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The history of the Bahamas begins with the earliest arrival of humans in the islands in the first millennium AD. The first inhabitants of the islands now known as The Bahamas were the Lucayans, an Arawakan-speaking Taino people, who arrived between about 500 and 800 from the islands of the Caribbean. Recorded history begins in 1492, when Christopher Columbus landed on the island of Guanahani, an unknown island somewhere in the Bahamas, on his first voyage. The earliest permanent European settlement occurred in 1647 on the island. The 18th century slave trade brought many Africans to the Bahamas. Their descendants constitute 85 percent of the Bahamian population. The Bahamas gained independence from the United Kingdom on July 10, 1973.
The first inhabitants of the Bahamas were the Lucayans, a branch of the Arawakan-speaking Tainos of the Greater Antilles. Sometime between 500 to 800, Tainos began crossing in dugout canoes from Hispaniola and/or Cuba to the Bahamas. Suggested routes for the earliest migrations have been from Hispaniola to the Caicos Islands, from Hispaniola or eastern Cuba to Great Inagua Island, and from central Cuba to Long Island (in the central Bahamas). William Keegan argues that the most likely route was from Hispaniola or Cuba to Great Inagua. Granberry and Vescelius argue for two migrations, from Hispaniola to the Turks and Caicos Islands and from Cuba to Great Inagua.
From the initial colonization(s) the Lucayans expanded throughout the Bahamas Islands in some 800 years (c. 700 – c. 1500), growing to a population of about 40,000. Population density at the time of first European contact was highest in the south central area of the Bahamas, declining towards the north, reflecting the progressively shorter time of occupation of the northern islands. Known Lucayan settlement sites are confined to the nineteen largest islands in the archipelago, or to smaller cays located less than one km. from those islands. Population density in the southern-most Bahamas remained lower, probably due to the drier climate there (less than 800 mm of rain a year on Great Inagua Island and the Turks and Caicos Islands and only slightly higher on Acklins and Crooked Islands and Mayaguana).
In 1492 Christopher Columbus sailed from Spain on his first voyage with three ships, the Nina, the Pinta and the flag ship The Santa Maria, seeking a direct route to Asia. On 12 October 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. Morison'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 and afterward to Hispaniola.
The Bahamas held little of interest to the Spanish other than as a source of slave labor. Nearly the entire population of Lucayans (almost 40,000 people total) were deported over the next 30 years. When the Spanish decided to evacuate the remaining Lucayans to Hispaniola in 1520, they could find only eleven in all of the Bahamas. The islands remained abandoned and depopulated for 130 years afterwards. With no gold to be found, and the population removed, the Spanish effectively abandoned the Bahamas, but still retained titular claims to them until the Treaty of Versailles in 1783.
When Europeans first landed on the islands, they reported the Bahamas were lushly forested. The forests were cleared during plantation days and have not regrown.
In 1648 a group from Bermuda called 'The Company of Adventurers for the Plantation of the Islands of Eleutheria' which was led by William Sayle, sailed to the Bahamas to found a colony. These early settlers were Puritans and republicans. Bermuda was also becoming overcrowded, and the Bahamas offered both religious and political freedom and economic opportunity. The larger of the company's two ships, the William, wrecked on the reef at the north end of what is now called Eleuthera Island, with the loss of all provisions. Despite the arrival of additional settlers, including whites, slaves and free blacks, from Bermuda and the receipt of relief supplies from Virginia and New England, the Eleuthera colony struggled for many years because of poor soil, fighting between settlers, and conflict with the Spanish. In the mid-1650s many of the settlers returned to Bermuda. The remaining settlers founded communities on Harbour Island and Saint George's Cay (Spanish Wells) at the north end of Eleuthera. In 1670 there were about 20 families living in the Eleuthera communities.
In 1666 other settlers from Bermuda arrived on New Providence, which soon became the center of population and commerce in the Bahamas, with almost 500 people living on the island by 1670. 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.
The early settlers continued to live much as they had in Bermuda, fishing, hunting turtles, whales, and seals, finding ambergris, making salt on the drier islands, cutting the abundant hardwoods of the islands for lumber, dyewood and medicinal bark, and wrecking, or salvaging wrecks. The Bahamas were close to the sailing routes between Europe and the Caribbean, so shipwrecks in the islands were common, and wrecking was the most lucrative occupation available to the Bahamians.
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 salvagers 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 settlements on New Providence and Eleuthera, after which they were largely abandoned. New Providence was settled a second time in 1686 from Jamaica.
