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The Bahamas: A Colorful History

Voyage of Discovery
UnderwaterIn 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Every schoolchild knows the mnemonic rhyme; more obscure is the fact that the ocean blue upon which Christopher Columbus sailed on October 12th of that year, was the crystal clear waters off the island of San Salvador.

In search of gold and glory, and backed by King Ferdinand of Spain, Columbus had set off to find a new route to India. Although he failed in his original quest, he did end up "discovering" the New World.

Unfortunately for the Arawak Indians -- the native inhabitants of the Bahamas -- this discovery would bring slavery, hardship, and disease to the islands, and eventually, genocide to the Arawak people.

From Pirates and Slaves to Rum and Tourism
In the mid-17th century, English settlers named the Eleutheran Adventurers, founded the first permanent European settlement in The Bahamas, and gave the island of Eleuthera its name. As time went by, more and more of these settlements formed until the Bahamas Islands became a British Crown Colony in 1717.

FishWoodes Rogers, a former pirate, was appointed as the first royal governor. Under his governorship, pirates and buccaneers such as Blackbeard and Henry Morgan, who frequently infested the waters around the islands, were driven off.

The following decades were tumultuous ones for the islands: the Spanish attacked the islands several times; an American force held Nassau for a short time in 1776, and in 1781, the Spanish captured Nassau and took possession of the whole colony. In 1973, the islands were ceded to Great Britain under the terms of the Treaty of Paris.

After the American Revolution, many Loyalists migrated to islands such as the Exumas, bringing their African slaves along with them to work the cotton fields. After the emancipation of slaves in 1834 however, plantation life slowly died out. Lord John Rolle, a powerful Loyalist and a major landowner in the Exumas, actually bequeathed land to his slaves for life when he freed them in 1835. Several towns in the Exumas are named after him and many of the people who live there carry the last name of "Rolle."

Tropical DrinkIn 1861, during the American Civil War, the Union Navy blockaded the islands in order to stop supplies from reaching the Confederacy. As a result, blockade-running became something of a pastime among the islanders. Indeed, many Bahamians grew rich running Confederate cotton to English mills and sending military equipment to the Confederate army.

Hard times followed the end of the Civil War until Prohibition transformed the islands into a base for rum-running. After Prohibition was repealed however, the Bahamas saw an economic downturn. Prosperity did not return until World War II, when the islands served as a military base for the U.S., and later, a missile testing ground for Great Britain. In 1955, a free trade area was established at the town of Freeport. It proved widely successful in stimulating offshore banking and tourism. It was the first time that the beauty and charm of the islands were recognized as important commodities. When Cuba was closed to U.S. tourists in the 1950s, The Bahamas forged ahead to become one of the world's most popular tourist destinations.

Fumbling Towards Democracy
Through the efforts of the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP), black Bahamians began to successfully oppose the ruling, white-controlled government led by the United Bahamian Party. It was only in the 1967 elections however, that the PLP was able to take over the reigns of government. The Bahamas were granted limited powers of self-government as a British crown colony in 1964, powers which were broadened in 1969 through the efforts of then Prime Minister, Lynden O. Pindling. The PLP, campaigning on a platform of immediate independence, won an overwhelming victory in the 1972 elections and negotiations with Britain began. On July 10, 1973, the Bahamas became a sovereign state within the Commonwealth of Nations.

Learn more about the history of the islands below.

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