Bahamas, The

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The Bahamas is an archipelago and a nation in the western Atlantic Ocean, east of the Florida peninsula and north of Cuba and Haiti. Most of the archipelago comprises the Commonwealth of the Bahamas. The British Overseas Territory of the Turks and Caicos Islands is part of the archipelago, but not of the Commonwealth of The Bahamas.


The Commonwealth of the Bahamas has an area of 5,358 sq. mi. (13,878 sq. km).[1]

By one count, the Bahamas consists of 29 islands, 661 cays (pronounced "keys"), and 2,387 rocks. The archipelago extends about 885 km (550 miles) from the Little Bahama Bank near Florida southeastward to Grand Turk Island north of Haiti. Most of the islands, cays and rocks of the northeastern and central Bahamas are located on the Grand Bahama Bank and the Little Bahama Bank, vast areas of very shallow water (the name "Bahamas" is derived from the Spanish bajamar, meaning "shallow sea"). Only 30 or so islands and cays are inhabited. More than half of the population lives on New Providence, where the capital, Nassau, is located.[2]

The Bahamas is low lying. The highest point of land in the Bahamas, on Cat Island, is only 63 meters (206 feet) above sea level; most of the islands are less than 30 meters (100 feet) above sea level. The low-lying parts of land are marine limestone, high parts of the vast submerged marine limestone platforms that have (geologically) recently been raised above sea level. The limestone is at least 6,100 meters (20,000 feet) thick, all of which has accumulated in the past 200 million years. The higher elevations on some islands were produced as sand dunes, the older of which have cemented into a type of limestone locally called 'plate rock' or 'flint rock'.[3]

The Bahamas have a marine tropical climate. All of the archipelago is affected by trade winds, blowing primarily out of the northeast to southeast, with few calm days. All of the islands and cays are also affected by hurricanes, with the probability of a strike increasing from the southeast to the northwest of the archipelago. Annual average rainfall varies by latitude, from 1500 mm or more on Abaco and Grand Bahamas Islands in the northwest to less than 800 mm on Grand Inagua and in the Turks and Caicos Islands in the southeast.[4]

The aboriginal vegetation on the Bahamas was subtropical moist forest in the northern area, tropical moist forest in the center, and very dry tropical forest in the south. Most of the tropical hardwood trees of the aboriginal forest have been logged off to clear land for agriculture, and for the lumber and dyewood trades. Yellow pine (Pinus caribea v. bahamensis) dominates the secondary forest growth on the northern islands. Elsewhere the remaining forests have low canopies (two to three meters) and fewer species at any given location. Introduced coconut palms (Cocos nucifera) and Australian pines (Casuarina litorea) are common.[5]

The only mammals native to the Bahamas are bats and hutias (a type of rodent). Several species of hutias were once found throughout the Bahamas, but they are now restricted to the Plano Cays and the Exuma Cays. Bahamaian reptiles include anole (Anolis sp.) and curly tail (Leiocephalus sp.) lizards, pygmy boas (Epicrates sp.) and the rock iguana (Cyclura carinata). The rock iguana does not do well around people, and its range is much reduced from its pre-settlement area. The Lucayans had dogs, and later settlers have introduced cats, goats, hogs, cattle, horses and donkeys, all of which have become feral in less accessible areas of the islands, as well as black rats.[6]


The aboriginal inhabitants of the Bahamas were the Lucayans, related to the Tainos of Cuba, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. The Spanish soon began enslaving the Lucayans to work in Hispaniola. Of some 20,000 to 30,000 Lucayans living in the Bahamas at the time of Columbus's arrival in 1492, only 11 were found by the Spanish for a final evacuation to Hispaniola in 1520. Thereafter the Bahamas remained uninhabited for 130 years.[7]

Resettlement of the Bahamas began in 1648 on Eleuthera by a company of Englishmen from Bermuda. Within a few years Bermuda exiled "some troublesome slaves and Native Bermudians and all the free Negroes" to Eleuthera. [8]

