The Taino people settled in the uninhabited south of the Bahamas from Hispaniola and Cuba around the 11th century after migrating there from South America. They became the Lucayan people. It is estimated that 30,000 Lucayans were living in the Bahamas at the time of Columbus’ arrival in 1492.
Christopher Columbus’ first landing in the New World was on an island he named San Salvador (known to the Lucayans as Guanahani). Some researchers believe that this place is today’s San Salvador Island (formerly known as Watling’s Island), located in the southeast of the Bahamas. Another theory is that Columbus landed in the southeast, at Samana Cay, according to calculations made by National Geographic author and editor Joseph Judge in 1986 using Columbus’ logbook. The evidence supporting this theory is not yet conclusive. On the island of arrival, Columbus made first contact with the Lucayans and exchanged goods with them.
The Spaniards forced a large part of the Lucayan population on Hispaniola to use them as forced labourers. The slaves suffered harsh living conditions and most of them died of diseases to which they were not immune; half of the Tainos died of smallpox alone. The population of the Bahamas was severely decimated.
In 1648, Eleutheran adventurers led by William Sayle emigrated from Bermuda. These English Puritans founded the first permanent European colony on an island they called Eleuthera – the name derives from the Greek word for “freedom”. They then settled New Providence, which they named Sayle’s Island after one of their chiefs. To survive, the settlers salvaged goods from shipwrecks.
In 1670, King Charles II ceded the islands to the Lords who owned the Carolinas in North America. They leased the islands to the king with the right to trade, levy taxes, appoint governors and administer the land. In 1684, the Spanish privateer Juan de Alcon raided the capital Charles Town (later renamed Nassau). In 1703, a joint French-Spanish expedition briefly occupied the Bahamian capital during the War of the Spanish Succession.
18th and 19th century
Under the IP regime, the Bahamas became a haven for pirates, including the infamous Blackbeard (c. 1680-1718). To end the “pirate republic” and restore orderly government, Britain made the Bahamas a crown colony in 1718 under the royal government of Woodes Rogers. After a hard struggle, he succeeded in suppressing piracy. In 1720, Rogers led the local militia to repel a Spanish attack.
During the American War of Independence at the end of the 18th century, the islands became a target for American naval forces under the command of Commodore Esek Hopkins. The U.S. Marines occupied the capital Nassau for fourteen days.
In 1782, after the British defeat at Yorktown, a Spanish fleet appeared off the coast of Nassau. The city surrendered without a fight. Spain returned possession of the Bahamas to Britain the following year, under the terms of the Treaty of Paris. But before the news arrived, the islands were recaptured by a small British force led by Andrew Deveaux.
After American independence, the British resettled about 7,300 Loyalists with their slaves in the Bahamas and gave land to planters to compensate them for their losses on the continent. These Loyalists, including Deveaux, established plantations on several islands and became a political force in the capital. Americans of European descent outnumbered the African American slaves they brought with them, and ethnic Europeans remained a minority in the territory.
In 1807, the British abolished the slave trade, followed a year later by the United States. Over the next decades, the Royal Navy disrupted the trade and resettled thousands of Africans freed from slave ships in the Bahamas.
In the 1820s, during the time of the Seminole Wars in Florida, hundreds of American slaves and African Seminoles fled from Cape Florida to the Bahamas. Most of them settled in the northwestern part of Andros Island, where they developed the village of Red Bays. According to witnesses, 300 of them escaped in 1823 in a stampede, assisted by Bahamians in 27 sloops; others used canoes for the journey. This escape was commemorated in 2004 with a large sign at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park. Some of their descendants in the Red Bays carry on the African Seminole traditions of basketry and grave marking.
The U.S. National Park Service, which manages the national Underground Railroad to freedom, is working with the African Bahamas Museum and Research Center (ABAC) in Nassau to develop a way to identify the Red Bays as a place associated with the American slaves’ quest for freedom. The museum has researched and documented the escape of the African Seminoles from South Florida. There are plans to develop interpretive programmes on the Red Bay historic sites associated with the period of their settlement in the Bahamas.
