouse was manually operated for over 100 years; today it is timed and powered by solar panels.

During World War II, the United States constructed a number of observational facilities on Great Stirrup Cay. Submersible cables were strung along the ocean floor to listen for enemy submarines. Two "cable houses" still stand on the southeastern shore of the island, although the jungle has reclaimed the structures.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the United States Air Force built several facilities on the island, including a satellite tracking station. By the late 1980s, it was declared obsolete, and the facility was closed in 1991. Today, all that remains is the "Great Stirrup Cay International Airport," which is in reality a helipad used now only for medical evacuations.

Miami-based Belcher Oil Company purchased the island in the 1960s. Norwegian Caribbean Lines (the former name of today's Norwegian Cruise Line) bought a portion of the island from Belcher in 1977, and immediately began to develop the infrastructure to support a day resort on the island. NCL was one of the first cruise lines to offer an "out island experience" for its passengers.

Further improvements were made to the island in 1988-89, including the construction of four new buildings: the main bar and deck, a bar and water sports hut on the west beach, another bar at the main beach, and the Dive In Center. In addition, a seawall was built to help reduce beach erosion.

Beginning in January 2010, NCL embarked on a 2-year, $25 million construction program to make several enhancements to the island. The program's first phase, concluded in 2010, included the construction of a new marina basin featuring four docks for the island's tenders, and a new 8,500 square foot dining facility, complete with two bars and four picnic pavilions. The second phase involves the creation of expanded beach areas, the installation of a private cabana area and a new straw market.

Satellite Dish

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