Commonwealth of the Bahamas

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Commonwealth of the Bahamas

Type of Government

The Bahamas is a parliamentary democracy on the British model. The executive branch is headed by a prime minister who serves as the head of government and a governor general who is head of state. The bicameral parliament is made up of an elected House of Assembly and an appointed Senate, with major legislative functions performed by the former. The independent judiciary includes lower courts, a Supreme Court, and a Court of Appeal.


The Commonwealth of the Bahamas consists of about 700 islands and a further 2,400 islets lying fifty miles off the east coast of Florida. Of these, only about thirty islands are inhabited, with New Providence (seat of the capital, Nassau), being the most important. Other major islands include San Salvador (also once known as Watling’s Island), Grand Bahama, the Abacos, Cat Island, and Eleuthera.

Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) visited San Salvador in 1492, after which the Spanish made numerous visits to the island to capture the lative Lucayan people for slave labor. The Lucayan population, which was estimated at approximately 40,000 in the early sixteenth century, was completely eliminated within a quarter century of the Spanish arrival on the island. The islands were uninhabited 1647, when a group of religious exiles from Britain and Bermuda, known as the Eleutherian Adventurers, established a small settlement on the island. Further waves of European immigrants arrived throughout the seventeenth century, many of whom imported slave laborers to the islands.

The archipelago was also used as a base of operation for many privateers, including the notorious Edward Teach, otherwise known as Blackbeard (d. 1718), who preyed on shipping and coastal settlements of the West Indies. Indeed, the Bahamas has had a long history of smuggling, from the days during the U.S. Civil War when Confederate blockade runners operated there, to alcohol smugglers during Prohibition, and as a station in the shipping routes for drug trafficking into the United States. It took a former pirate, Woodes Rogers (c. 1679–1732), to clear the islands of buccaneers once the British established a crown colony there in 1717.

After the American Revolution, about eight thousand inhabitants of North America (from Florida, the Carolinas, and New York) loyal to England moved with their families and slaves to the Bahamas. These settlers brought farming and shipbuilding skills to the islands. In addition, many fugitive slaves from the United States fled to the islands following the 1834 end of slavery in the British Empire.

The Bahamas remained a British crown colony for two and a half centuries. In the decades before independence, the United Bahamian Party (UBP), which was supported by the white population, dominated the government and economy of the Islands. Increasingly, however, there was a movement to empower the 85 percent of the population that was black, and in 1953 the opposition Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) was formed to give blacks a voice in government. In 1964 the United Kingdom granted the Bahamas self-government, which meant that the country was in control of its domestic politics, while its defense and foreign relations were left to England. The following year a significant event occurred in parliament when, in protest over what he saw as unfair UBP practices, PLP leader Lynden Pindling (1930–2000) threw the golden mace (the symbol of the House Speaker’s authority) out the window of the House of Assembly chamber. This action galvanized the blacks population, and the PLP won control of the government in 1967 and led the Bahamas to full independence in 1973. Pindling remained in power as prime minister until 1992.

Government Structure

By the terms of the 1973 constitution, the Bahamas is an independent parliamentary democracy in the British Commonwealth. Formally, the country is headed by the British monarch, represented by a governor general. However, actual executive power lies with the prime minister—the leader of the majority party in parliament—and the cabinet.

The bicameral parliament consists of an elected House of Assembly and an appointed Senate. The forty members of the House of Assembly stand for election every five years (or earlier if the prime minister calls for elections) by popular vote. The Bahamas has universal adult suffrage for those eighteen and older. The major work of legislation is done by the House of Assembly. The sixteen members of the Senate are appointed by the governor general—nine on the advice of the prime minister, four on the advice of the opposition leader, and three on the advice of both the prime minister and leader of the opposition.

To manage local government issues, there are twenty-one administrative districts. Each of these is headed by a commissioner who answers to the national minister of local government.