In 1818, the London Home Office had decided that “every slave brought into the Bahamas from outside the British West Indies should be manumitted”. This led to the liberation of nearly 300 slaves belonging to American citizens between 1830 and 1835. The American slave ships Comet and Encomium, used in the United States coastal trade, were shipwrecked off Abaco Island in December 1830 and February 1834 respectively. When the castaways brought the captains, passengers and slaves to Nassau, customs officials seized the slaves and British colonial officials released them despite American protests. There were 165 slaves on the Comet and 48 on the Encomium. Britain eventually paid compensation to the United States in both cases in 1855 under the Claims Treaty of 1853, which settled several compensation cases between the two nations.
On 1 August 1834, slavery was abolished in the British Empire. As a result, the British colonial authorities freed 78 American slaves from the Enterprise, which sailed to Bermuda in 1835, and 38 from the Hermosa, which sank off the island of Abaco in 1840. The most notable case is that of the Creole in 1841: after a revolt by the slaves on board, the authorities ordered the American brig to be taken to Nassau. It was carrying 135 slaves from Virginia to be sold in New Orleans. Bahamian officials freed the 128 slaves who wished to remain in the islands. The Creole case has been described as “the most successful slave revolt in US history”.
These incidents, in which a total of 447 American national slaves were freed between 1830 and 1842, heightened tensions between the United States and Britain. They had cooperated in patrols to stop the international slave trade. However, the United States, concerned about the stability of its large domestic slave trade and its value, argued that Britain should not treat its domestic ships that entered its colonial ports under duress as part of the international trade. The United States feared that the success of the Creoles in gaining freedom would lead to further slave revolts on merchant ships.
In August 1940, following his abdication from the British throne, the Duke of Windsor was installed as Governor of the Bahamas and arrived with his wife, the Duchess. Although discouraged by the state of Government House, they “tried to make the best of a bad situation”. He did not appreciate this position and described the islands as a “third class British colony”.
He opened the small local parliament on 29 October 1940. In November of the same year, the couple visit the Out Islands on Axel Wenner-Gren’s yacht, which causes controversy; the British Foreign Office vehemently opposes it because American intelligence has (mistakenly) informed them that Wenner-Gren was a close friend of the Luftwaffe commander of Nazi Germany, Hermann Göring.
The Duke was praised at the time for his efforts to fight poverty in the islands. However, a biography by Philip Ziegler published in 1991 describes him as contemptuous of Bahamians and other non-white peoples in the Empire. He was praised for solving low-income riots in Nassau during a “large-scale insurrection” in June 1942. Ziegler said the Duke blamed the riots on “troublemaking communists” and “men of Jewish origin from Central Europe who had obtained work under the pretext of obtaining a deferment of conscription”.
The duke resigned on 16 March 1945
After the Second World War
Modern political development began after the Second World War. The first political parties were formed in the 1950s. The British Parliament approved internal self-government for the islands in 1964, with Sir Roland Symonette of the United Bahamian Party as the first Prime Minister.
On 7 January 1964, a new constitution came into force, granting the Bahamas internal self-government. In 1967, Lynden Pindling of the Progressive Liberal Party became the first black prime minister of the predominantly black colony; in 1968, the title of the post was changed to prime minister. In 1968, Pindling announced that the Bahamas would seek full independence. A new constitution giving the Bahamas greater control over its own affairs was adopted in 1968.
The British House of Lords voted for Bahamian independence on 22 June 1973. Prince Charles handed over the official documents to Prime Minister Lynden Pindling, who officially declared the Bahamas a fully independent nation on 10 July 1973. On the same day, they joined the Commonwealth of Nations. Sir Milo Butler was appointed the first Governor General of The Bahamas (the official representative of Queen Elizabeth II) shortly after independence. The Bahamas joined the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank on 22 August 1973 and joined the United Nations on 18 September 1973.
Based on the twin pillars of tourism and offshore finance, the Bahamian economy has flourished since the 1950s. Significant challenges in areas such as education, health care, housing, international drug trafficking and illegal immigration from Haiti continue to pose problems.
The College of the Bahamas is the national higher/tertiary education system. COB offers bachelor’s, master’s and associate degrees and has three campuses and teaching and research centres in The Bahamas. COB is on track to become the University of The Bahamas (UOB) in 2015.