The Early Years
After Columbus made his first landfall somewhere in The Bahamas, Ponce de León voyaged here in 1513 looking for the legendary Fountain of Youth. This journey, incidentally, led to the European discovery of Florida and the Gulf Stream -- but not the magic fountain. Ponce de León's historian described the waters of the Little Bahama Bank, just north of Grand Bahama, as bajamar (pronounced "ba-ha-mar," Spanish for shallow water). This seems to be a reasonable source of The Bahamas' name.
It was Columbus, landing on October 12, 1492, who met the island residents, Arawak Indians called Lucayans. He renamed an island, called Guanahani by its native inhabitants, San Salvador. Over the years, there has been much dispute as to just which island this was. Long ago, it was decided that the discoverer's first landfall in the New World was a place known as Watling Island -- the modern-day San Salvador. Recent claims, however, place the first landing on Samana Cay, 105km (65 miles) southeast of what's now called San Salvador. In 1986, National Geographic propounded and supported this island as being the place where Columbus made landfall.
The Lucayans Columbus encountered are believed to have come to the islands in about the 8th century A.D. from the Greater Antilles (but originally from South America); they were seeking refuge from the savage Caribs then living in the Lesser Antilles. The Lucayans were peaceful people. They welcomed the Spaniards and taught them a skill soon shared with the entire seagoing world: how to make hammocks from heavy cotton cloth.
The Spanish, who claimed the Bahamian islands for their king and queen, did not repay the Lucayans kindly. Finding neither gold nor silver mines nor fertile soil, the conquistadors cleared the islands of their inhabitants, taking some 40,000 doomed Lucayans to other islands in New Spain to work in mines or dive for pearls. References to the islands first discovered by Columbus are almost nil after that time for about the next 135 years.
The Coming of the English
England formally claimed The Bahamas in 1629. No settlement took place, however, until the 1640s, when religious disputes arose in Bermuda and England. English and Bermudian settlers sailed to an island called Cigatoo, changed the name to Eleuthera (from the Greek word for freedom), and launched a tough battle for survival. Many became discouraged and went back to Bermuda, but a few hardy souls hung on, living on the products of the sea -- fish, ambergris, and shipwreck salvage.
Other people from Bermuda and England followed, and New Providence Island was settled in 1656. They planted cotton, tobacco, and sugarcane, and established Charles Towne, honoring Charles II, at the harbor.
Pirates & Privateers
The promising agricultural economy was short-lived. Several governors of that era were corrupt, and soon the islands became a refuge for English, Dutch, and French buccaneers who plundered the ships of Spain, the country that controlled the seas. The Spaniards responded by repeatedly ravaging New Providence for revenge, causing many of the settlers to leave. The remainder apparently found the pirates a good source of income. Privateers, a slightly more respectable type of freebooter (they had their sovereign's permission to prey on enemy ships), also found The Bahamas' many islets, tricky shoals, and secret harbors to be good hiding places on ships sailing between the New and Old worlds.
Late in the 17th century, Charles Towne's name was changed to Nassau to honor King William III, then on the British throne, who also had the title of Prince of Nassau. But the change in nomenclature didn't ease the troubled capital, as some 1,000 pirates still called New Providence home.
Finally, the appeals of merchants and law-abiding islanders for Crown control were heard, and in 1717, the lord proprietors turned over the government of The Bahamas, both civil and military, to King George I, who commissioned Capt. Woodes Rogers as the first royal governor.
Rogers seized hundreds of the lawless pirates. Some were sent to England to be tried. Eight were hanged. Others received the king's pardon, promising thereafter to lead law-abiding lives. Rogers was later given authority to set up a representative assembly, the precursor of today's Parliament. Despite such interruptions as the capture of Nassau by the fledgling U.S. Navy in 1776 (over in a few days) and the surrender of the Crown colony to Spain in 1782 (of almost a year's duration), the government of The Bahamas since Rogers's time has been conducted in an orderly fashion. The Spanish matter was settled in early 1783 in the Peace of Versailles, when Spain permanently ceded The Bahamas to Britain, ending some 300 years of disputed ownership.
