First published in Telltales Magazine , March, 2001. Read, print for your friends, share it, but please don't publish it without written permission.


Gene Gruender
Austin.sailor at yahoo.com


Matriarch of Rum Cay

Nellie Symm Gruender


One thing I love about cruising is going to places that are not in the mainstream of travel, the out of the way, non-commercial side of the world. These are places you can only get to by boat or by taking a number of planes. The other thing I love is meeting people. We’ve met sailors from all over the world with uniquely diverse backgrounds. Some we’ll stay in contact with, and some will only be the vague memory of a boat name. (cruisers don’t have last names .. it’s always Gene , Nellie and Zach on Rainbow Chaser) I would soon realize that some wouldn’t even be a sailors.

Of all of the people I’ve met, the most fascinating fell under the last category. She is Deloris Wilson, the unofficial Matriarch of Rum Cay. Now, for those of you (like myself until a short while ago), who don’t have a clue where Rum Cay is, get the map out. It’s a must-see on the Bahamian cruising circuit. Located at 23 40’ N, 74 50’ W., it is considered one of the Bahamas “out Islands”, and a gorgeous one at that. Lying about 20 miles east of Cape Santa Maria, and 20 miles west of San Salvador, it is thought to have been one of Columbus’s stopping points on his way to find “the new world”. The island is 9 miles long and 5 miles wide with the greater portion of the island being uninhabited. In short, it’s a nature explorer’s paradise.

Despite all of its beauty, Rum has had some major interactions with hurricanes that have greatly affected the economy. Its original prosperity was in salt until the hurricanes in the early 1900’s destroyed the salt pans and ended that industry. As with most Bahamian islands there was a short and very unsuccessful attempt to raise crops, such as pineapple, on the mineral poor soil. The only resort on the island met an equally disastrous fate during hurricane Lily in 1996. Its skeleton on shore is a testament to what could have been without the interference of Mother Nature.

After the pineapple exporting died, cruisers have become the primary source of income. The numerous coral heads surrounding the island make it a little more challenging to get to than some islands, but it is well worth the effort! The sparkling white sand beaches, the excellent fishing, and the numerous snorkeling opportunities keep it high on the cruising list.

Now to the matriarch. On the day we arrived, we settled in, made sure the anchors were going to hold, and we headed for town. After the hustle and bustle of George Town, this was a town of a different nature. Port Nelson, Rum Cay, (the only town on the island) is presently the home to 52 people, with only 8 family names. This small number of people is all that are left from hundreds that lived here to work on the plantations After visiting the “Last Chance” convenience store for a real treat for a cruiser; candy bars, and cokes, we sat down on a brightly colored picnic table near the dock to look over this tiny village with sand streets and incredibly blue water. This could certainly pass for paradise!

As we sat there Zach suddenly decided he needed to use the bathroom, and with the boat a dinghy ride away, he headed for Kaye’s Bar and Restaurant, just down the road from “The Last Chance”, to ask permission to use the facilities. A few minutes later he returned and said “ the lady inside wants you to come in and sign the guest register.” As we entered, Mrs. Doloris Wilson, the proprietress, greeted us.

She handed us a well-worn book that had written tributes from the many cruisers who had dropped in before us . We added our signatures and a note to the list that we later learned she had been keeping for years. She then offered me a book to look at titled “Rum Cay - My Home” by .......Doloris Wilson.

For just a moment I was mentally transported back to my former life where in academic circles, to be “published” was a much-desired plateau. So, here I sat on a remote Bahamian Island with a tiny, intriguing , lady who had authored and published a book. Wouldn’t those academic scholars be surprised to learn it was written without a word processor in sight.

A gentle rain began to fall outside as I thumbed through the book. After inquiring if we had a little time, Mrs. Wilson wove the tale of her family roots on this tiny remote island. She began a narrative dotted with frequent laughter that took me back to the time of her great-grandfather Moses Nathanial Deveaux. He was a white Scotsman who fell in love with his black servant. The relationship in Scotland, needless to say, caused a stir and they headed out by sea to find a new home. They ended their voyage in the Bahamas on Cat Island. After building a home on Cat, Mr. Deveaux began exploring for new land where he and his wife could prosper. He soon found Rum Cay, and rented a parcel of land on which he and his wife would grow pineapples, cows, and have 5 children. The only male child left the island and never returned. Most of the girls left the island as well and settled in Nassau. As history and the story goes, Mr. Deveaux had better luck with having children than he did with the pineapple crop on the island.