In the 1690s English privateers (England was at war with France) established themselves in the Bahamas. In 1696 Henry Every (or Avery), using the assumed name Henry Bridgeman, brought his ship Fancy, loaded with pirate's loot, into Nassau harbor. Every bribed the governor, Nicholas Trott (uncle of the Nicholas Trott who presided at the trial of Stede Bonnet), with gold and silver, and by leaving him the Fancy, still loaded with 50 tons of elephant tusks and 100 barrels of gunpowder. Following peace with France in 1697 many of the privateers became 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 and in 1706 combined French-Spanish fleets attacked and sacked Nassau, after which some settlers left and the Proprietors gave up on trying to govern the Bahamas.
With no functioning government in the Bahamas, Nassau became a base of operations for English privateers, in what has been called a "privateers' republic," which lasted for eleven years. The raiders 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 and Stede Bonnet. Many settler families moved from New Providence to Eleuthera or Abaco to escape harassment from the pirates. On the other hand, residents of Harbor Island were happy to serve as middlemen for the pirates, as merchants from New England and Virginia came there to exchange needed supplies for pirate plunder. As mentioned above, the activities of pirates provoked frequent and brutal retaliatory attacks by the French and Spanish.
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. Starting in 1713, Rogers had conceived the idea of leading an expedition to Madagascar to suppress the pirates there and establish it as a British colony. Rogers' friends Richard Steele and Joseph Addison eventually convinced him to tackle the pirates nest in the Bahamas, instead. Rogers and others formed a company to fund the venture. They persuaded the Proprietors of Carolina to surrender the government of the Bahamas to the king, while retaining title to the land. The 1,000 or so pirates on the islands surrendered peacefully and the Proprietors then leased their land in the Bahamas to Rogers' company for 21 years. In 1717 King George appointed Rogers governor of the Bahamas and issued a proclamation granting a pardon to any pirate who surrendered to a British governor within one year.
Word of the appointment of a new governor and of the offer of pardons reached Nassau ahead of Rogers. Some of the pirates were willing to accept a pardon and retire from piracy. Others were not ready to give up. Many of those were Jacobites, supporters of the House of Stuart, who regarded themselves as enemies of the Hanoverian King George. Still others simply saw themselves as rebels, or thought they were better off as pirates than trying to earn an honest living. When a Royal Navy ship brought official word to Nassau of the pardon offer, it seemed at first that most of the pirates in Nassau would accept. Soon, however, the recalcitrant party gained the upper hand, eventually forcing the Navy ship to leave.
Some pirates, such as Henry Jennings and Christopher Winter, sailed off to find British authorities to confirm their acceptance of the amnesty. Others, such as Blackbeard, Stede Bonnet, Nicholas Brown and Edmond Condent, left the Bahamas for other territories. Charles Vane, with "Calico Jack" Rackham and Edward England in his crew, came to prominence at this time. Vane worked to organize resistance to the anticipated arrival of Royal authority, even appealing to the James Francis Edward Stuart, the Stuart pretender, for aid in holding the Bahamas and capturing Bermuda for the Stuarts. As aid from the Stuarts failed to materialize and Rogers' arrival approached, Vane and his crew prepared to leave Nassau.
Woodes Rogers arrived in Nassau in late July 1718, with his own 460 ton warship, three other ships belonging to his company, and escorted by three ships of the Royal Navy. Vane's ship was trapped in Nassau harbor. His crew set that ship on fire, sending it towards Rogers' ships, and escaped in the ensuing confusion in a smaller ship they had seized from another pirate. Rogers' arrival in Nassau was welcomed by the remaining population, about 200 settlers and 500 to 700 pirates who want to receive pardons, most prominently Benjamin Hornigold.
Rogers had control of Nassau, but Charles Vane was loose and threatening to drive Rogers out, and Rogers received word that the King of Spain wanted to drive the English completely out of the Bahamas. Rogers worked to improve the defenses of Nassau, but an unidentified disease killed almost 100 of the men who had come to Nassau with Rogers, and then the Navy ships left. Rogers sent four of his ships to Havana to assure the Spanish governor that Rogers was suppressing piracy in the Bahamas and to trade for supplies. The crews of ex-pirates and men who had come with Rogers all turned pirate themselves. Ten of those men were caught at Green Turtle Cay by Rogers' new pirate-hunter, the ex-pirate Benjamin Hornigold. Eight of the pirates were found guilty and hanged in front of the fort.
