The Bahamas

Location and geography

The Bahamas archipelago lies 970km (500 miles) south-west of the coast of Florida.  Its 700 low-lying islets and atolls boast the third longest coral reef in the world containing more than 14% of the earth’s coral.  Because the waters are clear and unpolluted, visibility at The Little Bahama and the Great Bahama Banks is good up to a depth of 60m (197ft).  The landscape of the various islands alternates between carpets of pine forest, barren savannahs and marshes and the coastlines are renowned for their beautiful sandy beaches.

The climate of the Bahamas

The coolest time of the year on the Bahamas runs from September through to May with temperatures averaging between 21° to 24°C (70° to 75°F) This is also the rainy season in the Bahamas although the sunshine quickly follows showers during the day.  The hottest months during the rest of the year are kept bearable by the cooling trade winds that gently blow throughout the year.  Hurricane season is during the wet months of June through to November when storms are heavy and hurricanes are known to occur every 2 to 6 years.

Brief History of the Bahamas

The first inhabitants of the islands arrived from other islands in the Caribbean around 500/800 AD.  These were the Arawaks who originally hailed from the mainland of South America.

Recorded history of the islands begins with the explorer Christopher Columbus in 1492 when he landed on the island he named San Salvador Island on his first voyage to “The New World”.  However, the first European settlement was not until 1648 on the island of Eleuthera.  Today’s ethnic population of the island are, for the most part, descendants of slaves brought to the islands during the 18th century.

Colonial History of the Bahamas

Although the first successful permanent settlement in the Bahamas was in the 17th century, there were many earlier attempts at colonisation made by the Spanish, French, British, and Dutch, but none were successful.

Sir Walter Raleigh organised the first two attempt to colonise Roanoke Island. The first was to reconnoitre the island, but the second in 1587 landed 116 English settlers.  These settlers later disappeared without a trace, but it is thought that they may have moved to Hatteras Island where they were absorbed into the island’s tribe of Amerindians.

The first French settlement was on the island of Abaco in 1565 and when this failed a further attempt was made in 1625, again without success.

Finally in 1609, and quite by accident, a small settlement was established by the crew and a small number of colonists who had been bound for Jamestown in Virginia and shipwrecked on the islands.  In 1612 the Virginia Company added another 60 settlers to their number and the first plantations were established.  These plantations’ labour requirements resulted in the import of the first African slaves in 1616. Shortly thereafter Bermuda formed its first government in 1620.  Settlers then began to spread out to the other islands and New Providence became the centre of the Bahamas.

Apart from farming the people of the Bahamas made a good living by salvaging goods from the many ships that were wrecked on the reefs.  This led to conflict with the Spanish and in 1684 the Spanish attacked and burned down the settlements on New Providence and Eleuthera which left these islands abandoned for many years.

The Bermudas became an official British Crown Colony in 1684 and the in 1690 English privateers set up bases in the Bahamas.  Many of these privateers became pirates after the war with France ended, and Nassau became the base for their infamous activities.

By 1701 Britain was once again at war, this time against Spain and France. Together Spain and France attacked the pirate base of Nassau and the remaining settlers left, which mean that the islands no longer enjoyed a functioning government and the Bahamas became a chaotic pirate republic.  However, this only lasted until 1717 when King George issued a pardon to pirates on condition that they surrender to the crown.  However, many pirates were not willing to surrender their independence on the seas and set about forcing the British naval ships to leave the Bahamas.  There followed a period of flux with some pirates working for the crown and others clinging to their old ways.  Many were publicly hanged under the governorship of Woodes Rogers and it was during this time that the names of British pirates such as Blackbeard, and Calico Jack became famous and the myths surrounding these men began.  However in 1719 war between Spain and Britain erupted once more and many of the previously despised pirates were commissioned to fight for the crown.

In 1768 the Governor of the Bahamas filled in the swamps which were mosquito breeding grounds and extended Nassau.  This led to a new influx of settlers with some coming from the American mainland.  It was at this time that cotton was developed as a commodity crop and in order to provide low-cost labour, slaves from Africa were imported to the islands.

The American Civil War

The Bahamas operated blockade-running for the Confederate states of America during the American Civil War, shipping cotton to English cotton mills and also running armaments to the Confederate Army, but the temporary prosperity produced by these activities was short lived and the Bahaman economy was once more reliant purely on agriculture.

From 1940 to 1945 the Bahamas were governed by the Duke of Windsor who having abdicated from the British throne was sent with his new wife as far from Britain as possible.  He did his best to alleviate poverty on the islands, but he was not impressed with his posting and felt that the Bahamas was a ‘third-class British colony” and neither he nor his wife were really committed to the wellbeing of the islands.  During his time as governor, there were many rumours about his supposed connections to the German 3rd Reich, none of which were ever proved.

Mass tourism to the islands began in earnest in 1957 when the previous wartime airfield near Nassau became the Bahamas first International airport, and Freeport, on Grand Bahama, was designated a free trade zone.  With a growing tourist industry and its policy of banking secrecy, the Bahamas began at last to prosper.

The Bahamas finally achieved self-government in 1964 and in 1967 the Progressive Liberal Party won the elections and appointed the first black premier of the islands giving him the title of ‘Prime Minister’.   This was Lynden Pindling later knighted by the queen in 1983.  The Bahamas became fully independent in 1973 retaining its membership of the Commonwealth of Nations.

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