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The History of Grand Bahama Island

The lovely island of Grand Bahama, situated in the northern part of the Bahamas’ long chain of islands, is close to the United States. Less than 60 miles off the coast of West Palm Beach, Florida, it is home to Freeport, one of the largest and most popular towns in the Bahamas.

Grand Bahama Island, BahamasThe history of Grand Bahama Island begins the Arawak tribes who once populated the area. They named the island Bahama, and in time, the word came to refer to the entire chain of nearly 30 islands and 700 cays. When the Spanish arrived in the early 15th century, the name evolved into Gran Bajamar, which meant “large shallows”.

Pirate Haven
The coral reefs located in the surrounding shallow waters helped shape the history of Grand Bahama Island. The thriving colorful reefs were treacherous for ships, making the islands a challenge for explorers, and an ideal spot for plundering pirates who reigned over the Caribbean waters for more than 200 years.

Tales of piracy are prevalent in the history of Grand Bahama Island. Even after the British claimed the Bahamas in the 17th century, the islands were home to some of the world’s most feared pirates, including Henry Morgan and Blackbeard. Typically, pirates would chase ships into the shallow waters, where the vessels would wreck on the reefs, and made vulnerable to raids by scavengers.

British naval power finally brought piracy under control in the 18th century, and the island fell into a peaceful sleep for more than 100 years. Many former slaves from surrounding islands and some from the United States settled into small communities in West End, Pinder’s Point and Williams Town.

Smuggler’s Paradise
During the American Civil War, the history of Grand Bahama Island took another turn. Partly due to its short distance from the coast of Florida, it became a hotbed of smuggling action, a den for many who were running the blockade of Confederate States. Sugar and weapons were desperately needed in the Southern United States, and the Bahamian plantation owners sought to get their valuable cotton out to world markets. The population of West End doubled, and smugglers grew rich. When the war ended, life settled into a slow pace again, but the history of Grand Bahama Island would repeat itself during the Prohibition years.

When the 14th Amendment banned the sale of alcohol in the United States, bars, distilleries and jobs in Grand Bahama flourished. Smugglers in the Bahamas once again made a fortune, brewing and distilling alcohol, and bringing their goods to American shores under cover of night. When Prohibition ended, smugglers hung up their gear and returned to fishing.

The Birth of Freeport and Bahamas Tourism
The next boom in the history of Grand Bahama Island came decades later, when the island’s tropical beauty, white sand beaches, and friendly inhabitants began to attract visitors. In the 1940s, American financier Wallace Groves came to the island, looking to develop tourism. At the time, Americans were flocking to the beaches of Cuba, and Groves felt that Grand Bahama’s charm and beautiful reefs could be a great alternative to visiting crowds in pre-revolution Cuba.

In 1955, Groves made a proposal to the Bahamian government: to build a town that caters specifically to business and tourism. The government agreed, and it laid the foundation for the town of Freeport. Groves took over 50,000 acres of land, and the government lifted all taxes until the year 1985 (which has since been extended to 2054). The enterprising Groves convinced his friends to build a harbor, an airport and shopping centers. By the early 1960s, Grand Bahama Island grew to be the second most populated island in the Bahamas.

Today, Grand Bahama Island is a paradise for tourists, and geared to meet every vacationer’s dream. Its exotic setting, relaxed attitude, and convenient location make it a great choice for those wanting a Caribbean getaway.


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