The Commonwealth of the Bahamas had a population of 303,611 in the census of 2000. Of these, 210,832 lived on New Providence. The population was estimated to be 309,156 in July 2009.[9]

Native Bahamians of European descent are commonly referred to as "conchs", pronounced "conks".[10]


About 60% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the Bahamas is produced by tourism and related industries. Tourism and related industries employ about half of the workforce. Financial services is the second-most important sector of the economy[11]

Government and society

The Commonwealth of the Bahamas is a parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy, with Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state. The Queen is represented in the Bahamas by a Governor-General (as of 2009, Arthur Dion Hanna[12]. The head of government is the Prime Minister (as of 2009, Hubert Ingraham[13]) who, with the Cabinet, forms the executive branch of the government. The legislative branch, Parliament, consists of a Senate and a House of Assembly.[14]

The judicial branch consists of several levels of courts. Magistrates' Courts are located on New Providence, Grand Bahama and Abaco islands, with jurisdiction in criminal cases and civil actions with a value under $5,000. Administrators on the other islands act as magistrates in minor criminal cases and civil action with a value under $400. The Supreme Court has general jurisdiction in criminal and civil matters. The Court of Appeal has jurisdiction in constitutional, criminal and civil matters. Appeals from the Court of Appeal are made to the Judicial Committee of Her Majesty's Privy Council, in the United Kingdom.[15] [16]

Cultural life


The first inhabitants of the Bahamas were the Lucayans, a branch of the Arawakan-speaking Tainos of the Greater Antilles. Around 800, or possibly a century earlier, Tainos began crossing in dugout canoes from Hispaniola and/or Cuba to the Bahamas.[17]

In 1492 Christopher Columbus sailed from Spain with three ships, seeking a direct route to Asia. On October 12, 1492 Columbus reached an island in the Bahamas, an event long regarded as the 'discovery' of America. This first island to be visited by Columbus was called Guanahani by the Lucayans, and San Salvador by the Spanish. The identity of the first American landfall by Columbus remains controversial, but many authors accept Samuel E. Morrison's identification of what was then called Watling (or Watling's) Island as Columbus' San Salvador. The former Watling Island is now officially named San Salvador. Columbus visited several other islands in the Bahamas before sailing on to Cuba.[18]

The Bahamas held little of interest to the Spanish other than the Lucayans. When Spanish exploitation of the labor of the natives of Hispaniola rapidly reduced that population, the Spanish began capturing Lucayans in the Bahamas for use as laborers in Hispaniola. The Spanish may have carried away as many as 40,000 Lucayans in 20 years, leaving the Bahamas unpopulated.[19]

English settlement

The Bahamas remained uninhabited for the next 130 years. In 1648 a group from Bermuda called 'The Company of Adventurers for the Plantation of the Islands of Eleutheria' sailed to the Bahamas to found a colony. The larger of the company's two ships wrecked on the reef at the north end of what is now called Eleuthera Island, with the loss of all provisions. Despite receiving relief supplies from Virginia and New England, the Eleuthera colony struggled for many years.[20]

Some years before 1670 other settlers from Bermuda arrived on New Providence, which soon became the center of population and commerce in the Bahamas. Unlike the Eleutherians, who were primarily farmers, the first settlers on New Providence made their living from the sea, salvaging (mainly Spanish) wrecks, making salt, and taking fish, turtles, conchs and ambergris. Farmers from Bermuda soon followed the seamen to New Providence, where they found good, plentiful land. Neither the Eleutherian colony nor the settlement on New Providence had any legal standing under English law. In 1670 the Proprietors of Carolina were issued a patent for the Bahamas, but the governors sent by the Proprietors had difficulty in imposing their authority on the independent-minded residents of New Providence.[21]

