Theories of the name
Several theories have been proposed for the origin of the term:
- After the American Revolution, many loyalists migrated to the Bahamas. Being more affluent and educated than the earlier settlers, the loyalists came to look down on the early settlers, and called them "conchs" because shellfish was a prominent part of their diet.
- The Bahamians told the British authorities that they would "eat conch" before paying taxes levied by the Crown.
- The adventurers from St. Augustine, Florida (then part of British East Florida) who recaptured Nassau from the Spanish in 1782 hoisted a flag with a shell rampant on a field of canvas.
- The first regiment of militia in Nassau adopted a regimental flag with a gold conch shell on a blue field.
- White Bahamians had straight hair like the popular hairstyle called conk.
Use in Florida
By extension, the term "Conch" has also been applied to the descendants of Bahamian immigrants in Florida. Bahamians began visiting the Florida Keys in the 18th century to catch turtles, cut timber, and salvage wrecks. During the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, most of the permanent residents in the Florida Keys outside of Key West, and many in Key West, were Bahamian in origin. "Conch" was reported to be a term of "distinction" for Bahamians in Key West in the 1880s.
The white Bahamians in the keys continued to be known as "conches". Other residents of the Florida Keys, especially in Key West, began applying the term "Conch" to themselves, and it is now applied generally to all residents of Key West. See: Conch Republic. To distinguish between natives and non-natives, the terms "Salt Water Conch" (native) and "Fresh Water Conch" (non-native) have been used. Newcomers become "Fresh Water Conchs" after seven years.
Elsewhere in Florida
Riviera Beach, Florida, was known as "Conchtown" in the first half of the 20th century because of the number of Bahamian immigrants who settled there. Unlike the situation in Key West and the rest of the Florida Keys, where being "Conch" became a matter of pride and community identification, "Conch" was used by outsiders (in particular the residents of West Palm Beach) in a pejorative manner to describe the Bahamian community in Riviera Beach. The usage there also carried the connotation that at least some of the "Conches" were of mixed racial heritage. As a result, some of the Bahamians in Riviera Beach denied being "Conches" when interviewed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Florida Writers Project in the late 1930s. WPA worker Veronica Huss (with assistance from Stetson Kennedy) and photographer Charles Foster wrote a book on the Conches and their culture entitled Conch Town, but the WPA chose not to publish it (Foster eventually published a version in 1991). Also, many white Bahamian immigrants settled in the Coconut Grove area of Miami, Florida.
The term "Conchy Joe" is also sometimes used to refer to a native Bahamian of European descent or a person of non-European or mixed descent who "acts white".
- Caracoles, the "Conch" people of the Bay Islands, Honduras
- Conch house, an architectural style derived from Bahamian and other traditions
- Foster, Charles C. 1991. Conchtown USA, with Folk songs & tales collected by Veonica Huss. Boca Raton, Florida: Florida Atlantic University Press. ISBN 0-8130-1042-X
- Sunshine, Sylvia (1886). Petals Plucked from Sunny Climes. Nashville, Tennessee: Southern Methodist Publishing House. p. 318.
- Kennedy, Stetson (2008). Grits & Grunts: Folkloric Key West. Sarasota, Florida: Pineapple Press, Inc. pp. 4, 6. ISBN 978-1-56164-419-3.
- Viele, John. 1996. The Florida Keys: a History of the Pioneers. Sarasota, Florida: Pineapple Press, Inc. ISBN 1-56164-101-4
- Speaking the Conch Lingo in Key West Archived 2009-03-10 at Archive.is URL retrieved June 13, 2007
- Bahamian Jottings Retrieved via Wayback Machine 23 June 2011