November 24, 1999


UC Berkeley Archaeologist Fights To Preserve A Unique Bahamian Slave Plantation From Developer's Plow

UC News Service

Berkeley, November 20 -- A remarkable archaeological settlement on 600 acres of prime beachfront property on the Bahamian island of New Providence has withstood 1,000 years of hurricanes.

But it may not survive a bulldozer that threatens to turn the property, called the Clifton Plantation, into an upscale, gated community with a marina.

At risk are the remains of 18th and 19th century slave villages and two 10th century settlements of the Lucayan people, the first Native Americans to greet Columbus in the New World, according to a report today by Laurie Wilkie, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.

"This is a treasure of international significance, and it is living in the shadow of destruction," Wilkie told colleagues attending in Chicago the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association.

Wilkie and her husband, Paul Farnsworth, professor of geography and anthropology at Louisiana State University, have been racing to excavate, if not preserve, the site before the property is sold for development.

Last summer, the team found a new Lucayan settlement, one of three on New Providence that remain to mark the existence of the Native Americans who were enslaved by the Spanish soon after Columbus' arrival. All traces of the Lucayan group had vanished from the Bahamas by 1509, 17 years after Columbus landed.

"We should reflect upon these people," said Wilkie. "They show us how quickly political conquest can change the world."

Several hundred yards from these prehistoric settlements, strung out on a ridge above the beach, are the ruins of the Clifton Plantation where William Wylly, attorney general of the Bahamas in the early 19th century, maintained 67 slaves.

Known as a "liberal" slave-holder of the day, Wylly granted his people an unusual degree of freedom. They were taught to read and write and were encouraged to work their own land, selling their excess produce at market for a profit.

Wylly did not, however, grant his slaves real freedom. Only seven slaves were freed in the 20 years he maintained a plantation at Clifton, said Wilkie.

"He was a reformer, not an abolitionist," she said.

Wilkie noted that the historic records on Wylly's Clifton are extraordinarily complete, compared to other plantations of the time, even including several lists of the names of enslaved people. The land was used, in historic times, from the mid-1700s through at least the 1960s by plantation residents and their descendants.

Bahamian researchers recently have discovered, for instance, that an earlier plantation, in the mid 1700s, had been owned by a "free woman of color," a widow who inherited the plantation and kept her own slaves.

"This is an incredible microcosm of Caribbean history in one 600-acre parcel of land. We have almost continuous occupation from 900 AD to 1960, except for 200 years after Columbus," said Wilkie.

But if the archaeology of Clifton is complex and laden with meaning, so is the modern-day fight over the property. On one side are developers, the Clifton Cay Development Co., a multi-national firm with ties, according to Bahamian sources, to real estate and financial firms in San Francisco and Switzerland, said WIlkie.

She added that the developers have the support of the Bahamian Prime Minister, Hubert Ingram, in their plans to build an elite settlement, with values that start at $750,000, just for the lot. New marina channels would be cut through the property so that residents could park their boats near their houses. At the same time, she said, the developers pledge that they would preserve the archaeological structures to give the elite community "ambiance."

On the other side is the Coalition to Save Clifton Pier, the property's local name. This grassroots Bahamian group has been holding rallies and marches aimed at stopping the sale to developers. Its cause is backed by a descendant of the slave community, named Vivian Matthew Wylly, who has filed legal claim to ownership of the land. Wylly wants to create a national park on the site and claims to have raised $20 million from private sources to bring that about, said Wilkie.

Meanwhile, other groups have jumped into the fray, including a group of divers and fishermen who claim "unfettered" right of access to the area, the Miami Herald reported in June. Several different parties claim ownership of the land and have challenged the right of the Bahamian government to sell it.

While the outcome of this struggle is still unclear, Wil-kie hopes to preserve the history of Clifton Plantation for the native Bahamians, no matter who gets the property.

"Part of the reason for doing this research is so that Bahamians have access to information about their past," she said. "We need to listen to the voices of the people who lived their lives, worked and raised their families at Clifton, before they are silenced forever."

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