Caribbean Tourism

History of Bahamas

The first inhabitants were probably the Siboneys, fishermen who migrated from Florida and the Yucatán. The Indians Columbus found in the southern Bahamas were Arawaks, practising a culture called Tainan. They called themselves Lukku-cairi, island people, and became known as Lucayans. They were primitive farmers and fishermen, but produced the best cotton known to the Arawaks. The island of Guanahani is generally credited with Columbus’ first landfall in the New World on 12 October 1492. Columbus called Guanahani San Salvador but it was not until 1926 that the Bahamas Parliament officially renamed Watling Island, an island which best fitted his rather vague description, as San Salvador. Columbus visited Rum Cay, which he named Santa María de la Concepción, Long Island, which he called Fernandina, and several other islands and cays, but finding no gold he set off for brighter horizons. The lack of mineral deposits meant that the islands held little interest for the Spanish and there is no evidence of permanent settlement. However, the development of Hispaniola and Cuba led to shortages of labour on those islands and to the depopulation of the Bahamas as the Lucayans were captured and carried off as slaves. By 1520 about 20,000 had been captured for use in the plantations, mines or pearl fisheries in the Spanish colonies and the Bahamas were uninhabited. The islands and cays became feared by navigators and many ships were wrecked there, including a whole fleet of 17 Spanish ships off Abaco in 1595.


It was after founding their first colonies in Virginia that the English realized the strategic importance of the Bahamas, and in 1629 the islands received their first constitution as part of the Carolinas. In fact, the first settlers came from Bermuda with the aim of founding a colony free from the religious and constitutional troubles of Charles I’s England. Then William Sayle, who had been Governor of Bermuda, published in London in 1647 A Broadside Advertising Eleuthera and the Bahama Islands. As a result of this publicity, a company of Eleutherian Adventurers was formed and a party of about 70 settlers and 28 slaves, led by Sayle himself, set out for Eleuthera. Their ship was wrecked on the reefs. The party managed to land but most of the stores were lost and the settlers barely managed to survive by trading ambergris.

From this time on, the life of the Bahamas was largely influenced by their proximity to the North American mainland and their place on the sea routes. Piracy, buccaneering and the slave trade were features of the next two centuries. Pirates began to make the Bahamas their base after 1691 when they were thrown out of Tortuga. Conditions there were perfect, with creeks, shallows, headlands, rocks and reefs for hiding or making surprise attacks. By 1715 there were about 1,000 pirates active in the Bahamas, of whom the most notorious was Blackbeard, who wore his beard in plaits and was renowned for his cruelty. The colony was very poor and survived on the fortunes of shipping, both legal and illicit. In 1739 during the War of Jenkins’ Ear, privateering brought a boom in trading activity but peace returned the islands to poverty. A revival of trade during the Seven Years’ War was welcomed but peace once more brought depression to Nassau. When not involved in piracy or privateering, many of the inhabitants lived off wrecks, and great was their enthusiasm when whole fleets were destroyed.

A new form of piracy began after the abolition of the British slave trade, when illegal slave traders used the Bahamas as a base to supply the southern states of the mainland. This was followed during the 1861-65 American Civil War by the advent of blockade runners, shipowners and adventurers drawn by the prospect of vast profits. New, fast ships were developed which were unable to carry large cargoes and needed to find a safe, neutral port within two or three days’ steaming. Nassau was again ideal, and the port prospered, the harbour and shops being packed with merchandise. The captains and pilots of the blockade running ships became as famous as their pirate predecessors. The end of the war provoked a severe and prolonged recession, with the cotton warehouses lying empty for 50 years. The inhabitants turned again to wrecking but even this livelihood was denied them when lighthouses and beacons were introduced, leaving few stretches of dangerous waters.

In 1919, with the advent of Prohibition in the United States, Nassau became a bootleggers’ paradise, but with the repeal of Prohibition, this source of wealth dried up and the islands had little to fall back on. The Thirties, a time of severe depression, ended in disaster in 1939 when disease killed off the sponges which had provided some means of livelihood. Once again, it was war which brought prosperity back. This time, however, foundations were laid for more stable conditions in the future and the two bases of prosperity, tourism and offshore finance, became firmly established. Nevertheless, the Bahamas’ location and the enormous difficulty in policing thousands of square miles of ocean has attracted both drug trafficking and the laundering of the resulting profits. About 11 of the cocaine entering the USA has been officially estimated to pass through the Bahamas. The Bahamas Government, in full co-operation with the US anti-narcotics agencies, has stepped up efforts to eradicate the trade.

For three centuries the merchant class elite of Nassau, known as the ‘Bay Street Boys’, influenced government and prevented universal adult suffrage until 1961. In the 1967 elections, an administration supported by the black majority came to power, led by Lynden (later Sir Lynden) Pindling, of the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), who retained power until 1992. In the first half of the 1980s allegations were made that he was involved in the drugs trade, but they were never conclusively proven. This and subsequent scandals led to the resignation or removal of a number of public officials, and contributed, together with economic decline, to the growing distrust and unpopularity of the Government.

General elections were held in August 1992 and a landslide victory was won by the Free National Movement (FNM), led by Hubert Ingraham. Mr Ingraham, a former PLP minister, had been dismissed from his post as Housing Minister after he supported a move for the resignation of Sir Lynden in 1984. Subsequently expelled from the party, he was elected as an Independent in 1987, joining the FNM in 1990. The new Prime Minister promised an improved climate for investment and tourism and an end to political patronage. A series of inquiries were held into the finances of state corporations including Bahamasair, and the Hotel Corporation, where corruption and misuse of public funds were alleged.

Legal challenges delayed the inquiry into the Bahamas Hotel Corporation, but the Commission resumed its hearings in January 1997. Sir Lynden Pindling returned to the islands after cancer treatment in the USA to face questions about deposits of US$3.9mn in his bank accounts in 1978-93. The Commission found that Sir Lynden acted improperly in accepting loans from businessmen and in dealing with a transaction involving the Emerald Palms hotel in his constituency. The report cited ‘gross mismanagement’ of the corporation and major projects leading to an accumulated loss of US$46mn which was written off in 1991. No action was taken against Sir Lynden. Two former cabinet members were found to have accepted illegal payments during their terms as chairman of Bahamasair; Philip Bethel and Darrell Rolle both stood down from their seats in the House of Assembly at the 1997 elections.

A general election was called on 14 March 1997, six months early. The number of seats in the House of Assembly was reduced from 49 to 40 because of new boundaries designed to give a more equitable distribution of voters per constituency. The FNM won a resounding victory with 57.6 of the vote and 34 seats. The turn out was high, at 91.7 of the electorate. The Bahamian Freedom Alliance’s eight candidates and 11 independents failed to win any seats and the PLP won only six, despite gaining nearly 42 of the vote. After the elections Perry Christie became leader of the opposition PLP when Sir Lynden Pindling resigned. The new government announced legislation to establish a stock exchange, improve regulation of the insurance industry and management of pension funds and increase the role of the Bahamas Development Bank. A by-election for Sir Lynden Pindling’s South Andros seat was held in September 1997 and won by the FNM candidate who had failed to unseat Sir Lynden at the general elections.


More . . .

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