The chain of 365 Exuma cays and islands, stretches for 90 miles although the majority of the inhabitants live on Great Exuma and Little Exuma at the south end. Great Exuma is long and narrow, covered with scrub and dry woodland. The soil is pitifully thin but there are aromatic shrubs, curly-tailed lizards and songbirds and a few wild peacocks. Around the villages are a few patches of what the Lands and Surveys map accurately calls ‘casual cultivation’. The main industry is tourism, based on yachting and a few hundred winter visitors who own houses on the island.
The islands were virtually uninhabited until after the American Revolution, when Loyalists from the south colonies were given land and brought their slaves to grow cotton. During the late 18th century the British Crown granted Denys Rolle, an Englishman, 7,000 acres of land and he set up cotton plantations at Rolletown, Rolleville, Mt Thompson, Steventon and Ramsey. Following the emancipation of the slaves and poor cotton harvests because of the exhaustion of the soil, it was believed that Rolle’s son gave away his lands to his former slaves, who were also called Rolle as was customary at the time. However, no deeds have been found confirming transfer of title and longstanding squatter’s rights provide an adequate title to the land for many. Today, half the population bears the surname Rolle and two of the largest settlements are Rolleville and Rolletown.
The Exuma cays are in general isolated communities which are difficult to get to (the exception being Staniel Cay). Their inaccessibility has attracted undesirable attention; Norman’s Cay was for some time the drug smuggling centre of Carlos Lehder, the Colombian drug baron deported from the Bahamas in 1982 and now in prison in the USA. In 1993 the cay was confiscated by the Government and put up for sale. Recent attempts to control drug smuggling include mooring Fat Albert, an airship full of radar equipment, over Great Exuma, and low flying helicopters also monitor activity.
In 1994 the government approved a US$90mn residential and resort development covering 518 acres on Exuma. A US$35mn hotel was to be built in the first phase and there would eventually be a marina, golf course and casino as well. In 1997 it was again announced that a 200-room hotel, casino, marina and golf course would be built, but at a cost of US$70mn.