This time of year, many people in the frozen north think of a trip to the tropics. One place that is convenient and well endowed with palm trees and beaches is The Bahamas, and its capitol, Nassau. Each day, cruise ships crowd the docks, disgorging thousands of northerners seeking sunshine and warmth. Not too many of these visitors come seeking history, and, short of a few forts and breathless pirate tales told by local guides, they don’t find much. But the hidden history is there, and it’s a lot more interesting than a few swashbucklers.
Some years ago, my wife and I were in Nassau, and were strolling the streets in the damp heat. A little past the souvenir shops, and the local library (originally the local jail) was a large, overgrown vacant lot on a hillside overlooking the town. A paved driveway, long abandoned, wound through what appeared to be the remains of a sprawling tropical garden, and at the top of the hill, we came upon the burned out shell of a large, three story building. The place appeared to be the remains of a large hotel, or perhaps a hospital.
Whatever this place was, it was far bigger than most of the buildings in Nassau, and was not mentioned in any of the guidebooks. This building, brooding silently amid the rustling palm trees was once someplace important. What was the story? A little research revealed that we had stumbled on the ruins of the Royal Victoria Hotel.
Built in 1860 to take advantage of the American tourist trade, it stood empty for months because the Civil War was breaking out, but soon, business picked up in a most unusual and spectacular way. The agrarian south depended on foreign trade, mostly with England, for guns, ammunition, uniforms, and a hundred other manufactured items. To pay for all this, the south exported cotton in large quantities. Knowing this, the Union blockaded southern ports to choke off this supply. Soon, the only ships that could slip through were fast blockade runners, but the runners needed a neutral nearby port to transfer their cargoes to and from large ocean going ships that would complete the trip to England and back. A British colony a little ever 600 miles from Charleston, Nassau filled the bill perfectly, and soon the town was enjoying a boom as runners crowded the once-empty harbor. Naturally, the well-paid blockade runner captains and crews needed a place to stay and cut loose between runs, and that’s where the Royal Victoria Hotel came in.
The last word in tropical luxury, the Royal Vic, as it was called, soon became headquarters for free-spending blockade runner crews. Champagne punch flowed freely, and the party never stopped. The Royal Vic also attracted spies, reporters, double agents, gamblers, prostitutes, and hustlers from miles around. Blockade runner captains were mostly English freelancers, many on inactive duty from the Royal Navy, and attracted by both the adventure and the lure of money. The Bahamas (called the British West Indies in those days) retired their entire debt and built streets, street lighting, and a host of municipal improvements from blockade runner profits in just a few short years. The good times seemed like they would never end.
But they did. After the Civil War, the blockade runners, their hangers-on, and their money all disappeared, and the now-empty hotel was put up for sale.
There were no buyers.
The Royal Victoria struggled along, becoming more obsolete by the year. With no air conditioning, and no beach location it could only offer tradition and shabby elegance to its diminishing clientele. Finally, it closed its doors for good in 1971, and was finished off by a fire in 1979, a sad ending to a part of both Bahamian and American history. The ruins we saw were demolished a few years later, and the site became a parking lot for the Bahamian Ministry of health. Today, a small plaque on a stone pedestal is the only reminder of the fabled Royal Vic.
The story was too good to die, however. A few years later, I wrote an historical novel, NASSAU, about Nassau and the Royal Vic during the blockade runner days, and the story inspired a new work, due for release in April, THE SECRETS BEHIND THE STRUCTURES. SECRETS contains the inside, little known stories of over 60 buildings, bridges, and other structures around the world. Most are still standing and in use, but all have interesting stories behind them that are not well known.
I regret that I never got to see the Royal Vic before the fire. I did explore the remains of the porte cochere, where carriages picked up clients for hunting expeditions and excursions, but I never got to walk in the hallways that once knew the tread of blockade runners, never saw the restaurant where wild parties were held, or the potted-palm-lined lobby where a colorful assortment of spies, secret agents, reporters, politicians, and local hustlers rubbed elbows. But I hope that THE SECRETS BEHIND THE STRUCTURES will give others a chance to look behind the outer walls of famous structures to the sometimes outrageous and unbelievable history that lies beneath.