Rags to Riches on Bootleg Booze

Rags to Riches on Bootleg Booze

The story of the Bahamas and whisky

Travel | 14 Jul 2017 | Issue 145 | By Jim Leggett

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Yeah Mon… as locals say, the sun-kissed Bahamas Islands - tropical gems, where palm fronds click gently in trade winds, hidden coves with pink sandy beaches where the only footprints are yours.

Did I mention no income or property taxes? Living and working here, paychecks were all mine!

The Bahamas might never have evolved into a world-class tourist destination were it not for the unimaginable wealth Prohibition dispensed. Why, anyone with a boat and taste for adventure could make a fortune; and the hard-pressed Bahamian government was among the happiest profiteers, raking in millions via steep import duties. It was never illegal to import spirits into the islands; it was a crime to transport it to America - if you got caught. Living in Nassau I got to know islanders and their flamboyant tales. "Here's to Johnny and Volstead!", toasts one of the afternoon cocktail crowd at Lyford Cay's Clubhouse.

"Were it not for Johnny (all whiskeys) and Volstead, many big name families might not be here." I'm having drinks with members of this exclusive club, 'where billionaires come to escape millionaires', some, no doubt, wondering who I am. I come here often and gate security guards know my car, allowing me to enter, perhaps thinking I live here. Acquaintance Sir Sean Connery does. I've visited his home, where I kid him, "Just think Sean, had you come from Glasgow rather than Edinburgh, you might have become famous!" 007's bemused reply is off the record. Anyway, I belong to Glasgow.

The islands are home to millionaires, business tycoons, gamblers, card sharks, even drug smugglers who use 'go-fast boats' much as whisky runners once did, the latter saving a tottering local economy and funding Bahamas Airways, the island's first proper airline to boot!

Jetset lifestyle

Far from rich, I share friendships with islanders who own everything from ocean-front villas, luxury yachts, go-fast-boats to airplanes.

I love flying, private aircraft that is, so I am co-piloting a pal's twin engine Cessna Skymaster, island-hopping home after lunch in Spanish Wells. This air space was once used by bootleggers bound for Nassau! Few today realise how many aeroplanes carried clandestine hooch. I've heard tales of 21 flying daily from West End, booze laden squadrons affectionately known as Dawn Patrols.

Banking the aircraft left, Paradise Island below, I push her nose down… 1,500 to 500 feet… throttling back over waters so blue, so transparent you can't tell depths, whether one to whatever feet. The sea's as beautiful as any in the world. What fun!

Nassau's squat lighthouse sweeps into view, all bleach-white in the blazing sun; the final landmark Prohibition era schooners saluted running booze to parched America.

Cruise ships lie docked at Prince George Wharf, nonexistent back when freighters from Glasgow or Dublin vied for space alongside ramshackle docks, straining under liquor crates piled a dozen high.

Tanned visitors hurry ashore seeking the famed Straw Market, take leisurely horse-drawn Surrey rides around town, or board overcrowded water taxis to PI (Paradise Island) a Disneyland on steroids, where overpriced drinks cost three times more than in town. Visitors in the know board local Jitneys: #10 for Arawak Cay, for native Fish Fry, colourful bars, three local Kalik beers for $10 at Curley's, others search out duty free liquor stores, dozens scattered along Bay Street. No party in Nassau is without alcohol, a bottle or two… hell, why not a case?

Whisky to the rescue

During the 1920s microscopic fungoid ruined the formerly lucrative sponge fishing trade "which provided employment for miserable ex-wreckers (of ships) who existed like driftwood on the fringes of an almost tideless sea of hopelessness," Michael Craton History of the Bahamas.

The market for sisal, from which rope is made, collapsed following the bankruptcy of several mills, that and fierce competition from other counties.

Surprisingly these islanders never made whisky. "Mostly, we (Bahamians) were middle men. We imported, sold the goods and, then, left it to the buyers to get them home. Some of us did keep busy running," says Captain Paul Aranha, 'dean of Bahamian aviation'.

Old Nassau reeks of the ghosts of rumrunners; Bill (The Real) McCoy and 'Bahama Queen' Gertrude 'Cleo' Lythgoe come to mind.

Then there was millionaire philanthropist Sir Harry Oakes, richest man in the Bahamas, and colourful sidekick Charles S Collar, author of Barnstorming to Air Safety, co-founders of the Bahamas first airline. In 1943 Oakes was bludgeoned to death in his Nassau home, nobody knows by whom.

From Collar's jaunty narrative: "I was still plugging along back in Nassau, with the Air Yacht, when a man, in Palm Beach, wrote to request and receive a quotation on the cost of an out island tour. When I arrived in West Palm Beach to pick him up, he walked up in an old beat-up slouch hat, worn hunting jacket, faded britches and scarred boots, and it didn't look to me like he owned the $600.00 I had quoted. So I excused myself and, surreptitiously, put in a call to an attorney I knew, to ask if he had ever heard of him. He said, 'Who did you say it was?' And when I told him, 'Harry Oakes,' he let out a roar of laughter. How was I to know that this was a famous multi-millionaire, who owned most of the gold mines in Canada, but only worked part of them, because he felt that $15 million a year was all of the income he needed?"

Disgruntled at paying 85 per cent from gold mining profits to the Canadian Government, Harry Oakes moved to tax free Nassau, just as countless others since.

"He kidded me, during that entire first flight, about my rattletrap airplane, and when we got back, he came up with the crowning insult to my pride and joy, by asking me why I didn't get myself an airplane, instead of that snorting, cramped up, overgrown shoe. I said, 'Because I haven't found anybody that will accept shells for money.' He said, 'What's money? Where can you get one?' I said, 'Alfred Vanderbilt has one he wants to sell, that might be fancy enough for your royal highness, but it's a custom-interiored, twin-engined Douglas Dolphin, and it would cost a bundle.' He told me, 'Go and get it.' And you might say that was actually the beginning of Bahamas Airways ..." Flying liquor was introduced with land planes as soon as aviators discovered they could land and take off on sandy stretches. Two US Navy seaplanes made the first ever Bahamas sighting from the air in 1919.

Figuring weight and balance, pilots recklessly loaded as many cases it took to crash on takeoff! Small planes could carry only three cases, "Pride of the fleet Boeing 40 B Wasp would carry 40 cases of gin all the way to Georgia, 40 ounce gin reputedly being heaviest of all the whiskey types." Thereafter whisky flowed, folks got rich, real rich, and everyone was happy. Most of them, that is.

In 1929 a band of desperate Cubans were planning to rob the Royal Bank of Canada, which before 1920 had never seen a million dollars. Now holding $11,000,000, a detachment of armed Royal Bahamian Police rushed to protect the vaults from the raiders; the heist never materialised.

Flush with $50,000 cash in their pockets, smugglers were easy prey for competing rumrunners and ladies of the night. Surrounded by the most infested waters in the world, sharks proved the most popular method for 'disappearing' unwanted bodies… then as today, allegedly!

A 2000 pound (908 kilos) great white was spotted off Nassau in March 2015.

"Yeah mon, three girls, dey takes a guy boating off Compass Point, dey comes back, but not him!" But that's another story…
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