1492 to 1646: Columbus reigns terror over the Lucayan natives

During the Bahamas’ pre-history period, a population of Lucayan natives inhabited the islands and thrived on a civilization built upon fishing, farming and crafts. The ideal conditions of the island allowed for the population of settlers to rapidly multiply, until tens of thousands of natives called the islands of the Bahamas ‘home.’

Their prosperous era came to a startling halt when European explorers discovered the islands, and wrought destructive terror upon the islanders. A trio of European men viciously driven by greed would entirely alter the course of Bahamian history.


In 1492, Christopher Columbus set out with a fleet of three ships in search of a direct route towards Asia. Instead, he landed in the Bahamas. Although the exact location of his first landfall is controversial, many agree that Columbus likely first visited the island of San Salvador, which the natives referred to as Guanahani, on October 14, 1492. Columbus named the islands “Baja Mar,” which means “shallow sea.”  The European explorers traveling with Columbus noted that dense forestation covered the Bahamian lands. Columbus and his crew were anticipating interaction with people of Asia, and were quite confused upon their first encounter. Natives cautiously watched as the lavishly adorned foreigners approached the island from their enormous ships, and eventually left their hiding spots in the dense vegetation to make contact with the intruders. Efforts by Columbus to communicate using the widely accepted language of Arabic were unsuccessful, and eventually the Europeans realized that they had not properly calculated their location.

After a thorough search of the island, explorers deemed that the Bahamas yielded very few resources that could be utilized by the Europeans, with one exception: the Lucayans.  Columbus noted the gruesome scars many natives had on their bodies from violent interactions with their Carib enemies, and he took an interest in the gold ornamentation they wore through their noses. It is thought that the natives would have assumed the Europeans were demi-gods. Columbus wooed the natives with gifts of bells and mirrors in exchange for local food and beads. This peaceful exchange carried on for two days, but upon learning that the gold came from the south, Columbus quickly set sail towards Cuba. During his departure, Columbus took a small handful of natives with him, serving as both island guides and living exhibitions. As the European crews voyaged towards destinations they believed to yield gold, they stopped at many other Bahamian islands, abusing women and demanding all available gold jewelry and pieces.

The native people living in the Bahamas were blossoming in population size prior to Columbus' arrival, and the Europeans wasted no time in harvesting human labor from the islands. Alonso de Hojeda was the second Spaniard to journey to the Bahamas. His mission was simple: enslave the natives. Given the peaceful nature of the tribes, they were an easy target for the ruthless conquistadors; up to 40,000 of the island people were unwillingly captured and shipped off by the Spaniards as slaves to work in the mines of Hispaniola. The Spanish tricked the native people into believing that a grand celebration would be held one evening on the beach. Upon gathering on the shoreline, the Lucayans were ambushed by armed Spaniards who forced all able-bodied natives onto their ships. A second seizure of human labor occurred when Amerigo Vespucci came to the Bahamas from Italy and brutally kidnapped shiploads of Lucayans. Those who weren't sold into slavery suffered many hardships, and a large portion of the population met their demise by the diseases brought by the Spaniards. After the first encounter with Columbus, a strain of syphilis was spread to the many women who were sexually abused by the European men. This spread through the tribes like a plague, decimating an estimated 50% of the population.

Within two decades, the islands went from a bustling society to being almost entirely uninhabited. Reports claim that when the Spanish returned to the island with plans to evacuate the remaining natives, less than a dozen people remained. After this harrowing incident, the Bahamas remained deserted for more than a hundred years. The islands were abandoned and deemed useless due to their lack of gold or any population. The Bahamas would remain relatively untouched until a group of English settlers came to the islands seeking political and religious freedom.

The only group brave enough to utilize the land of the Bahamas during this period of abandonment were known as “the wreckers.” These rugged island inhabitants capitalized on shipwrecks, and some accounts claim that false lighthouses were constructed to lure unsuspecting vessels towards disaster. Wreckers dominated the barren Bahamian wasteland during the 16th century, but the biggest insurgence of piracy wouldn't occur until the next century, when pirates like Blackbeard and Anne Bonney took over.


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