Journal of the Bahamas Historical Society, Volume 3 (October 1981)
THE HURRICANE OF 1866
THE BAHAMAS IN 1866
First settled over two hundred years before, the colony of the Bahamas had progressed little by 1850, and then in fits and starts rather than continuously. In 1866, it was working its way out of a depression which followed the prosperous years of the American Civil War. Blockade running, the act of slipping into the Union-guarded ports of the South in order to supply the Confederate States with the manufactured goods they neeeded, brought quick, easy money into the country. But the era, though great, was also short-lived, and in 1865, three years after the beginning of blockade running, the industry closed when the Confederation was defeated by the North. The colony suffered a sudden economic collapse.
In the Out Islands life was not much affected. The main sources of income there - - fishing, farming and wrecking - - continued as usual, the islanders living off the land and from the sea and suffering no greater hardship than they had before the boom. But on the island of New Providence, site of the capital, life was difficult. Workers who had migrated from the Islands to work in the city were unemployed; the warehouses, recently hurriedly erectd, and abandoned with the corping of the slump, were their homes. The townspeople, who could no longer be fully satisfied by the meagre harvests reaped by Nassauvian fishermen, were forced to pay high prices for food or live off that which they could grow. Starvation, although uncommon, was near.
Society was divided into two distinct categories, white and black, and was not united by the depression. The rich white Bahamians and the Colonial Settlers, who could afford the imports brought in by merchant ships, lived well; but the freed slaves, poor, and on the whole unemployed, were forced to survive on the produce from their small vegetable plots and the few chickens which lived there. The only money they earned came from the fruits they sold at market; and this depended on the seasons.
Nassau was divided geographically to suit the social categories. The freed slaves inhabited special 'coloured' settlements, the most important of which were Fox Hill, Headquarters (later to become Grant's Town), Carmichael and Adelaide. All of these communites were built "Over the Hill" - - the the hot flat "Valley" behind the ridge which ran the length of the island, upon which the town of Nassau was built. Much of this lowland area was swamp, buzzing with mosquitoes and prone to floods. Sheltered from the sea breezes by the ridge, it was hot, humid and still in the summer, and uncomfortable.
The Bahamas was not prepared for a disaster which would stir up the sea and flood the land, which would sink ships, wreck mansions and sweep away the flimsy shacks of the Valley. Nevertheless, the colony was visited by one. For in October 1866, a hurricane the likes of which had never been seen by Bahamians living then swept the archipelago.