Although Mrs. Wilson was born in Nassau where her mother had moved and worked as a nurse, she was sent back to Rum Cay as a small child. Her Grandmother, Ethel, the oldest of the Deveaux children, who had left and returned to the island, raised her. Her life on Rum Cay under the care of her grandmother, with its simple life and unique culture, became the inspiration for her book.

Even as she returned to Nassau to complete her education at the age of 14, Mrs. Wilson felt a strong attachment for Rum Cay and returned at the age of 40. After recovering from heart problems Mrs. Wilson felt a need to share the rich history of her family and the island with all those who come after her. Writing her remembrances on yellow notepaper she chronicled the everyday life and events on the island. It would have remained “within the family” had not visiting Arch Deacon Murillo Bonaby taken an interest in her fascinating tale. Arch Deacon Bonaby quickly recognized that this journal was something that had to be shared for Bahamians to appreciate the diversity of the islands and appreciate their heritage.

Suddenly Mrs. Wilson found herself flying to Nassau to talk to a publisher about a “lay out”. She still laughs at the thought that she is an “authoress”. With contributions from her daughter Kaye, in the form of pictures, the book was published. Since being printed, the book has been featured at the Government House (the equivalent to our White House) in Nassau, and can be purchased throughout the Bahamian Islands. She is now considering “willing” the book to one of the island children who can continue the legacy of history she has started.

As our conversation moved to the present times Mrs. Wilson talked with pride about the school on the island where teachers from Ghana teach the few children left on the island, two of which are her grandchildren. I had discovered in conversations with other native Bahamians, after a primary education in the out islands, the children frequently go to Nassau, or even Europe to continue their education. Most go on to receive college and graduate degrees. But sadly, many never return to the Bahamas. Mrs. Wilson admitted that her friends and family could not understand why she would choose to return to and stay on Rum Cay. They couldn’t appreciate that this small island which they considered to have so little to offer her was where she felt at home.

Mrs. Wilson showed me pictures of relatives who were architects, physicians, and in service to the government. Her granddaughter is studying to be a nurse. She said a number of times “I was the dumb one of the group”. This, of course, was hardly my assessment of this talented lady.

Her own two daughters, Kaye and Donna, followed in their mother’s footsteps by returning to and remaining on the island. They now assist their mother in running the restaurant that we sat in on that rainy afternoon, and “The Last Chance” which Kaye saved her money to buy.

Our conversation eventually turned to her role as the owner of a restaurant and bar in a town of only 52 people. As she offered me a beer (on the house), she explained that her main clientele were the boaters. Her “busy” season was after the two well known regattas in George Town during March and April. There was no need to guess about the slow time of year. The possibility of winds over 68 knots tends to keep boaters away during hurricane season.

She then reminisced about a lady that showed up one day from the resort and wanted to see the other part of the island. Mrs. Wilson offered to be the tour guide, and the two took off. After a tour and an afternoon dip to cool off, the duo ended their spontaneous jaunt back at the bar with the lady leaving in her jeep. Later some men from the resort came by and asked Mrs. Wilson if she had seen the “Contessa”. It seems she had disappeared for the afternoon, and they were concerned. Mrs. Wilson was a little more than shocked to learn that her traveling and swimming companion was a wealthy titled lady.

Then of course there was that other lady with the big brimmed hat and sun glasses who came in and stayed for the afternoon chatting, much as I was doing. She too signed the register. It was only later when the staff of her boat came in that Mrs. Wilson learned that she had spent the afternoon with, and had the signature of none other than Jackie “O”.

As the rain began to let up and I finished my beer, I realized that the afternoon had slipped away. Zach had gone to the bathroom at least two more times, and Gene was engrossed in the weather channel on the first TV we had seen in weeks.

Myself? I felt like I had just spent the afternoon enjoying a beer with an old friend, on a small Bahamian island where I had never been before.


 
 
 
 

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