History of the Bahamas; Final Paper

This topic submitted by Kathryn Barlow ( Barlowk1@miamioh.edu) at 11:36 PM on 6/5/06.

Students take a "coral quiz", San Salvador, Bahamas.

Tropical Field Courses -Western Program-Miami University

This research paper is about the history of the Bahamas. This is important because it tells one how it became the society it is today. Also it is interesting to note since Columbus Day is a “holiday”, that the island of San Salvador is thought to be his first landfall. (I decided to focus my research paper more on the history because the last outline of the Natives of the Bahamas sounded like I was making assumptions in which I did not intend to do, so to avoid I chose to focus more on the history and briefly mention things about the people today.)

The History of the Bahamas

The Commonwealth of the Bahamas was independently established on July 10th, 1973. However, they already had an internal self-government during the decade before their constitution was stated. It resembles that of England’s parliamentary government; in which Great Britain oversaw the agenda and all other things pertaining to the islands during that time. The Bahamas are governmentally made up of an archipelago of approximately 700 islands, and many cays. Turks and Caicos which makes up the tail end of the archipelago geographically, prehistorically/historically, though it is not considered apart of the Commonwealth. The history of the Bahamas consists of many migratory peoples inhabiting the islands at one point or another, which is responsible for it’s diverse culture, consisting of those indigenous peoples, the Spanish and the English.

The Bahama Islands start of settlement is thought to be “around A.D. 600 on Great Inagua at the extreme southern end of the archipelago, with migrants coming from Hispaniola” (Keegan, The People Who Discovered Columbus, 171). This was a sub-Taino peoples, also referred to as Lucayan, from the Arawak speaking peoples originating on the coasts of Venezuela, the Guianas, and Trinidad. This coastal civilization spread through Puerto Rico, and the Lesser Antilles from South America, hopping from island to island. It is important to note that the term Lucayan is used to refer to all of the ceramic-producing peoples in the Bahamas during this prehistoric time period. This migratory grouping of peoples “share common ancestry with the Tainos societies of Puerto Rico, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba and Jamaica” (Keegan, Carlson, & Torrence, Caribbean Archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History). Tainos is also used to group people who were of regional differences in language and culture, as well as race (Ibid.). There are also two other groups of peoples besides the Arawaks that lived in the West Indies, those include, the Ciboney and the Carib. Ciboney “tribe” was hunter-gather peoples pushed out of their lands by the expanding Arawak-speaking peoples. While the Carib are thought to have been a warrior people, and also Cannibals, who pushed the Arawak peoples from the Lesser Antilles.

Evidence of these different tribes of inhabiters of the Caribbean comes from the archaeologic sites on the islands. The Tainos were a ceramic-producing peoples who as they migrated from region to region, their pottery evolved with the people, and helped to trace their movements. The beginning of the series of ceramics of Tainos is called Saladiod, for the site in Saladero, Venezuela from 400 B.C., which is found in Puerto Rico and that of the Lesser Antilles. They remained a coastal culture, residing in small villages that did not seem to be well-developed in any way, which changed once they reached Hispaniola. Here, there were larger populations of hunter-gather societies that already existed, halting their expansion for the most part, (of course there are exceptions). The complexity of the decorations Saladoid vessels are identified “with white-on-red painted, modeled and incised, and crosshatched decorations...disappeared, especially along the frontier where most of the pottery was undecorated with only red slip and the simplest modeling retained from the Saladoid series” (Keegan, Carlson & Torrence).

The simple forms of decoration mentioned above come to represent a new classification of a series of pottery called Ostionoid, from a site located on the western portion of the Puerto Rico island. These peoples mark the trail for expansion during A.D. 600 which includes the rest of Hispaniola, and Jamaica leading to colonization of Cuba and the archipelago of the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos. The Ostionoid series gives rise to the “Palmetto Ware” (a term to describe all of the different series found in the Bahamas which are split into two groups, and a third consists of a mix, determined by their regional location) through two other distinct type, the Meillacoid and Carrier, in the Bahamas.

Authors, William H. Sears and Shaun O. Sullivan, of the article “Bahamas Prehistory,” define Palmetto Ware as “a unique ceramic complex which drew upon other regional traditions while evolving decorative and formal modes of its own. The terms Meillac and Carrier, are simply not applicable except in terms of tracing limited relationships” (Sears & Sullivan, 15). The series is complex because the actual settlements that ended up colonizing the Bahamas came from many points instead of just one known migration route and peoples. It is believed that Cuba and Haiti are the more likely choice of origin of this particular expansion than that of southern Florida, however more archaeological work is needed in order to prove that Florida did not contribute. “Colonization was characterized by a ‘double wave model’ which consisted of two waves of stylistic influences associated with one or more migrations of people. The first wave was associated with the Meillacan Ostionoid (formerly Meillacoid) series, while the second wave was associated with the Carrier style of the Chican Ostionoid (formerly Chicoid) series” (Berman & Gnivecki, The Colonization of the Bahama Archipelago, 427). The Meillacan series originated in northern Haiti started at the bottom of the archipelago, with Caicos. While the Carrier or more broadly Chicoid moved from eastern Cuba to Great Inagua, spreading amongst the northern part of the Bahamas. These two waves of migration starting at different points of the archipelago, brought rise to the third subdivision of the Bahama archipelago through archaeological definitions of ceramics, with the central islands being a mix of the two Ostionoid series, from the different parts of the Greater Antilles. The Bahamas were believed to have been settled between A.D. 800 and 1200.