The legal system is based on British common law. There is a right to be brought before a magistrate within forty-eight hours, a right to bail, a presumption of innocence, and a right to appeal. Magistrates’ courts form the lowest level of courts in the country. Above these are the Supreme Courts in Nassau and Freeport, composed of a chief justice, two senior justices, and six justices, and the Court of Appeal, with three judges. Appointments to the high courts are made by the governor general in consultation with the Judicial and Legal Services Commission. Though other Caribbean nations voted to join the Caribbean Court of Justice as the last court of appeal, the Bahamas still refers such cases to the Privy Council of the United Kingdom. Capital punishment is in effect in the Bahamas.

Political Parties and Factions

Though several major parties operate in the country, the Bahamas essentially functions as a two-party system. The populist and liberal Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) and the center-right Free National Movement Party (FNM) are the major parties. Other minor parties include the liberal populist Bahamas Democratic Movement (BDM) and the liberal Coalition for Democratic Reform (CDR).

Formed in 1953, the PLP was in the forefront of the independence movement. Under Lynden Pindling, the party held power from 1967 to 1992, and regained power in 2002. That year, under the leadership of Perry Christie (1943–), the PLP won 50.8 percent of the vote and 29 seats in the forty-member legislature.

The PLP’s main rival, the FNM, was formed from two earlier parties. First was the white-dominated United Bahamian Party (UBP), which had controlled the country from 1958 to 1967. Second was a splinter group to the PLP, the Free Progressive Liberal Party, which was to the right of the PLP leadership on many issues. These two merged to form the FNM, a socially liberal but economically conservative party. In the 1992 elections, led by Hubert Ingraham (1947–), the FNM took the majority of seats in the House of Assembly and held power for the next ten years.

The BDM is a liberal, democratic party formed in 1998 whose primary constituency is the disenfranchised youth living on the islands, which comprised more than 60 percent of the population in the 1990s. Its leaders made news with high-profile protests: chaining themselves to the symbolic mace in the House of Assembly in 2001, and then barring the entry of Prime Minister Perry Christie to the House of Assembly in 2005.

Major Events

Tourism and foreign investment became the major economic sectors in the Bahamas following independence. True to its former smuggling and privateering history, the islands, by the early 1980s, had also become a major center for the drug trade, with an estimated 80 percent of the cocaine reaching the United States having passed through the archipelago. The government of the Bahamas took measures to curb this illegal trade, and by 2003 this number had dropped to 10 to 15 percent. With its financial sector growing, the Bahamas also came under increasing international scrutiny for money laundering in its offshore banking sector.

This reputation for drug trafficking, along with an increasing crime rate, did damage to the country’s tourist industry. In September 1999, Hurricane Floyd did extensive damage in the Abacos and Eleuthera, causing a significant dip in tourism revenues.

With the transfer of power to the FNM in 1992, Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham promised to focus on job creation. He also began a strenuous effort at privatization of national industries. During Ingraham’s administration, a stock exchange, Bahamas International Securities Exchange, officially opened in 1999.

Twenty-First Century

The major challenge to the Bahamas in the twenty-first century is economic diversification. Tourism provides 40 percent of the nation’s total GDP, tourism-related jobs employ roughly 50 percent of the workforce in the country, and nearly 90 percent of tourists to the Bahamas come from the United States. As a result, a downturn in the U.S. economy can directly and immediately affect the Bahamas. In an attempt to diversify, the government has reached out to countries such as China, opening an embassy in Beijing in 2006.

The financial sector of the Bahamas accounts for 15 percent of the nation’s GDP. Since 2000 the government has been taking more active measures against money laundering by reducing its banking secrecy laws, thereby allowing other jurisdictions to track funds obtained illegally.

Privatization of state industries has continued under the PLP since 2002, with the selling of the country’s airline, Bahamasair, and half of the Bahamas Telecommunications Corporation.

Craton, Michael, and Gail Saunders. Islanders in the Stream: A History of the Bahamian People. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1992.

Government of the Bahamas. (accessed April 30, 2007).

Johnson, Howard. The Bahamas: From Slavery to Servitude, 1783–1933. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1996.

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Commonwealth of the Bahamas

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