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The History of San Salvador Island

It is believed that here, on this small island in the central Bahamas, Christopher Columbus first set foot in the New World. A plain white cross on the beach at Long Bay marks the spot where he stepped off his ship on October 12, 1492, and became part of the history of San Salvador Island - a milestone moment.

San Salvador Island, BahamasSupposedly, Columbus stood on the sandy shores and named the island “San Salvador” in honor of his faith; it is Spanish, meaning “Saint Savior”, a reference to Jesus Christ. His written journals from the voyage indicate that he met friendly native Lucayan tribes on the island, who called their home “Guanahani”.

At the time, the largest village of tribal people was located near today’s Pigeon Creek Archeological Site. Soon after the arrival of the Spaniards, the natives were enslaved to work in the rich mines in nearby Haiti and Cuba, leaving San Salvador uninhabited.

A Pirate’s Private Paradise
In the 17th century, the history of San Salvador Island took an interesting turn when a British buccaneer made it his home. John Watling, who renamed it Watling Island, plundered and raided passing ships from his comfortable base. Interestingly, like Columbus, this pirate was also a man of faith, and it is said that he abstained from piracy on Sundays.

There are ruins on the island named Watling's Castle, situated in an ideal spot where the thief would have been able to keep an eye open for ships both in the western and eastern waters, on the south end of the island. However, some historians argue that the castle ruins are actually that of a Loyalist plantation.

Loyalist Legacy
In the 18th century, the British took control of the Bahamas, and many American Loyalists came to the islands, seeking refuge from the American Revolution and wishing to stay loyal to the British crown. They made their living farming and fishing. San Salvador has at least ten plantation ruins, complete with slave quarters and still-standing walls bordering the fertile fields.

A Secret Military Base
The history of San Salvador Island saw more fascinating twists in the 20th century. In 1925, the island’s name was changed again, from Watling Island back to San Salvador after scholars studied the island and decided that it was in fact, the island named in the documents from Columbus’ first voyage.

Tourism to San Salvador was banned until the late 1960s because the British leased out land to the American government, who used it to establish a secret U.S. military base that tracked nuclear missiles in the heat of the Cold War. After the Bahamas gained their independence in 1973, free trade, tax breaks, gambling and a growing economy led to reversing the ban and developing tourism.

Today, the history of San Salvador Island is still being shaped by visitors from elsewhere. Students and researchers come here to study marine life and biology at the Gerace Research Center. Fossil hunters and geologists are interested in the Pleistocene Cockburn Town Fossil Reef, and its rare corals. Tourists flock to San Salvador to enjoy white sand beaches, world class snorkeling and scuba diving, as well as the island’s famous and luxurious resorts.

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