Charles Vane attacked several small settlements in the Bahamas, but after he refused to attack a stronger French frigate, he was deposed for cowardice and replaced as captain by "Calico Jack" Rackham. Vane never returned to the Bahamas, but was eventually caught, tried and executed in Jamaica. After nearly being captured by Jamaican privateers, and hearing that the king had extended the deadline being pardoned for piracy, Rackham and his crew returned to Nassau and received pardons from Woodes Rogers. In Nassau Rackham became involved with Anne Bonny and tried to arrange an annulment of her marriage to another ex-pirate, James Bonny. Rogers blocked the annulment, and Rackham and Bonny left Nassau to be pirates again, taking a small crew and Bonny's friend Mary Read with them. Within months, Rackham, Bonny and Read were captured and taken to Jamaica, where Rackham was executed and Bonny and Read escaped execution due to pregnancy. Bonny died in prison, while Read's fate is unknown.
Britain and Spain went to war again in 1719, and many of the ex-pirates became privateers. A Spanish invasion fleet set out for the Bahamas, but was diverted to Pensacola, Florida when it was seized by the French. Rogers continued to improve the defenses of Nassau, spending his money and going heavily into debt to do so. A second Spanish invasion fleet in 1720 was deterred by the defenses (and the accidental presence of a Royal Navy ship in Nassau). His efforts has also physically exhausted Rogers. He returned to Britain in 1722 to plead for repayment of the money he had borrowed to build up Nassau, only to find he had been replaced as governor. He then ended up in debtors' prison, although his creditors later absolved his debts, allowing him to leave prison. After the publication in 1724 of A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates, which gave a favorable account of Rogers' efforts to suppress piracy in the Bahamas, his fortunes began to improve. The king awarded him a pension, retroactive to 1721, and in 1728 appointed Governor of the Bahamas for a second term. Rogers dissolved the colony's assembly when it would not approve taxes to repair Nassau's defenses. Woodes Rogers died in Nassau in 1732.
During the American War of Independence the Bahamas fell to Spanish forces under General Galvez in 1782. A British-American loyalist expedition led by Colonel Andrew Deveaux, later recaptured the islands. After the American Revolution, the British issued land grants to American Loyalists, and the sparse population of the Bahamas tripled within a few years. Cotton growing soon became established, but it eventually dwindled from insect damage and soil exhaustion. Most of the current inhabitants are descended from the slaves brought to work on the Loyalist plantations, or from liberated Africans set free by the British navy after the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807. Plantation life ended with the British emancipation of slaves in 1834.
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During the American Civil War, the Bahamas prospered as a base for Confederate blockade-running, bringing in cotton for the mills of England and running out arms and munitions. During Prohibition after World War I, the islands were a base for American rum-runners,smuggling liquor into the US. None of these provided any lasting prosperity to the islands, nor did attempts to grow various crops. After emancipation Caribbean societies inherited a rigid racial stratification that was reinforced by the unequal distribution of wealth and power. The three-tier race structure, which existed well into the 1940s and in some societies beyond, upheld the belief of European racial superiority, although most West Indians are of African descent. Race and racial attitudes remain important in mixed Caribbean societies.
During World War II, the Allies centred their flight training and antisubmarine operations for the Caribbean in the Bahamas. The wartime airfield became Nassau's international airport in 1957 and helped spur the growth of mass tourism, which accelerated after Havana was closed to American tourists in 1961. Freeport, on the island of Grand Bahama, was established as a free trade zone in the 1950s and became the country's second city. Bank secrecy combined with the lack of corporate and income taxes led to a rapid growth in the offshore financial sector during the postwar years.
Bahamians achieved self-government in 1964 and full independence within the Commonwealth of Nations on July 10, 1973. The country’s first prime minister was Lynden O. Pindling, leader of the Progressive Liberal Party. Pindling ruled for nearly 20 years, during which the Bahamas benefited from tourism and foreign investment. By the early 1980s, the islands had also become a major center for the drug trade, with 90% of all the cocaine entering the United States reportedly passing through the Bahamas. Diplomatic relations were established with Cuba in 1974. A decade later, as increased Cuban immigration to the islands strained the Bahamas’ resources, Cuba refused to sign a letter of repatriation.
In September 2004, Hurricane Frances swept through the Bahamas, leaving widespread damage in its wake. Just three weeks later, Hurricane Jeanne flattened the islands. Jeanne uprooted trees, blew out windows, and sent seawater flooding through neighborhoods on the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama. Receding floodwaters left boats tossed on roads and homes battered.