A History of Highbourne Cay

There are only a few historical references to Highbourne Cay. However, supported by documents, ruins and a shipwreck, it is certain that Highbourne Cay has had inhabitants and visitors for hundreds of years.

The earliest-known New World activity involving Highbourne Cay was only discovered in the 1960s but, incredibly, it dates back to the first half of the 16th Century. From the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA), a shipwreck “was discovered at Highborn Cay in the Bahamas in 1965 by sport divers.” Ordinance found included “bombardetas, versos, 18 breach chambers (one still loaded with black powder), shot, and an iron harpoon or spear.” The Institute of Nautical Archaelogy states that the positions and types of ordinance on the site pointed to similarities between the Highbourne Cay wreck and one excavated by INA at Molasses Reef in the Turks and Caicos. Additionally, ceramics of various utilitarian types were excavated, all indicating early 16th century manufacture. The INA concluded that the Highbourne wreck was very possibly one of the ships lost by the great explorer Pinzon in 1500.

The Highbourne shipwreck is still considered one of the oldest, significant wrecks in The Bahamas. Ships of Discovery writes: “For a shipwreck in the Caribbean, the Highborn Cay Wreck contained substantial wood remains. Because it was a discovery period shipwreck in the Western Hemisphere – therefore a ship that had made a least one transAtlantic voyage – its information was vital. The wreck provided construction details of the keel, keelson, mast step, stempost, framing, planking, notches for the bilge pumps, and floor-futtock joinery at midships. The overall length of the keel, obtained from its impression in the hardpan, allows an estimation of the length of a ship of the exploration and discovery period to be about 19 meters in length and 5.0-5.7 meters in beam. For the first time, such an estimation of a ship that forever joined the Old World to the New has been based on actual vessel remains instead of conjecture. ”

The anchor from this 16th Century wreck is visible today, underwater at the Highbourne Cay dinghy dock.

One can only assume that pirates loved the Exuma Cays. The proximity of the Exumas to New Providence made it easy for these seafaring scalliwags of the late 18th Century to find trouble, while the countless hidden anchorages of the Cays made it even easier for them to slip away.

At the abolition of slavery in the early 1830s it is reported that more than 300 freed slaves settled on Highbourne Cay. Their stay was apparently very short-lived as a severe drought forced them back to New Providence.

A century later, aloe vera farming was started and reached such a level of productivity that the island became known as Highbourne Cay Plantations – a business name retained by the owners today. For a while, aloe grew so abundantly that the island’s factory ran over-time to process the crop. However, the cost of production and shipping to Florida mounted and eventually, the economically unsustainable operation was abandoned. Plantation ruins, dating back more than 100 years, dot the island. For a while watermelons were cultivated.

By the late 1950s the true value of Highbourne Cay and the Exuma Cays began to be understood more clearly: its pristine, natural beauty, its breathtaking marine environments are the real treasures. So much so that on observing this uniquely beautiful string of islands from space one U.S. astronaut remarked, “They appear below me, like a Golden Chain on an Emerald sea”. Highbourne Cay is the gateway to one of the crown jewels of The Bahamas – the Exuma Cays. We invite you to come see and experience it for yourself.