Bahamas, Commonwealth of the

views updated

Bahamas, Commonwealth of the

Commonwealth of the Bahamas, an archipelago of over 700 islands, stretching from less than fifty miles off the coast of Florida south toward Haiti. The total land area is over 5,000 square miles, but only sixteen of the islands are populated to any large extent (2007 population: 305,655). The capital, Nassau, is located on the central island of New Providence. Historically, the Bahamas' claim to fame lies in the fact that its easternmost island, San Salvador, formerly called Guanahani and then Watlings Island, was the first land discovered by Christopher Columbus on October 12, 1492. "Bahamas" comes from the Spanish bajamar, meaning "shallow water," and refers to the shallow waters that surround the islands, making them ideal harbors. The Spanish made no attempt to colonize the islands, however, because they were settled by an indigenous population, the Arawaks, who had no apparent treasures or developed civilization. Almost all of the Indians died from contact with the Spanish or were dragged off to work in the mines of Hispaniola.

In 1629, the islands were granted to Sir Robert Heath, attorney general of England. In 1647 the Crown made another grant to the Company of Eleutherian Adventurers, who colonized the island of Eleuthera. The Eleutherian Adventurers, the first English settlers of the Bahamas, came from Bermuda under the direction of Sir William Sayle, seeking liberty and freedom of religion. In 1670, a third grant was issued by Charles II to six lord proprietors from Carolina.

The eighteenth century brought a flurry of activity to the islands. The first royal governor, Sir Woodes Rodgers, was sent by the Crown to Nassau in 1718. By the middle of the century, Nassau had become the hub of activity for pirates because of the island's strategic location. During the American Revolution, loyalists fled to the islands along with many freed slaves. In 1782, the Spanish attacked New Providence, which was finally ceded to Great Britian in exchange for East Florida under terms of the Treaty of Paris (1783). The influx of loyalists spurred economic development, but not without competition from the landed elite. Both fared well, however, owing to the profitability of the cotton harvests before the devastation caused by the chenille bug in 1788.

Commonwealth of the Bahamas
Population:305,655 (2007 est.)
Area:5,382 sq mi
Official language:English
Languages:English, Creole
National currency:Bahamian dollar (BSD)
Principal religions:Baptists, 35%; Anglicans, 15%; other Protestant Christians, 24%; Roman Catholics, 13.5% (2000)
Ethnicity:Roughly 85% of the population is descended from African slaves; most of the remainder is white, primarily of British heritage.
Other urban centers:Freeport
Annual rainfall:50 in
Principal geographical features:The Bahamas are an archipelago of over 700 islands in the Atlantic Ocean. Some of the largest include Andros, Abaco, Grand Bahama, and Great Inagua. The capital is on New Providence island, near the center of the archipelago. The terrain is mostly low and flat, with the highest point being Mt. Alvernia (206 ft) on Cat Island.
Economy:GDP per capita: $21,600 (2006 est.)
Principal products and exports:The economy of the Bahamas is centered on tourism and finance.
Government:Gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1973. The Bahamas are a constitutional parliamentary democracy. The chief of state is the king or queen of the United Kingdom, who is represented by a governor general. The parliament is bicameral. The 41 members of the House of Assembly are directly elected, and the leader of the majority in the House is the prime minister and head of government. Leading House members advise the governor general on the appointment of a 16 member Senate.
Armed forces:In 2005 the Royal Bahamian Defense Force consisted of 860 active personnel and operated 8 ships and 4 aircraft.
Transportation:Ports: Freeport, Nassau, South Riding Point
Roads: 961 mi paved / 713 unpaved (1999)
National airline: Bahamas Air
Airports: 24 paved field airports and 1 heliport, with the largest in Nassau and Freeport.
Media:3 daily newspapers: Freeport News, Nassau Daily Tribune, Nassau Guardian; 5 private and 1 state-owned radio stations; 1 private and 1 state-owned television stations
Literacy and education:Total literacy rate: 96%
Education is compulsory for children ages 5 to 16. The College of the Bahamas offers the nation's only associate and bachelor's degree programs.

The islands experienced relative peace throughout the nineteenth century. The abolition of slavery in 1838 brought social and economic reconstruction, although a high percentage of the slaves were freed before that date. During the U.S. Civil War, the colony prospered owing to its ideal situation as a depot for vessels running the blockade of the Confederacy.

The House of Assembly, formed in 1729, remains the most important political institution. It was controlled almost exclusively by white merchants and settlers throughout the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century the oligarchy was run by a group of merchants known as the Bay Street Boys, named after Nassau's main commercial downtown street. Politics changed in 1962 when the House voted for universal suffrage. With the formation of the popularly supported Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), white minority rule ended in 1967.

The PLP began a program of national development and controlled migration, and instituted a highly successful Bahamianization program in 1973. The islands gained their independence on July 10 of that year but retain ties with Great Britain through the Commonwealth. The leader of the PLP, Sir Linden Oscar Pindling, was prime minister from 1967 to 1992. Hubert A. Ingraham of the Free National Movement was elected prime minister in 1992. The PLP returned to power in 2002 with the election of Perry Christie, but Ingraham again became prime minister in 2007.

The main source of foreign currency for the Bahamas is tourism, followed by the well-developed offshore banking system for international investors. Because of the lack of taxes, and the relatively stable political situation, the Bahamas is an attractive tax haven. It is home to hundreds of European, American, and Canadian investors. In the early twenty-first century, the islands continue to rely on tourism but have suffered several significant setbacks. After the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States, tourism declined for a couple of years. Then in 2004 and 2005, large hurricanes damaged the islands.

The Bahamas had a series of conflicts with the United States in the 1980s over its financial secrecy laws, which have allowed some U.S. investors to avoid taxation in the United States, and also about drug trafficking. Consequently, the Bahamas was excluded from the U.S. Caribbean Basin Initiative. After 1985, however, relations improved. In 1989 the U.S. Senate voted against a bill proposing to make the Bahamas ineligible for U.S. aid. In the 1990s the United States and the Bahamas had increased collaboration to curb the drug trade, which had grown significantly throughout the Caribbean.

See alsoPindling, Lynden Oscar; San Salvador.


Alan Burns, History of the British West Indies (1965).

Michael Craton, A History of the Bahamas, 2nd ed. (1968).

Gordon K. Lewis, The Growth of the Modern West Indies (1968).

Paul Albury, Story of the Bahamas (1975).

For more statistical information see The Caribbean Yearbook 1979/80 (1980) and The Bahamas Handbook (annual). See also Tony Thorndike, "Bahamas," in South America, Central America, and the Caribbean 1991 (1990).

Additional Bibliography

Johnson, Whittington Bernard. Post-Emancipation Race Relations in the Bahamas. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006.

Saunders, Gail. Bahamian Society after Emancipation. Rev. ed. Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle, 2003.

                                          DariÉn Davis