After Columbus wiped out the entire native Lucayan population of the Bahamas, the land remained a barren wasteland until English settlers came to the area from the overly crowded shores of Bermuda in 1647.
This group, known as the Eleutheran Adventurers, came seeking religious and political freedom. Unfortunately, one of the two sister ships crashed on a coral reef at the north end of a Bahamian island, and caused the loss of all the Eleutheran's supplies. Despite this, they settled on the island Eleuthera, and quickly realized that the island yielded very little sources of food. The group sent Captain William Sayles to the American colonies, where he received a shipment of supplies from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
The Eleutheran colony grew as whites, slaves and free blacks began to arrive on the island, but the settlers were unable to shake their unfavorable circumstances. By the 1650s, most settlers had returned to Bermuda. The small remaining population relocated to Harbour Island and Saint George's Cay, where they worked as farmers.
A decade later, a new group of settlers came to the island and had much better success with colonization. This group settled on New Providence, and relied on the sea for sustenance. Typical daily tasks included making salt, cutting wood and medicinal bark, salvaging the remains of shipwrecks and harvesting sea creatures like fish, turtles and ambergris.
Interestingly, neither the Eleutherian nor New Providence colony had a legal stance under English law at the time. In response, a patent for the Bahamas was instated by the Proprietors of Carolina in 1670, but governors were unable to issue any control over the islanders.
The business of salvaging shipwrecks, known simply as “wrecking,” was the most profitable occupation in the Bahamas. Naturally, this led to many conflicts between the wreckers and the Spaniards who wished to reclaim their lost vessels and cargo. In retaliation against the wreckers, Spanish forces invaded the Bahamas, and eventually burned down the colonies. Once again, the Bahamas were left deserted.
In 1686, settlers from Jamaica repopulated New Providence. They were quickly joined by English privateers and pirates. The booming pirate industry was based out of the Bahamian capitol of Nassau. Still under English rule, the Bahamas found themselves in the middle of their ruling nation's war against France and Spain. Combined French and Spanish forces attacked the islands, causing English Proprietors to abandon their attempts at governing the Bahamas.
With the absence of any proper government, English privateers took over the Bahamas and waged attacks against French and Spanish ships for many years. As a result, Nassau was set ablaze many times by the enemy forces. Despite the end of the War of Spanish Succession, the privateers refused to give up their lives of piracy, and it is estimated that there were nearly a thousand residing on the islands. Famous pirates like Blackbeard, Henry Jennings, Calico Jack and Mary Read based their piracy out of Nassau during this period. In 1718, the reign of pirates ended as Woodes Rogers arrived in the Bahamas with warships from Britain and finally established order as the First Royal Governor of the Bahamas.
The Bahamas played an important yet relatively unknown role during the American War of Independence. Although the island colonies never officially took sides, they engaged in a large undercover operation that traded gun power and firearms with American forces. During this period, General Galvez’s Spanish forces overtook the Bahamas, but it was eventually retaken by British-American loyalists. In the aftermath of the war, thousands of loyalists sought refuge in the Bahamas. They established fairly successful cotton plantations with the assistance of governmental land grants, and the slaves that they brought with them became the ancestors of many Bahamians today. Eventually, the loyalists abandoned their cotton estates and left the slaves to live freely on the islands with a widespread emancipation in 1834.
During the American Civil War, the Bahamas continued to play an integrated role in their neighboring mainland’s conflicted affairs. The islands served as a base for blockade-running by the Confederates. The Bahamas acted as a vehicle for transporting arms and munitions. During the age of Prohibition, the Bahamas was once again utilized for its convenient location; this time for rum running.
After the blossoming period of rum running ended with the repeal of Prohibition, the Bahamas fell into a period of economic downfall, marked by distinct class differences and a skewed distribution of wealth and power. It would remain this way until World War II.
When the Allies began to use the Bahamas as a base for flight training and underwater operations, the Bahamas entered a period of economic repair. The old airfield used during the war was transformed into an international airport in 1957, which sparked the beginning of the Bahamas’ bustling tourism industry. Also during the 1950s, the island region of Freeport was deemed a free trade zone, and became the country’s second official city. As the Bahamas skyrocketed towards their present day status, the islands would see recognition as an independent country in 1973, increasing involvement in drug trafficking, a surge of destructive hurricane activity and a surge of Olympic victories.
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