Libraries Round the World: In a Former British Gaol

A recycled 18th-century former jail (a ‘gaol’ in British English) transitioned into the first public library in the Bahamas in 1873. This library, now a museum too, is still going strong in the city of Nassau on New Providence Island. Using a former jail somehow fits! Afterall, this area of the Bahamas was the site of four James Bond movies. Crime-fighting spy 007 would need a place to house the villains, and as a library, they’d be educated and better prepared when they get out.

The Nassau Public Library and Museum

The library began from a combination of a reading society and the Bahamas Society for the Diffusion of Knowledge. (Love that name!) The building was under refurbishment, with some ladies working inside, when I visited last month. Not from recent Hurricane Dorian damage, but what appeared to be for general upkeep. 

Outside the old jail – diffusing some knowledge

Unfortunately, I couldn’t come in, and a sign said photos inside weren’t permitted anyway. But my brother Kurt, who conveniently towers over me, snapped a few photos through the open windows from outside. The bars are still on the windows, and the cells that we could see were still in use and lined with books. Nothing like being under house arrest to finish a book before the due date!

An old jail cell

The library also holds a collection of historic prints and colonial documents, but those weren’t viewable by your intrepid blogger or her high-flying brother. I try to tell a fascinating library story while avoiding the inside of a real jail!

The blogging duo on top of Bennett’s Hill

Nassau was settled in 1656, about twenty years after England claimed the islands of the Bahamas. Three hundred plus years later, in 1973, they became independent. But buildings and remnants from the British colonial past still exist. 

18th-century Parliament Square with Queen Victoria 

The Prince George Wharf from the 1920s was a popular bootlegging spot during the USA’s prohibition experiment. Now it is used by cruise ships and filled with shops. 

View from Carnival Freedom

The Old Straw Market, with about 200 vendors, was almost destroyed by fire in 2001 but rebuilt.

The Rebuilt Marketplace

Straw goods and wood carvings are popular crafts. 

A vendor’s stall in the marketplace

The Queen’s staircase leads to Fort Fincastle on the top of Bennett’s Hill. The 65 steps were built from the sandstone cliffs by former slaves to honor Queen Victoria for her help in the abolition of slavery. This happened in 1833, without a Civil War. I sure wish we’d followed their more sensible lead!

On the way to the fort

The fort, in the shape of paddle wheel steamer, was built in 1793. Luckily, it was never needed for defense and later got converted to a lighthouse. Now it’s a historic site.

Fort Fincastle

Paradise Island, across from Nassau, was originally called Hog Island, and you can probably guess why. Real estate developers relocated the pigs and changed the name for a more enticing, marketing image. Paradise Island is known for The Atlantis, a fancy hotel resort complex.  

The perfect set for James Bond

The Atlantis took over an old Club Med location. But Club Med still has an all-inclusive resort on the remote island of San Salvador in the Bahamas. Come to think of it – they may have a library in need of a blog!

Karen Stensgaard is the author of two novels, AQUAVIT and BLUENESS, and working on a third. But she sure enjoys traveling and takes a blogging break once in a while.

2 thoughts on “Libraries Round the World: In a Former British Gaol

  1. Always love your posts. Don Mathis

    The National Geographic recently mentioned the stairs in the Bahamas too.

    [cid:e215f192-b279-431e-8e81-61c2b21dfec0] Nassau, Bahamas

    Locally known as the 66 steps, the Queen’s Staircase was built in the late 1700s to provide direct access from Fort Fincastle to Nassau City. While there are technically 66 steps, only 65 are visible due to the first step being paved over with asphalt in a restoration project.

    Photograph by Terry Akin, National Geographic Your Shot



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