Loyalists, Blockade-Runners & Bootleggers
After the American Revolution, several thousand Loyalists from the former colonies emigrated to The Bahamas. Some of these, especially southerners, brought their black slaves with them and tried their luck at planting sea-island cotton in the Out Islands, as the islands other than New Providence were called. Growing cotton was not a success, as the plants fell prey to the chenille bug, but by then, the former Deep South planters had learned to fish, grow vegetables, and provide for their families and servants in other ways.
The first white settlers of The Bahamas had also brought slaves with them, but with the United Kingdom Emancipation Act of 1834, the slaves were freed and the government compensated the former owners for their "property loss." It was a fairly peaceful transition, though it was many years before any real equality was seen.
The Civil War in America brought a transient prosperity to The Bahamas through blockade-running. Nassau became a vital base for the Confederacy, with vessels taking manufactured goods into the Carolinas and bringing out cotton. The Union's victory ended blockade-running and plunged Nassau into economic depression.
The next real boom the islanders enjoyed was engendered by U.S. Prohibition. As with the blockade-runners -- but this time with faster boats and more of them -- rumrunners churned the waters between The Bahamas and the southeastern states. From the passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919 to repeal of that law in 1933, Nassau, Bimini, and Grand Bahama served as bases for running contraband alcoholic beverages across the Gulf Stream to assuage Americans' thirst. Ceaseless battles were waged between the U.S. Coast Guard and this new generation of freebooters. When the U.S. repealed Prohibition, it dealt another shattering blow to the Bahamian economy.
The War Years
On August 17, 1940, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor arrived in Nassau, following his appointment as governor of the colony. The duke had abdicated as King Edward VIII to marry the woman he loved, a divorced American named Mrs. Simpson. The people of The Bahamas were shocked that such a once-powerful figure had been assigned the post of governing their impoverished colony, which was viewed as a backwater of the British Empire. The duke set about trying to make The Bahamas self-sufficient and providing more employment.
World War II healed the wounds of the bootlegging days, as The Bahamas served as an Atlantic air and sea station. From this, the country inherited two airports built for U.S. Air Force use during hostilities with the Germans. The islands were of strategic importance when Nazi submarines intruded into Atlantic coastal and Caribbean waters. Today, U.S. missile-tracking stations still exist on some of the outlying islands.
The Postwar Years
In the post-World War II years, party politics developed in The Bahamas as independence from Britain seemed more possible. In 1967, Lynden Pindling became prime minister after winning a close election.
He stayed in power until 1992 in an administration filled with scandal and graft. He was finally defeated in 1992 by Hubert Ingraham (discussed earlier). Perry Gladstone Christie then defeated Ingraham and was prime minister from 2002 until 2007, when Ingraham was returned to power.
During the election of 1972, the Bahamian people opted for total independence. The Bahamas agreed to be a part of the British Commonwealth, presided over by Queen Elizabeth II. Her future appointed representative would only be a governor-general, holding a ritualized position with mostly symbolic power.
The Commonwealth of The Bahamas came into being in 1973, making it the world's 143rd sovereign state. Its government was to be ministerial with a bicameral legislature and headed by a prime minister and an independent judiciary. The end to centuries of colonial rule was actually signaled in 1964, when The Bahamas was granted internal self-government pending drafting of a constitution, which was adopted in 1969. By choice, the island nation did not completely sever its ties with Great Britain, preferring to remain in the Commonwealth of Nations with the British monarch as its head of state.
As The Bahamas grows into a favorite stamping ground of celebrities, the archipelago has also become the scene of several recent scandals, each of which promoted a seemingly endless series of lawsuits and tabloid headlines.
There was the death of blonde, busty Anna Nicole Smith, who, although living in Nassau at the time, died in a Florida hotel room in February 2007. After a long legal battle, she was buried on New Providence Island next to her 20-year-old son, Daniel, who had died from a lethal combination of methadone and two kinds of antidepressants in a hospital room where his mother had previously given birth to Dannielynn, a daughter.
In January 2009, John Travolta's 16-year-old son, Jett, died in Nassau from complications associated with a seizure. In an incredibly convoluted case, which news people had a hard time explaining clearly to the public, ambulance driver Tarino Lightbourne and his attorney politician Pleasant Bridgewater were accused of demanding $25 million from the actor to keep them from revealing private information in the death of his son.
Bridgewater resigned her seat in The Bahamas Senate after she was charged in the case. This attempted extortion went to trial, but a mistrial was declared.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.