Like many of the Caribbean islands, the Bahamas, derived from the Spanish words "baja mar," or shallow sea, has a long history that includes many of the themes and events persistently found in the stories of other nations in the region.
The Bahamas, made up of a colony of hundreds of islands and cays, has a complicated history influenced by indigenous people, Spanish explorers, English settlers, and nearby Americans. Unfortunately, the history of the Bahamas also includes unsettling topics such as piracy and slavery. Despite periods of economic stagnation, the Bahamas, bolstered by its close proximity to the United States, has blossomed into one of the Caribbean's most fabled playgrounds - rich with history and full of sparkling waters and friendly people.
European exploration and colonialism were significant factors in the early history of the island chain located off the coast of Florida. Indigenous people, likely from nearby Cuba, lived on islands in the Bahamas as early as the fourth century AD.
Many believe the first recognizable cultural group to live in the Bahamas came from South America. Driven northward by other indigenous Caribbean people, the Caribs, the Lucayans, a group of Arawaks, eventually made their way up to the coral-laden islands of the Bahamas in the 10th century. It was here that the peaceful Lucayans settled and began taking advantage of their craft and agricultural skills to build a civilization.
European attempts to find a western passage to India would soon shatter the quiet existence of the Lucayans and have a devastating effect on the original inhabitants of the Bahamas. Christopher Columbus first encountered members of the 40,000 Lucayans living in the Bahamas when he landed on San Salvador in 1492. Three years later, he had enslaved these natives and relocated them to Hispaniola to work in mines. Within a short 25 years, the entire population of these natives had been extinguished.
The Puritans, English settlers seeking religious freedom in the 1600s, settled in the Bahamas around 1648. Like many of the English settlers who first colonized the continental United States and nearby islands, the early years in this new home were characterized by fighting and hunger. The Eleutheran Adventurers, as these settlers came to be known, may not have survived if their captain had not traveled to Massachusetts to procure supplies for the struggling settlement. Although the Spanish still had troops in the Bahamas, the Eleutherans soon had established a second settlement at Harbour Island.
With its complex geography of islands and cays, the Bahamas provided the perfect playground for pirates in the 17th and 18th century. Many of the most feared and renowned names in the history of piracy used the Bahamas during their raids. Pirates used Nassau as their base during this period, and the settlement was burned by retaliating Spanish forces several times during this period of piracy. Even after piracy was largely eradicated from Nassau and the Bahamas by the arrival of British Royal Governor Woodes Rogers, privateering, which was essentially piracy that was endorsed by and carried out for the British government, continued against Spanish and American interests in the region.
Famous pirates during this period include Edward Teach, otherwise known as Blackbeard. Blackbeard established a Privateer's Republic at Nassau until 1718 when Woodes Rogers drove the pirates out of the area. The British would later kill Blackbeard in a battle off the coast of Virginia. Not long after, in 1720, Woodes Rogers also fought and defeated the infamous pirates Calico Jack, Anne Bonny, and Mary Read.
One of the most famous privateers of the era, Sir Henry Morgan, continually harassed and raided Spanish interests in the region.
This complicated history of theft and adventure in the shallow maze of waters around the Bahamas survives as tales and legends. The fairy tale notion of buried treasure remains a real possibility on the hundreds of islands that make up the Bahamas.
The United States began asserting its influence over the Bahamas in the late 18th century. After the United States gained its independence from colonial rule, settlers still loyal to the British crown, known as Loyalists, took their slaves and left the colonies for the Bahamas. With the abilities used to build original colonies on the continental United States, the migrating Loyalists quickly created a home for themselves on the chain of islands. Loyalists drove the Spanish from the region in 1783, consolidating their power in the Bahamas.
The economy of the budding nation flourished during the years of the American Civil War, as merchants from the Bahamas evaded Union blockades to lucratively run cotton and goods between the Confederacy and England. The smuggling of scotch whiskey through Nassau during Prohibition in the United States, from 1919 until 1934, also proved quite profitable for the economy of the Bahamas.
Tourism increased during Prohibition, and the World War II era brought bases and jobs to the island chain. In 1961, when American tourists could no longer travel to Cuba, the Bahamas quickly became an easily accessible and popular destination for North American vacationers.
The island, with more than 270 years of democratic government, became a Commonwealth in 1969, and gained its full independence from the British government on July 10, 1973. Despite this governing independence, Queen Elizabeth II is still recognized as the head of state.
The Bahamas are said to be made from calcium carbonate, a product of the 5 percent of the world's coral that surrounds the islands. However, from the details of the rich history of the Bahamas, it is clear that these islands are made from much more than corals. Piracy, slavery, adventure, treasure, smuggling, and independence all created the country that is now such a popular vacation destination.
Read more about the history of the Bahamas in these detailed articles:
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