The history of Nassau is tied to stories of pirates, privateers, loyalists and enslaved Africans. Hidden in plain sight all across the island is physical evidence of these times when men were cargo, pillaged gold was treasure, and the beach was a haven for fugitives and defeated loyalists. The casual traveler has enough activity to satisfy, but true history buffs will need to dig deeper than the surface offerings. Some of the best historic sites like the Queen’s Staircase and Rawson Square boil down to a good photo opportunity, but others like the Clifton Heritage National Park are places you can deeply explore. Some locations like Pompey Square require an imagination, so you can teleport to the time when meaning was brought to the name. In the case of Pompey, you would be taken back to a plantation in the Exuma islands when a freedom fighter named Pompey led a rebellion of enslaved Africans against their oppressors. Several monuments now stand in his honor. Read on for the top historic sites in Nassau.
The view of Nassau is one of Fort Charlotte’s best attributes. While standing on top of the imposing limestone structure, overlooking the waterless moat, dungeons, and draw-bridge, you can also watch cruise ships enter the harbor and imagine a time when pirate ships filled with looted gold or colonial vessels with Africans as cargo cruised in and out of the harbor. Fort Charlotte, which never fired a shot in battle, is the largest of the forts on the island. It has several interior rooms to explore and historical displays. If you’re a history buff, a guided tour might not do you justice. As a casual visitor the tour is quick, so it allows for time to roam independently. The overall experience will only set you back $3.
Two worlds collide at the adjoining Rawson Square and Parliament Square, central bearing points in downtown Nassau. Rawson Square houses a half body bronze bust of Sir Milo Butler, the first governor-general in an independent Bahamas. Directly opposite in Parliament Square there is a provocative full-bodied statue of Queen Victoria sitting on a throne. Queen Victoria is a symbol of the country’s violent colonial past and Sir Milo is a symbol of the country’s promise of a new beginning. These public gathering grounds are primarily used as pedestrian thoroughfares and backdrops for great photo opportunities, but their true significance is in their socio-political history, as sites of protest, politics and governance.
In the late 1700s, enslaved Africans carved a gorge, more than 100 feet deep, into a solid limestone hillside with axes and other sharp hand tools. This passageway of 66 sloping steps provided a shorter route from Fort Fincastle to Nassau City, which was needed in case of an attack. The Fort Fincastle Historic Complex is a popular attraction, but the Queen’s Staircase is the most visited. Shady native trees, wall vines and overhanging brush create a moist rainforest like enclosure that make this landmark one of the most picturesque. Bahamians use the Queen’s Staircase as a multipurpose venue for morning exercise and unusual weddings.
Pompey Square is a free-spirited social hub for local festivals, art shows, lounging and child’s play. There is an interactive water feature in the center of the square; surrounding it are restaurants, bars, souvenir shops and the Pompey Museum of Slavery and Emancipation. The history of the square goes back to the 1700s when enslaved Africans were auctioned at a marketplace in the colonial era building that houses the museum. Pompey was an African freedom fighter. On the last Friday of every month, the community organization Creative Nassau, which fights for the rights of folk artists, hosts an art village in the square filled with authentically made Bahamian products: ceramics, jewelry, handbags, paintings, and other crafts.
Clifton Heritage Park
For Nassau standards, the Clifton Heritage Land and Sea Park is way off the beaten path. It is not even accessible by public transportation. Nevertheless, it is easy to get to by taxi or through a tour operator. It is best to make it a day trip, as you can explore the winding nature trails and historical ruins, picnic on your choice of three secluded beaches, snorkel off shore over an underwater sculpture garden, walk through the Bahamian equivalent of the Ghanaian “Door of No Return” and meditate in a sacred circle that honors the ancestral mothers who slaved and endured on this former colonial plantation.