The Bahamas stands out among the Commonwealth Caribbean nations because of its relative wealth and prosperity, political stability, and close proximity to the United States. The Bahamas also bears the distinction of being the first of the Caribbean islands discovered by Columbus in 1492 on his first transatlantic voyage in search of a new route to India. Several islands in the Bahamas have been named as Columbus's first landing site in the Caribbean, but until very recently, Watling Island was the most widely accepted location; in 1926 it was renamed San Salvador, the name bestowed by Columbus himself. In 1986, however, after an extensive five-year investigation, a National Geographic Society team announced that Samana Cay, a small isolated island in the far eastern Bahamas, was the most probable location of Columbus's first landfall.
Upon his arrival, Columbus encountered natives known as Lucayans, related to the Arawak Indians (see The Pre-European Population, ch. 1). Within a quarter of a century, however, the Lucayans had been decimated, the result of diseases brought by the Europeans and of having been forced to work in the mines of Hispaniola (the island containing present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic). For the next century, the Bahamas was a forgotten colony. Attention was focused instead on the mineral wealth of the other Caribbean islands.
The first permanent settlement was not established until 1649, when Puritans from the English colony of Bermuda founded Eleuthera, which in Greek means "place of freedom." The colonists, known as Eleutheran Adventurers, set out to establish a colony where they could practice their religion freely, as in the colonies settled by the Pilgrims in New England. In 1666 other English settlers established a colony on New Providence and founded Charlestown, which was renamed Nassau near the end of the seventeenth century. Throughout the seventeenth century, the islands served as a favorite base for pirates, but after the era of piracy came to a close in 1718, commerce was restored to the settlement.
British loyalists and their slaves arrived from the mainland colonies in the wake of the British defeat in the American Revolution. In the 1780s, the population of New Providence tripled, and the first substantial settlement was made on Great Abaco Island. Cotton plantations were established as the southern life of the North American mainland colonies was reproduced in the Bahamas. However, the Abolition of Slavery Act of 1833 and the termination of post-abolition apprenticeships and indentured servanthood in 1838 marked the end of slavery in the Bahamas (see The PostEmancipation Societies, ch. 1). The Bahamian economy prospered during the United States Civil War, as Nassau served as an important base for blockade-running by the Confederate States. The war's end, however, set in motion an economic tailspin that lasted for the next half-century. Little economic development occurred other than in the areas of sponging, pineapple cultivation, and tourism.
The passage of the Volstead Act (Prohibition Act) by the United States in 1919 was a bonanza for the Bahamas. The islands served as a base for United States prohibition runners, and the port of Nassau became congested once again. The introduction of commercial aircraft in the 1930s enabled the Bahamas tourism sector to develop as a mainstay of the nation's economy. The development of tourism helped mitigate the combined impact of the United States repeal of prohibition in 1933 and a marine disease in 1938 that devastated the sponging industry. During World War II, the Bahamas prospered as Britain established two air force bases on the islands; the Royal Air Force set up a bomber base to ferry new airplanes to European combat zones and to operate a training school for flight and antisubmarine operations in the Caribbean.
After World War II, the Bahamas developed economically and politically. The nation began to exploit its tourism sector more fully; by the end of the 1940s, tourism had become the principal business. In the 1960s, the nation also developed into an international finance center because of taxation and foreign capital movement legislation in the United States and Western Europe. In 1987 tourism and banking remained the two most important economic sectors in the Bahamas.
The Bahamas also underwent a major political transformation in the postwar era. The first political parties and trade union federations were founded in the 1950s. In 1964, after more than two centuries of British colonial rule, constitutional changes were negotiated at a conference in London; a new constitution replaced the nation's old representative government with a premier (the preindependence title for prime minister) and a cabinet. In 1967 a bicameral legislature was established, and the first independent government was elected. Full internal self-government was achieved with the signing of the 1969 constitution; and the name of the colony was officially changed to the Commonwealth of the Bahamas. A final constitutional conference was held in 1972, paving the way for national independence. On July 10, 1973, the new independence Constitution was presented to Prime Minister Lynden O. Pindling by Prince Charles on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II; with that, the Bahamas became a sovereign independent nation.
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