• Monica Montanari

The Queen's Staircase: The Bahamian Legend

As most of you know, in November I decided to take a trip to The Bahamas to get away for the first time in years. It was an incredible place and I cannot possibly get back there fast enough.


While I was there, I explored so many amazing facets of Bahamian life, history, and culture. One of which was visiting the Queen's Staircase in Nassau.


There was a steep driveway which led up to Fort Fincastle from the place where the taxi had to drop us- and near the top of the road, to the right of it, notated by a few signs and a museum docent, was the staircase. Without those things, you could probably totally miss this little detail. But in my opinion, this was the coolest bit of Bahamian history I came across.



A sweet middle-aged veteran stood by the sign, joking around with a local man sipping something from inside a coconut. It was mid-day in the middle of the week in November- and except for us, there were maybe two others when we arrived.


I love the people of the Bahamas. You will never meet a friendlier place filled with happier people. So I was thrilled when this man asked if we wanted to hear the history. To be honest, I thought I knew it all already because I'd read all about it online- but this little tale just taught me all over again how important it is to be humble and listen. The locals of the Bahamas tell a story of the Queen’s staircase that is much more special than anything you’ll read about it on Wikipedia. It was absolutely fascinating and beautiful, and made this place so much more special to me- and I want to share that story with the rest of the world.


Granted, local legends are just tales that may or may not be true. But in my opinion, the locals would know more about it than anyone, so I'm accepting it as fact. And it's much more poetic than anything you'll read on Wikipedia.

 

It starts with a brief history of the Bahamas.


The history of race in the Bahamas is a fascinating (albeit, very sad) one. Lucayans, a branch of indigenous Caribbean people, inhabited the lands for countless centuries until 1492, when Christopher Columbus became the first European to "discover" the islands, claiming them for Spain. Fast forward about 20 years, and the Spanish Empire had returned to the islands to enslave all of the natives and ship them to Hispaniola for labor. (I can't even talk about this. I get too worked up). This left the islands essentially deserted for over a century from 1513 to 1648, when English colonists from Bermuda settled on one of the larger islands in the archipelago.


During the Golden Age of Piracy, countless black sailors called the Bahamas home as they joined pirate crews to escape the lives that awaited them if they served aboard a merchant or navy vessel before the end of the era in 1730. A great deal of black pirates were slaves trying to find their freedom, and believe it or not, gangs of "scary", "violent" pirates were actually radically indifferent about the color of one's skin.


The Bahamas became a colony of the British crown in 1718, with the expelling of piracy on the islands (boo). This stayed the case until the Bahamas gained their independence in 1973 under the direction of Sir Lynden O. Pindling. But for the 200-plus years in between, the Bahamas remained a colony of the British Empire.


It was 1793 when King George III approved the construction of a deep moat around Fort Fincastle on the island of New Providence. Partially intended to serve as a barrier for adversaries wishing to enter the fort and partially as a quick escape route for the inhabitants of the fort to reach the port, it was commenced under the direction of Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of the Bahamas. The project was a massive undertaking requiring 100 feet of limestone to be excavated- and Lord Dunmore wasn't made of money. So, he took the route that countless lazy and rude people have taken throughout history, and enlisted the help (can you call it help if it's forced?) of around 600 enslaved people to manually dig this gorge with pickaxes (though some even argue that hammers and chisels were more likely used). This is a MASSIVE hole, people. That's ridiculous.



Anyway, King George III was not a fan of slavery or using slave labor (yay, King George III!). Ten years before he even became the King, he was known for having written documents to denounce "all of the arguments for slavery, and calling them an execration and ridiculous and absurd." When the King learned about Dunmore's use of slave labor for the project, he was furious- though he shouldn't have been surprised. Dunmore was hated by his own people who called for him to resign just two years after he took his place in the Bahamas. The King ordered that the project be stopped immediately, despite being significantly underway, according to Bahamian lore. The slaves were apparently told to drop their tools right where they stood, and were released from the project. (This detail is super specific so who knows if that one's true but I love it).


Fourteen years later in 1807, George III would sign An Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, ending slave trade throughout the British Empire and its colonies. His fervor in abolishing slavery and inequality was upheld after his death in 1820 by his son King William IV, who ruled for just 7 years from 1830-1837. On August 28, 1833, he signed the Slavery Abolition Act, which became law about a year later. When his niece, Queen Victoria ascended the throne at the age of 18 in 1837, her family had already laid the groundwork for her. But with equal fervor, she continued to advocate for this equality and ensure that the Act was successfully implemented. She reigned for over 63 years- making her the longest reigning monarch in British history until her great-great-granddaughter Elizabeth II, who reigns today. She was adored by the people of the Bahamas- and when she died in 1901, the colony went into a state of mourning.



As a show of their tremendous gratefulness to her, the descendants of the slaves that she freed or the ones that were released from the job by her great-grandfather (I can't remember which it was- probably a mixture of both) entered the pit, picked up the same tools that their ancestors had used, and decided collectively to finish the epic undertaking as a show of their great respect and adoration for Queen Victoria. In the blistering sun and the suffocating humidity, these descendants labored until the staircase and its accompanying gorge were finished.



Local legend has it, they constructed the staircase to have exactly 63 steps. One for each year of her reign. However, due to some poor planning, the movement of the soil over the years, and a restoration project commemorating the anniversary of the Queen's death, the number of steps has been altered from the 63 that were originally planned.



When you look at the walls of this manmade canyon, you can see the spots where the rock was carved away. The marks of the tools and the bits of the rock that were touched by those same ancestors so long ago under such strife.




Then when you've descended the staircase, you can spend a few moments in front of the more recent manmade waterfall that was added during the renovation to just soak in the history all around you. If you listen closely enough, you might start to think you can hear the sounds of the hard workers that took years of their lives in order to make this site all that it is today.



You can choose to view the tale as a fact or fiction. But when an adorable older gentleman who has spent his whole life in the Bahamas takes the time out of his day to sit down and tell me a story, you can be damn sure I'm going to take it to be the gospel truth. You never know- it could have been his grandfather who helped finish this canyon. And in my opinion, if that isn't true, I don't care what is.


 

A huge, heartfelt thank you to the sweet human being who told me this story, the government and people of the Bahamas for restoring this site for all of the world to continue to enjoy, and our absolutely amazing Nassau Taxi driver (seriously, have you ever missed a taxi driver when you left somewhere?!) who you can reach on WhatsApp at +1 (242) 801-8007. Tell him Monica sent you.