Within a mere 50 miles of Florida’s coastline lies entrance to The Bahamas, a 700-mile-long archipelago of pure crystal, bathed in the brilliance of perennial summer. The Bahamas seem to have been specially designed by a kind act of Providence as a boatman’s paradise. An extensive chain of islands, cays (pronounced keys), and reefs, only 22 of which are inhabited. The Bahamas lie between the latitudes of 20°56’ and 27°25’ N, and the longitudes of 71°00’ and 79°20’ W, and have a land area of approximately 5400 square miles.
The highest point is 206 feet at Mt Alvernia on Cat Island, but for the most part, they are low and rocky, surrounded by coral reefs and sandbanks through and around which channels lead into the perfect harbors and coves imaginable. But it isn’t on land where the yachtsman finds the greatest pleasure, but on (or in) the crystal-clear water, which ranges in color from a translucent midnight blue off soundings to the palest of blues and bottle greens close inshore. Then there are the beaches, remote and dazzling white or pale pink, with coral sand as fine as powder. The bordering coconut palms and scrub serve merely to emphasize the brilliance of the water.
Historically The Bahamas are of great interest to the seaman. In 1492 Columbus made his first landfall in the New World here, although the precise location is avidly debated by Columbus scholars (San Salvador and Samana Cay are most frequently named). The islands were peopled by peaceable Lucayans, who lived by fishing and agriculture. The Spaniards ended their idyllic existence by transporting the Lucayan population to forced labor in mines and plantations of Hispaniola. The Bahamas remained almost uninhabited until an unsuccessful colonization attempt was made by the Eleutherian Adventurers.
Pirates and “boucaniers” soon found The Bahamas ideal for forays against merchant shipping, notably the rich Spanish merchants homeward bound from the Main by way of the Straits of Florida or the Windward Passage. This scourge was finally routed by Captain Woodes Rodgers, first Royal Governor of The Bahamas, although isolated settlements continued to depend on wrecking as their livelihood. Today many cays, creeks, and island freight boats bear the names of infamous freebooters.
Planters arrived on the southern islands as early as the mid-1600s, importing slave laborers from Africa to work on small plantations that never achieved much success. When the American War of Independence ended, several northern Bahamian islands were settled by Loyalists who also brought slaves, increasing the ratio of slaves to owners in The Bahamas to about 3 to 1. Although many settlements were abandoned after the Emancipation Act in 1833, their ruins can still be found. The descendants of slaves comprise the majority of Bahamians today.
The first real prosperity the islands knew came in 1861 when they became one of the principal staging bases for Confederate blockade runners, but at the end of the Civil War, the grand homes and warehouses tumbled into decay. During the 1920s, with Prohibition declared in the United States, a similar economic rise-and-fall occurred as bootlegging enriched a number of Bahamian merchant families and stimulated a brief boom in land investment.
Two world wars and the Prohibition Era in the United States brought The Bahamas full into the 20th century and created conditions that led to majority rule. After World War II The Bahamas began promoting tourism, which meant that all Bahamians felt the impact of world change. This change took its inevitable turn on July 10, 1973, when the Bahama Islands became independent after 300 years as a British Colony.
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