(Posted by James Powell on behalf of Dr. Paul Backhouse, Museum Director and Tribal Historic Preservation Officer)

A Trip to the Red Bay Community on Andros Island

by Paul Backhouse

A couple of weeks ago I had an opportunity to visit the Red Bay community on Andros Island in the Bahamas and thought our blog readers might be interested in hearing more about it.  Departing early in the morning from the Big Cypress Reservation in a small aircraft and flying southeast of the Florida peninsular we soon glimpsed the surprisingly large land mass of Andros Island out of the plane windows. Andros Island was not like the other Bahamian islands I had previously travelled to and viewed from the air much of the more than 100 miles of coastline is largely undeveloped.

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Interior of Andros Island and the small airfield that serves the main Fresh Creek settlement.

We were soon on the ground and warmly welcomed by folks who had invited the Chairman of the Tribe, James Billie, to visit their island.  Our visit also happened to coincide with “Crab Fest” and we were received with full VIP treatment for the event.  The crustaceans in question were indeed formidable beasts, large land crabs that roam the island. We had spotted a particularly large one on route to the festival as he foraged for algae (their main diet) amongst the bushes.  At the festival a small enclosure allowed us to get a closer look at some specimens and the pincers certainly were impressive!

photo
Large land crab in the enclosure at the Fresh Creek Crab Fest.

We were not at the festival long before we were on the road bumping our way up the Queen’s Highway to the Red Bay settlement on the northwest tip of the island.  The drive was long and for me most enjoyable as were driving on the correct side of the road (the left!).  Our observation from the air had been correct and we barely saw any other houses until we reached the small settlement of Red Bay.  This community was the primary reason for our trip.  The people living in this area are largely descendants of indigenous and ‘Black Seminole’ communities that had escaped Florida in 1821 shortly after Spain ceded Florida to the US.  As we bounced down the road I tried to imagine the struggle that these people had been through to reach Andros Island and the hardships that they had endured.    

Once we reached the Red Bay settlement it became almost immediately obvious that the community had distinct cultural origins.  Palmetto leaves were hanging outside a small wooden house as we pulled up.  We were warmly welcomed into the house and introduced to the residents – Reverend Bertram A. Newton and his wife Rose Newton.

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Palmetto fronds hang drying in preparation for use in traditional basketry still practiced in the Red Bay community.

Reverend Newton was a tremendously kind individual and I felt privileged to witness him and his wife meeting the Chairman of the Seminole Tribe.  Rose was busy making a basket in her living room, weaving palmetto leaves together without use of any additional materials to make beautiful baskets.  During the visit I was struck by the heat within the wooden framed housing.  No air conditioners and only limited breezes from the doors and windows that were wide open.

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Chairman James Billie meets Reverend Newton at his home in Red Bay.

A little further up the road we came across a compound of houses that rose had directed us to in order to purchase one of her beautiful baskets.  We were interested to see the compound was arranged so that a cooking area was set-aside in a separate structure and a palmetto ‘camp’ structure was also still being used.

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Thatched ‘camp’ structure at the Red Bay settlement.

At this camp we purchased basketry that had been crafted by Rose and also her sister Eva.  I selected a rather handsome basket that was crafted by Eva and this will be added to our collection back at the museum shortly.  We hope you will get the opportunity to visit and see the basket yourself and as for me I will never forget my visit to the Red Bay community.

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