WRECKING 1840 1919
The first five settling families arrived in Bimini between 1835 and 1840.
1840 is generally the year given for Bimini's permanent establishment. The first families, the descendants of whom are on Bimini to this day, included the Saunders, Sherman, Francis, Hield, Brady, and later the Weech, Levarity and Rolle families.
These early settlers subsisted on limited farming, for the soil was not rich, and on fishing. But, shipwrecking was their staple for living. Rather than live on South Bimini, the early residents chose North Bimini where, from the island's ridge, one could see out into the gulf stream and witness the coming and going of merchant schooners. Ships would ply the waters in and around Bimini and often find themselves in trouble as they would run aground on the banks or come to grief on the numerous rocks and shoals. There is no evidence that Bimini wreckers deliberately caused vessels to founder, rather it was a frequent occurrence as there were no lighthouses and charts were inadequate.
Once a ship was aground the wreckers would sail to the location and salvage both lives and property. It was required that salvaged goods be taken to Nassau, the capital of the colony, and be auctioned. This provided money for the Biminites which could be used for needed supplies. However, much of the salvaged goods remained on the island.
In 1858 a lighthouse was built on Great Issac rocks north of the island and in 1870 a lighthouse was placed at Gun Cay, south of Bimini. Gradually shipping charts became more accurate and mariners were less likely to have their ships lost. The wrecking trade subsided and the last great wreck to be salvaged was the El Dorado in 1912. The last of the great wreckers was Bill Kemp (pictured below). An irascible man, Kemp was salvaging wrecks for years. After the trade declined he owned a small shop in Alice Town. His shop was located where the Royal Bank is today. Kemp's house still stands and is the current residence of bonefish guide Tommy Sewell.
With the loss of the wrecking trade Biminites reverted to farming, fishing and now sponging. however, sponging was difficult. It took a large number of sponges to earn just a few cents. The effort was not worth the reward. The trade faded out. Bimini was an impoverished island. In 1914 the first World War broke out and Britain and her colonies were at war with Germany. Several young men from Bimini entered the British West India Regiment and became soldiers. The Great War, as it was called, ended in 1918 and with Bimini still poor the United States would prove to be Bimini's greatest benefactor. In 1919 the US Congress passed the Volstead Act which outlawed the sale, manufacture and consumption of alcoholic beverages. It was the era of prohibition. And the British Bahamas was prepared to act as a staging ground for smuggling illegal liquor into America. Bimini and West End, Grand Bahama, became the colony's greatest smuggling ports.