It is interesting that archaeological evidence, specifically the existence of ceramics and vessels of these prehistoric peoples is, definitively speaking, more complex than that of the names of the different regions of peoples, which as mentioned above are the rather broad terms of Lucayan or Taino. What is known of the culture of these people is described through accounts from the arriving Spanish. They were a horticultural people who lived off of the marine environment as well as the cultivation of different plants including manioc, potatoes, beans, corn, cotton, etc. Manioc or cassava was the staple crop of their diets. Their societies evolved from a hierarchy system of nobles (nitainos), commoners, and slaves (naborias, which came to resemble a sort of indentured servant rather than slave during the Spanish control) and developed later into chiefdoms. Their religion consisted of the balance of the world spirits, those of good and bad characteristics. “There were principal male and female spirits of fruitfulness, Yucahu, the giver of manioc, and Attabeira, the mother goddress...The anti-cultural world was ruled by Maquetaurie Guyaba, Lord of the Dead, and Guabancex, Mistress of the hurricane” (Keegan, Carlson & Torrence). When Columbus encountered the Lucayans, there was an estimation of a total population of 40,000 to 80,000 spread throughout the islands. “Within a generation of the arrival of the Spanish, the native peoples of the Lucayan Islands were extinct. In 1513, Juan Ponce de Leon sailed through the Lucayan Islands on his way to Florida. He encountered only one old native man in the Turks and Caicos Islands. Other expeditions followed, including two in 1520 which failed to encounter any native peoples in these islands” (Keegan, Carlson & Torrence).

As all Americans know, in 1492 Columbus landed in the “New World”. It is widely believed by many that his first landfall was a Bahaman Island, which then was called Guanahani by the Lucayans. It is also widely thought that that island, Guanahani, is what is now known, (and was named by Columbus), as San Salvador. Columbus is quoted, to say from Las Casas’s log, under the date of October 13th, “according to what many of them told me, there was land to the S., to the S.W., and N.W.,...This island is rather large and very flat, with bright green trees, much water, and a very large lake in the centre” (Stewart, San Salvador Island to Cuba, 124). This evidence from Las Casas is criticized because with the loss of Columbus’s actual log, no one is certain that these descriptions are completely accurate. However, there is no reason to believe that they are not. Also to some people, the descriptions of the island of his first landing were too broad, and could have been other islands including Cat, Grand Turk, Mariguana, Inagua, Samana, and Eleuthera. The reason is because the key part of the report was the lake which would suggest San Salvador, however landscapes change over time, and it is thought that the Caribbean had experienced a heavy rain season which would have turned a small pond into a larger body of water on an island. Or the other argument is that a mere mention of a lake is not descriptory enough to prove that Columbus was referring to the lagoon located on San Salvador Island. What is for certain was the renaming of five islands (though only one remained), and the voyagers final destination landed them in Cuba. Columbus’s renaming of, and the probable, respective islands were Santa Maria De La Concepcion or Rum Cay, Fernandina or Long Island, Isabella or Crooked Island, and Islas De Arena or Ragged Island. Other problems besides his lost log, is the approximations of distance and speed during their travels. “The gentle and unsuspicious natives who inhabited the Bahamas at the time of Columbus’ arrival were, unfortunately but perhaps excusably, universed in civilized warfare, and were in consequence rapidly and completely exterminated, leaving the islands swept and garnished for their subsequent exploitation by pirates, bootleggers, high-jackers, and other predatory animals” claims R.T. Gould (Gould, The Landfall of Columbus, 408)

