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Short History of Bahamas

Short History of Bahamas | Liveaboard Cruising | New Providence / Nassau | Climate | Geography | Abacos | Green Turtle Cay | Andros | Bimini | Introduction | Travel Miscellany
Even though the islands of the Bahamas are geographically near to the United States, stretching from just 70 miles east of Florida's Palm Beaches to 750 miles to the south, their culture and their historical development evolved quite differently.

Columbus was the first European to sight these islands. As any schoolchild knows, popular convention suggests that his first landfall was October 12, 1492, at San Salvador in the Southern Bahamas. Not that it matters in the total scheme of things today, but other researchers suggest that the first landfall might have been at Samana Cay, some 60 miles to the southeast of San Salvador. In either case, the first local residents were probably Arawak Indians, refugees from elsewhere in the Caribbean trying to escape the vicious Carib Indians. Evidence suggests they immigrated to the Bahamas around the beginning of the 9th century. Shy and gentle, the Arawaks offered great hospitality to the crew of the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria, but to their ultimate dismay the Spaniards were enamored of the gold trinkets they wore. Later incursions by the Spanish forced the Arawaks to work in the gold and silver mines of the New World, effectively decimating the local population with overwork and disease by 1520.

The Spanish phrase "Baja Mar," for "shallow sea," was the derivation for the name Bahamas, but in later years the English had far more to do with the development of these islands than did the Spanish. By 1629, King Charles I claimed the Bahamas for England, and by 1648 English pilgrims fleeing religious persecution back home settled on an island they called Eleuthera, after the Greek word for "freedom." By the 1650s another group of English immigrants settled on an island they called New Providence due to their family links with a settlement at Providence, Rhode Island.

By the end of the 17th century there were over 1,000 British living in the islands of the Bahamas, trying to eke sustenance from farming, fishing, and salvaging the occasional Spanish galleon that still ran aground.

Piracy was a big part of the local culture back then, and some of the most notorious buccaneers of the day like Edward Teach (Blackbeard), Henry Morgan, and Calico Jack Rackham repeatedly raided the Spanish galleons transiting these waters. This enraged the British government and caused them to attack Charles Town on New Providence, burning much of it to the ground. The city was later rebuilt as Nassau, named in honor of King William III of Orange-Nassau.

By 1718, the end of piracy was virtually ensured with the installation of a former pirate, Woodes Rogers, as the first Royal Governor of the Bahamas. He riveted the attention of his former associates by hanging eight pirates in a single day in downtown Nassau, and inspired the country's first motto: Expulsis piratis, restitua comercia (Piracy expelled, commerce restored). In 1973, on the occasion of the Bahamas' independence from Britain, then Prime Minister Linden Pindling rewrote the motto with the current "Forward, Upward, Onward, Together."

Experiments with agriculture on these islands were largely met with frustration due to the typically arid climate and poor soil. Plantation life as it was known in the southern United States and other Caribbean islands never really took hold in the Bahamas, and by 1834 the plantation culture, along with slavery, was essentially dead.

Even though farming was essentially a bust, these islands' perfect climate and immense natural beauty suggested a potential tourist industry as early as 1861 when the first hotel on Nassau, the Royal Victoria, was built to accommodate the business and pleasure travel of the era.

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