In Search of the Chickcharnies
One of the legends of Andros Island is that aborigines live in the interior. These were thought to be a lost tribe of native Arawaks -- remnants of the archipelago's original inhabitants, who were exterminated by the Spanish centuries ago. However, low-flying planes, looking for evidence of human settlements, have not turned up any indication to support this far-fetched assertion. But who can dispute that chickcharnies (red-eyed Bahamian elves with three toes, feathers, and beards) live on the island? Even the demise of Neville Chamberlain's ill-fated sisal plantation was blamed on these mischievous devils.
The chickcharnie once struck terror into the hearts of the superstitious islanders. They were supposed to live in the depths of the Androsian wilderness, making their nests in the tops of two intertwined palm trees. Tales are told of how many a woodsman in the old days endured hardship and misery because he thoughtlessly felled the trees that served as stilts for a chickcharnie nest. Like the leprechauns of Ireland, the chickcharnies belong solely to Andros. They are the Bahamian version of the elves, goblins, fairies, and duppies of other lands. Children may be threatened with them if they fail to behave, and business or domestic calamity is immediately attributed to their malevolent activities.
The origin of the legend is shrouded in mystery. One story has it that the tales began in the late 19th century when a Nassau hunting enthusiast who wanted to protect his duck-hunting grounds in Andros invented the malicious elves to frighten off unwanted interlopers. Another has it that the myth was brought to The Bahamas by bands of Seminoles fleeing Florida in the early 1880s to escape the depredations of white settlers. Some of the Seminoles settled on the northern tip of Andros. But the most probable explanation is one that traces the chickcharnie to a once-living creature -- an extinct .9m-high (3-ft.) flightless barn owl (Tyto pollens) -- that used to inhabit The Bahamas and West Indies.
According to The Bahamas National Trust, the local conservation authority, such a bird, "screeching, hissing and clacking its bills in characteristic barn owl fashion, hopping onto its victims or pouncing on them from low tree limbs, would have been a memorable sight. And a frightening one."
The species may have survived here into historical times, and Andros, being the largest Bahamian landmass, was probably able to sustain Tyto pollens longer than the smaller islands. It is probable that the early settlers on Andros encountered such beasts, and it's possible that Tyto pollens was the inspiration for the Chickcharnie. In any event, Chickcharnie tales are still told in Andros, and there is no doubt that they will live on as a fascinating part of The Bahamas' cultural legacy.
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