This status of the islands allowed for the introduction of other Europeans to swoop in. “There is no record of any permanent settlement of the Bahamas before 1647” (Miller, The Colonization of the Bahamas, 1647-1679, 33). Gavin Wright brings attention to, after the Spanish influence, “the demographic catastrophe experienced by the indigenous island populations, through a combination of armed combat and imported diseases. So rapid was the disappearance in some cases, that the authors of the essays discussing the earliest European arrival debate the very existence, names, languages, and ethnic identities of the tribes that Christopher Columbus encountered” (Wright, The Lesser Antilles in the Age of European Expansion; The Bahamas from Slavery to Servitude 1783-1933, 689). The Dutch influence was one of the next countries in line to move in on the Caribbean Islands. However, “the transition from Dutch to English leadership in the Caribbean was ultimately determined by English naval triumphs over the Dutch in the 1650s ensured the primacy of London merchants in policy, establishing the networks pointing toward a ‘specifically English Atlantic system’ in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries” is also noted by author Gavin Wright in his article (Ibid.). Also during the seventeenth century, which saw an increase of piracy, English pirate captain George Watlings landed on San Salvador and attempted to rename it once again, as Watlings Island, which was his safe haven for many years. The island happened to remain name Watlings for 250 years, until it was finally settled as San Salvador. In 1648, behind Captain William Sayle, and a company called the Eleutheran Adventurers was the next attempt at establishing a settlement on an island in the Bahamas. The Eleutheran Adventurers were Puritans, men and families from the already established English island of Bermuda. The people endured many hardships including insufficient supplies and food shortages, not to mention they were pretty open from attacks from pirates and looters. In 1656, most returned to Bermuda or headed to land given to the group in the Carolinas, “and in that same year the Bermuda Council exiled some troublesome slaves and native Bermudians and all the free Negroes to the Eleutheran settlement” (Miller, 41). Later British Loyalists moved to the island to continue as British colonists after the American Revolution did not end in their favor.

The young country of the United States of America had its’ own affects on the island chain located geographically below it. There were two periods of noted U.S. history that greatly helped the economy of the Bahamas. The first was the Civil War, in which the cotton productions in the U.S. were put on hold in the Confederacy Union, allowing for Bahamian cotton to flourish in its place. And the second was the 1919 short lived establishment of Prohibition, where scotch whiskey and other alcohol was imported to the States from the Bahamas, and which the capital, Nassau needed to expand it’s Prince George Wharf in order to make room for the increasing business. Of course the end of both of these events brought the economy back down, in some cases to a devastating status.

Since the nineteenth century, tourism has accommodated more than half of the economy, with businesses of hotels, bars, which also had an effecting a boom on their banking system. A small effort from manufacturing and agriculture also helps in the Bahamas economy today. The demographics of people is broken up into around 85% black, 12% white and about a 3% Asian and Hispanic population. Christianity is the main religion on the islands, with Baptists as the largest worshiping population, followed by other denominations such as Anglican and Roman Catholic. The immigrants from other islands are known to practice Voodoo and other spiritualistic religions. Their culture forms a mix from European, African and indigenous populations. For example the Great Britain sport of cricket is the national sport of the islands, however it is not the only one played or practiced. The Bahamian Summer Olympic team is known for their performances in track and field, consisting of many World Champions and Olympic medals. Other notable people consist of actor Sidney Poitier, model/actress Shakara Ledard, singer/musician Sebastian Bach and writer/producer/director/editor Jimmy Curry aka James Curry.(All facts within this paragraph came from the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.)


Bahamatravelnet. Changes in L’attitude, Inc. 1998-2005.

Berman, Mary Jane & Gnivecki, Perry L. "The Colonization of the Bahama Archipelago: A Reappraisal." World Archaeology, Vol.26, No.3, (Feb.,1995),pp.421-441

de Booy, Theodoor. "On the Possibility of Determining the First Landfall of Columbus by Archaeological Research." The Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol.2, No.1(Feb.,1919), pp.55-61

Frommers. Wiley Publishing, Inc. 2005-2006.

Gould, R.T. "The Landfall of Columbus: An Old Problem Re-Stated." The Geographical Journal, Vol.69, No.5 (May, 1927),pp.403-425

Granberry, Julian. "The Cultural Position of the Bahamas in Caribbean Archaeology." American Antiquity, Vol.22, No.2 (Oct.,1956), pp.128-134

History of the Bahamas, From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Salvador_Island

Keegan, William F, Carlson, Lisabeth, & Torrence, Corbett. "Caribbean Archaeology At the Florida Museum of Natural History the Native People of the Turks and Caicos." www.flmnh.ufl.edu/caribarch/nativesofTCI.htm

Keegan, William F. "The People Who Discovered Columbus: The Prehistory of the Bahamas." University Press of Florida, Gainsville, 1992. xvii. pp.171-172

Miller, W. Hubert. "The Colonization of the Bahamas, 1647-1670." The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., Vol.2, No.1 (Jan.,1945),pp.33-46

San Salvador Island, From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Updated June 5th,2005. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bahamas#History

Sears, William H. and Sullivan, Shaun O. "Bahamas Prehistory" American Antiquity, Vol. 43, No.1 (Jan.,1978), pp.3-25

Stewart, Glen. "San Salvador Island to Cuba: A Cruise in the Track of Columbus" Geographical Review, Vol.21, No.1 (Jan.,1931), pp.124-130

Wright, Gain. "The Lesser Antilles in the Age of European Expansion; The Bahamas from Slavery to Servitude 1783-1933." Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol.28,No.4 (Spring, 1998), pp.687-693

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