In school you may have read the book To Kill A Mockingbird. It was also made into a movie (1962) starring Gregory Peck as the lawyer, Atticus Finch. What many don't know is that the story is based upon true events, the trial of State of Alabama vs. Charles White.
In the 1930's, Charles White, a large black man, was accused of raping a young white woman. During the trial, Dr. W. P. Stewart was called by the prosecution to testify. His testimony was scandalous. He said words that had never been said in open court leading husbands to cover their wifes' ears, others to rush from the courtroom, and still others of fainting. What were these shocking words that had such an effect? "Vagina", "hymen", "labia". His testimony, for the prosecution, was that he had examined the girl and her hymen was intact, and there was no evidence of assault, especially from a Negro (after all, we all know how "big" they are). If you haven't read the book, you should. After that, see the movie, because Peck does an great job. And there's a book that is a little more factual called My Father and Atticus Finch that tells the true story of the events.
After the trial, Dr. Stewart returned to his practice in Florida. To relax, he purchased Royal Island in the Bahamas, and built a sprawling estate. He used this as a getaway for himself and his friends to, as the story goes, drink, fish, and get away from his wife. Over the years the estate was abandoned, and has fallen into ruins, with the jungle slowly reclaiming the area. But exploring these glorious ruins is amazing.
Royal Island is a private island, four miles off of North Eleuthera, about 35 miles northeast of Nassau. At five miles long, this 430 acre island features 15 miles of coastline. Royal Island has long been a favourite both as a harbour of refuge for boats making the Abacos-Exumas transit or as a nearby destination for boats crusing from Nassau or Eleuthera. It's name was originally Real Island, for the Spanish silver coin used by pirate who frequented the harbour. Lying safely in the harbour, the pirates could go ashore and watch to the north for ships transiting the Northeast Providence Channel. A quick dash out and and they could lay siege to the ships, then retreat back into the shelter to divide their plunder.
Dr. Stewart's estate is built on the hill top, looking south over Royal Island harbour, a 150 acre, completely sheltered harbour with two narrow openings.
We started our exploration at the remains of the dock. This once clean and strong concrete structure provided sheltered dockage. Now most of it lies underwater, and what remains is a shadow of it's former self.
From there, we begin the walk up the stairs towards the house. On each side of the steps, the hill side has been terraced and at on time was planted with flowers and well manicured shrubs. The terraces are now completely overgrown, and difficult to see.
Upon reaching the top you are presented with the main house on the left, and the water building on the right. There is also a path that runs straight ahead (more on that later).
The main house is built from local rock in a Spanish style. Large arches provide a covered outside hallway, which access each room. The first room you enter in the kitchen, with its large cooking fireplace. Off this room you can enter the dining room, though pieces of roof, and spider webs prevent direct access. The third room along, like the first two, has also had it's ceiling collapse, as well as the roof above, leaving them mostly open to the sky. As you progress along the hallway, you get to the bathroom. This is a neat area, with a built-in-place concrete tub, the remains of a porcelain toilet, a shower stall, the large fireplace for heating the water and storage tank beside, as well as a sink next to the door. In the fireplace you can still see the rusting remains of the water pipes that absorbed the heat from the fire to store in the tank beside. The last room was the storage room, with shelving, long since gone, lining the walls. Walking back a few feet brings you to the outside stairs up to the second floor, where bedrooms once overlooked the harbour below. Another outside hallway upstairs was once covered by a wooden roof, but this is long gone and trees and flowers now grow up here.
The water and bar building lies east of the main house and is now covered in vines and has trees growing from it's roof. Climbing the roots to this tree allows one to get on the roof where the well is visible. Extreme care must be taken up here as the building is not nearly as solid as it was, and the well is deep with no way out should one fall in. A pump room in the north west corner used to pump water from the well into a cistern on the roof. While the cistern is still there, there is no longer any way of accessing it. The east end of this building is the open bar, with a lookout area over the terraced hillside and harbour below. The view is now mostly obstructed by trees, but one can only imagine the view it used to offer.