Wreckers, privateers and pirates

The Bahamians soon came into conflict with the Spanish over the salvaging of wrecks. The Bahamian wreckers drove the Spanish away from their wrecked ships, and even attacked the Spanish salvors and seized goods the Spanish had already recovered from the wrecks. The Spanish raided the Bahamas, the Bahamians in turn commissioned privateers against Spain, even though England and Spain were at peace, and in 1684 the Spanish burned the settlement on New Providence, after which the island was largely abandoned. New Providence was settled a second time in 1686 from Jamaica. In the 1690s English privateers (England was at war with France) and pirates established themselves in the Bahamas. With peace with France in 1697 many of the privateers joined the pirates. From this time the pirates increasingly made the Bahamian capitol of Nassau, founded in 1694, their base. The governors appointed by the Proprietors usually made a show of suppressing the pirates, but most were often accused of dealing with the pirates. By 1701 England was at war with France and Spain. In 1703 a combined French-Spanish fleet attacked and destroyed Nassau, after which the Proprietors gave up on trying to govern the Bahamas.[22]

With no effective government in the Bahamas, Nassau was taken over by English privateers, in what has been called a "privateers' republic," which lasted for eleven years. The privateers attacked French and Spanish ships, while French and Spanish forces burned Nassau several times. The War of the Spanish Succession ended in 1714, but some privateers were slow to get the news, or reluctant to accept it, and slipped into piracy. One estimate puts at least 1,000 pirates in the Bahamas in 1713, outnumbering the 200 families of more permanent settlers. The "privateers' republic" in Nassau became a "pirates' republic". At least 20 pirate captains used Nassau or other places in the Bahamas as a home port during this period, including Henry Jennings, Edward Teach (Blackbeard), Benjamin Hornigold, Charles Vane, "Calico Jack" Rackham and Stede Bonnet, as well as the "lady pirates" Mary Read and Anne Bonney. The "pirates' republic" came to an end in 1718, when Woodes Rogers, the first Royal Governor of the Bahamas, reached Nassau with a small fleet of warships.[23]

The Proprietors of Carolina had surrendered the government of the Bahamas to the king, while retaining title to the land. As well as being appointed Governor by the King, Woodes Rogers and his partners had leased the land of the Bahamas from the Proprietors for 21 years. Word of the coming change, along with an offer of an amnesty, had reached Nassau ahead of Rogers. Some pirates sailed off to find British authorities to confirm their acceptance of the amnesty. A few pirates offered a brief resistance to Rogers' arrival, and then slipped away. The 300 left cheered Rogers when he landed and gave their oath to the king, although many soon reverted to their old ways.[24]


  1. The Government of the Bahamas - Overview of the Bahamas
  2. Paul Albury. The Story of the Bahamas. p. 5
    Michael Craton. A History of the Bahamas. p. 11
  3. Albury. pp. 6-7
    Craton. p.11
    William F. Keegan. The People Who Discovered Columbus: The Prehistory of the Bahamas. p. 20
  4. Keegan. p. 27
  5. Keegan. pp. 28-32
  6. Keegan. pp. 38-9
  7. Albury. pp. 34-7
  8. Albury. pp. 42-5
  9. CIA World Factbook - The Bahamas
  10. Charles C. Foster. Conchtown USA Florida Atlantic University Press. (1991)
  11. CIA World Factbook - The Bahamas
  12. The Government of the Bahamas - Governor General
  13. The Government of the Bahamas - Prime Minister
  14. The Government of the Bahamas - Overview and Structure of the Government
  15. The Government of the Bahamas - The Judicature of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas
  16. Judicial Committee of the Privy Council [U.K.], "Role of the JCPC," Accessed: 2010-12-10. (Archived by WebCite® at
  17. Keegan. pp. 48-62
  18. Albury. pp. 21-33
    Craton. pp. 28-37
    Keegan. pp. 175-205
  19. Albury. p. 36
    Craton. pp. 37-39
    Keegan. p.212, 220-3
  20. Albury. pp. 41-6
  21. Albury. pp. 47-51
  22. Albury. pp. 51-5
    Craton. pp. 70-87
  23. Albury. pp. 58-72
    Craton. pp. 89-90
  24. Albury. pp. 69-74
    Craton. pp. 93-6


See Bibliography.