Recent archaeological digs indicate people lived in The Islands of the Bahamas as early as 300 to 400 AD. These people probably came from Cuba and relied on the ocean for their food. In the 10th century, Lucayan Indians — a subgroup of the Arawaks – settled in The Islands of The Bahamas. The Lucayans had left the Lesser Antilles to avoid their enemies, the Carib Indians, who were known to be fierce warriors and cannibals. A peaceful people, Lucayans were farmers who lived in thatch huts, used stone tools, and made their own pottery. They were politically, socially and religiously advanced. When Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492 on San Salvador (some historians think he landed on Cat Island), there were about 40,000 Lucayans living in The Islands of The Bahamas. Long Island is said to be the third island discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Columbus described Long Island as the most beautiful island in The Bahamas. This monument, located north of the island near Seymours, was erected by Long Islanders on the top of the white cliffs, sinking down into the various shades of blue water.
Taking advantage of the people’s gentle nature, he enslaved them three years later and shipped them off to Hispaniola to work in his mines. Slavery, disease and other hardships wiped out the entire tribe within 25 years of Columbus’ arrival. In 1648, a group of dissident English Puritans (known as the “Eleutheran Adventurers”) arrived here in their quest for religious freedom. Although the adventurers gave the island its name, the island didn’t give much back, and the settlers experienced food shortages, a lack of proper supplies and internal strife that split the group into separate communities along Governor’s Harbour and Preacher’s Cave in Eleuthera. Seeking peace, the Eleutheran’s leader, Captain William Sayles, set sail for the American colonies and succeeded in obtaining survival supplies from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and then returned to the struggling outpost. To better guard against marauding Spanish troops in the area, another settlement was then established on the nearby—and more easily defended—Harbour Island. The late 1600s to the early 1700s were the golden age for pirates and privateers. Most of the ones you’ve heard about—like Sir Francis Drake and Blackbeard—used The Islands of The Bahamas as their port at one time or another.
The Islands of The Bahamas made an ideal home base for pirates and privateers. The numerous islands and islets with their complex shoals and channels provided excellent hiding places for the plundering ships. And since The Islands of The Bahamas were close to well-traveled shipping lanes, it gave the buccaneers plenty of opportunities to steal from merchant ships. More than a century later, another major influx of newcomers arrived in Eleuthera when American colonists still loyal to the British flag left the newly independent nation, many bringing with them the slaves they held in America.
These Loyalists also brought their Colonial building skills, as well as their agricultural and shipbuilding expertise, all of which became major influences in Eleutheran life. To solidify their independence, in 1783, the former Loyalists, assisted by the South Carolina militia, took up arms and forced the retreat of Spanish forces from the entire region—even as far away as Nassau and Bermuda—without a shot being fired. From 1861 until 1865, the boom and bust economy of The Islands of The Bahamas benefited greatly from the U.S. Civil War. Great Britain’s textile industry depended on Southern cotton, so it favoured the Confederacy. However, British ships could not reach Southern ports because the Union blockaded them.
Thus, blockade runners in sleek, fast boats would travel the 560 miles from Charleston to Nassau with loads of cotton. Here, they would meet up with British vessels and would trade their cotton for goods the British carried. Returning to Charleston, the blockade runners would sell their shipments for huge profits. The end of the Civil War meant the end of prosperity for The Islands of The Bahamas until 1919. When the United States passed the 14th Amendment prohibiting alcohol, smuggling returned to the islands. Scotch whisky was an important British export for The Islands of The Bahamas, so the colonial government greatly expanded Prince George Wharf in Nassau to accommodate the huge flow of alcohol. However, Prohibition ended in 1934 and with it the enormous revenues that poured into the country. The end of Prohibition, combined with the collapse of the profitable sponge harvesting industry a few years later, was economically devastating to The Islands of The Bahamas. The tourism industry began in the mid-19th century with government support for the construction of hotels and subsidized steamship service.
Tourism once again blossomed in the 1920s when Prohibition brought well-to-do American tourists to the islands. The influx of visitors increased the demand for food, lodging and other items. Consequently, the banking industry boomed as The Islands of the Bahamas built new hotels, warehouses, bars, distilleries and wharves.
A Solitary Set Of Footprints
After the repeal of Prohibition, The Islands of the Bahamas went into an economic slump that lasted until the 1940s and World War II, when it served as an air and sea way-station in the Atlantic. Construction of the base brought jobs to many people. Then in 1961, when Cuba (with its glitzy casinos and beach resorts) was closed to American tourists, The Islands of the Bahamas’ good fortune began. Capitalizing on its close proximity to the United States, the government of The Islands of the Bahamas set out to increase the number of people who visited it each year. It dredged Nassau’s harbour so it could accommodate up to six cruise ships at a time and it built a bridge connecting Nassau to Paradise Island. In 1964, Great Britain granted The Islands of The Bahamas limited self-government, and in 1969 the colony of The Bahamas became a Commonwealth. It then legally became a nation on July 10, 1973, which is celebrated today as Bahamian Independence Day.