The next building to the east, with its once covered porch looking south over the harbour, is of more difficult to determine purpose. While Kyle thinks it was a bath building, I'm more inclined to think it was servant's quarters. It consists of 4 rooms. The north room is, without a doubt, a washroom. The remains of the sink, toilet, and shower are clearly visible. You can even see where the mirror once was. The room behind this had a large fireplace that was used to heat water for the washroom, and may have also been a kitchen. There is a room south of this that may have been a bedroom. On the back side of the building there is a room a few steps lower, that used to have shelves along one wall. Tiles still line the floor of this room and one can see that the shelves extend across a window opening leading to the "kitchen". What ever it's purpose was, it now is home to a massive tree that has partially toppled and pulled up some of the flooring.
A walkway heading north from the bar area runs along side the "great hall". This building has been cleaned up inside by visitors allowing it to be used again. I have heard that some cruisers have parties in here to this day, allowing the building to regain some of it's former glory. While all the other building on the estate had either wooden, pitched roofs, or flat concrete roofs, this building's roof is barrel vaulted, and still mostly intact. A huge fireplace at the south end still functions, while the north end of the building leads to a covered veranda with more Spanish arches.
Steps from this veranda lead to a nearly invisible path. While a left turn leads you south to the main house, the more interesting way is to turn right and head north. A short walk along and you are hidden amongst the vegetation. Here you will come across a still standing walled area for livestock. Today, it's impossible to tell whether it was home to goats, or pigs, or whatever other animal he choose to keep. The rock wall is still in near pristine condition and encloses this 1 acre area even today.
Back outside the Great Hall, one now turns east again and walks a short distance to the two guest cottages. These small buildings each held Dr. Stewart's friends when they visited. With similar designs of one large room, with a small breezeway at the back, they hide behind them more cisterns and a well. Both buildings have a small walled garden out front, with the southern one having a large tree in the middle of the wall. The tree has grown a bit since the 1930's however and has damaged the garden wall. One must be careful around this tree as it is hollow and home to a vary large bee hive. If one stands back a few feet you can see into a knot in the tree that leads inside where the bees are plainly visible at most times of the day. A closer examination will reveal that honey is leaking out the side of the tree at the bottom of the hive.
To the east, a road once led between the two cottages. It is heavily overgrown and near impossible to see now, but following it for several hundred meters leads one to two giant in-ground cisterns. Both of them are completely filled with dark water to an unknown depth. This is definitely not a place for children to play. In fact, while children would be fascinated by the entire experience here, this is not a place where they should be allowed to run free, and all visitors should be cautious while exploring. Not that it is dangerous, but these are old buildings and parts have fallen down. More parts will continue to fall over the coming years.
Standing outside the two guest houses you are on a road that leads north and south. To the north it runs along the east side of the animal pen, then turns east and runs along the north side of it, before heading to the north shore of the island. If you follow the road south back to the harbour it turns westward and runs along the shoreline. It continues past the dock and even past where the new marina is going in. But it's biggest secret lies between the hillside descent and the steps to the house, where a narrow, overgrown path leads to a hidden boathouse. This boathouse is built partly into the hillside, covered from above. The roof is buried so that it doesn't obstruct the view from house and bar on the hill top.
The island has been owned by developers for years now. The plans included an ultra-luxury resort, and private club residential community with private residences and home sites, a golf club with a Nicklaus-approved golf course, a 200-slip marina and a boutique hotel, spa and three beach clubs.
Despite a promising start, with 22 properties sold for $150 million, in 2008 with the Bahamian economy sinking, the plans were scuttled.
Talking with the island's caretaker reveals that plans are underway to re-start the development. This is unfortunate for the estate as it will be bulldozed to make way for the new clubhouse.
It is hard to say how much time this amazing ruins have left, but it appears they are destined to be destroyed and forgotten. It was an unforgettable experience to explore these ruins, and to follow the trails and roads out from here across the island.